Laura Adeline Muntz Lyall, artist (born 18 June 1860 in Radford Semele, Warwickshire, England; died 9 December 1930 in Toronto, Ontario). A successful Impressionist painter in the early 20th century, Laura Muntz Lyall was the first Canadian artist to receive an honourable mention at the Paris Salon and the first female Canadian Impressionist artist to have her work become part of the National Gallery of Canada’s collection in Ottawa.
Laura Muntz was born in the village of Radford Semele, near the town of Leamington Spa in Warwickshire; she was the second of six children of Eugene Gustavus and Emma Louisa Muntz. The Muntz family was Polish in origin, from what is now Lithuania, and immigrated to France in the 18th century; they moved to England after the French Revolution. Laura Muntz’s paternal grandfather, George Frederick Muntz (1794–1857), a Liberal Member of Parliament, made a fortune by patenting Muntz metal, a brass that combined copper with zinc, which replaced the more-expensive pure copper lining previously applied to the bottoms of ships. He subsequently acquired the stately home of Umberslade Hall in Tanworth in Arden, Warwickshire.
Eugene Gustavus and Emma Muntz and their children immigrated to Ontario in 1869. They first settled on a large farm on Lake Simcoe in Orillia Township and then moved to Maple Grove Farm, near Bracebridge, in Muskoka, where Eugene Muntz raised imported pure-bred cattle. Laura Muntz was encouraged to study art formally by the artist William Charles Forster, who ran an art school in Hamilton. In 1882, she moved to Toronto to attend the Ontario School of Art (later the Ontario College of Art and Design), studying with Lucius O’Brien, one of Canada’s most prolific landscape painters.
London and Paris
In 1889, Laura Muntz spent three months in England, studying at St. John’s Wood School of Art in London with Scottish genre artist Thomas Faed (1826–1900), who is famous for his mother-and-child painting Highland Mother. Following further study at the Toronto School of Art with painter George A. Reid, Muntz moved to Paris in 1891 and enrolled at the Académie Colarossi, sharing lodgings with American artist Wilhelmina Hawley and giving private English lessons to support herself. In 1894, her painting The Watcher, which depicted a mother praying by the bedside of her sick child, was accepted for exhibition at the prestigious Paris Salon. She received an honourable mention for one of her paintings in 1895.
Toronto, New York and Montreal
After her return to Canada in 1898, Laura Muntz painted and taught art in Toronto and then moved to New York in 1904, sharing studio space and lodgings with Florence Carlyle — another Canadian artist who had exhibited her work at the Paris Salon. She returned to Toronto to teach art at Havergal College. From 1906 to 1914, Muntz lived in Montreal, establishing a successful studio at Beaver Hall Square.
Muntz was praised for conveying the subtle expressions of children and their parents through the depiction of light in her paintings. Saturday Night Magazine wrote in 1901 that “Miss Muntz works equally well in oils or watercolour, paying no heed to medium.”
Laura Muntz became a member of the Ontario Society of Artists in 1891. She was the first female member of the society’s executive council, serving from 1899 to 1903. In 1895, Muntz was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, becoming the eighth female artist to receive this honour. She received a silver medal at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, and a bronze medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (widely known as the St. Louis World’s Fair) in 1904. In 1910, the National Gallery of Canada acquired Muntz’s painting A Daffodil, which depicted a young girl holding a fragile spring daffodil, symbolizing the transience of childhood. A Daffodil was the first Impressionist work by a female Canadian artist acquired by the National Gallery of Canada.
Laura Muntz received multiple proposals of marriage from her widowed brother-in-law, Charles William Bayley Lyall, who needed help raising his children after the death of his first wife, Muntz’s younger sister, Ida. In 1915, at the age of 55, Laura Muntz married Charles Lyall. She was close to her nieces and nephews, but her husband did not share her artistic interests. Following her marriage, she added Lyall to her name and signed her paintings “Laura Muntz Lyall.”
Laura Muntz exhibited 27 paintings with the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts between 1893 and 1929. She exhibited her work with the Art Association of Montreal from 1903 to 1928 and the Ontario Society of Artists from 1891 to 1930. In 1926, seven of her paintings were included in the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario) exhibition of Canadian paintings, alongside the work of Tom Thomson, Lawren Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald. Her paintings were acquired by private collectors, as well as art galleries in North America and Europe. In 1913, Edward Rimbault Dibdin, curator of the Walker Art Gallery, wrote in the gallery’s catalogue, “Among the women painters of Canada, none stands higher than Miss Laura Muntz…We are happy to secure two pictures from her brush, which possess all the qualities of rich and liquid colour, masterly handling and deep feeling that characterize her art.”
After her marriage, Laura Muntz Lyall established a studio in the attic of her home on Bernard Avenue in Toronto, which she shared with her husband, nieces and nephews. She continued to exhibit her paintings, accept commissions and travel occasionally, visiting New York and Great Britain in 1929. Her later paintings, such as her 1913 painting Mother and Child, displayed elements of post-Impressionist technique, including richer colours and thick, textured brush strokes. Muntz Lyall died of exophthalmic goitre (Graves disease) in Toronto in 1930 and is buried with her husband in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
Laura Muntz Lyall’s art fell into comparative obscurity after her death. Joan Murray, director emerita of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, wrote that “as with many artists of her generation, the main reason Muntz is not better known in Canada today is that she was overshadowed by the widespread popularity of the works of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. In his influential history of Canadian art, Painting in Canada: A History, J. Russell Harper devoted a single sentence to Muntz Lyall, writing that she “failed to accomplish all that her Parisian study promised, but her early mother-and-child compositions went beyond mere narrative in their unsurpassed subtleties and freedom of brushwork.”
Muntz Lyall’s work was rediscovered by a wide public audience in the 1970s, when it was displayed as part of two high-profile exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto: Impressionism in Canada: 1895–1935 (1974) and Children at the Turn of the Century: Laura Muntz Lyall (1976). Her paintings were recently featured at the National Gallery of Canada as part of the 2022 exhibition Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons.