Mary Ella Dignam | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Mary Ella Dignam

​Mary E. Dignam (née Williams), painter and founder of the Women's Art Association of Canada (born 13 January 1857 in Port Burwell, ON; died 6 September 1938 in Toronto, ON).

Mary E. Dignam (née Williams), painter and founder of the Women's Art Association of Canada (born 13 January 1857 in Port Burwell, ON; died 6 September 1938 in Toronto, ON). Mary E. Dignam was the first president of the Women’s Art Association, which was incorporated in Toronto in 1892. Dignam was an advocate for women’s rights and a promoter of other women artists. In her paintings she employed pastels, watercolours and oils; she focused primarily on floral studies, genre scenes and landscapes. Initially working in the Dutch style popular at the end of the 19th century, Dignam’s later work was influenced by Impressionism.

Artistic Training, Travel and Teaching

Dignam’s early studies took place at the Western School of Art Design in London, Ontario. In 1886 she left Ontario to undertake training at the Art Students’ League in New York City under H. Thompson, William Merritt Chase and Kenyon Cox. Like many Canadian artists in the early 20th century, she travelled to London, England and Paris, studying at the Parisian ateliers of Luc-Olivier Merson (1846–1920), a French painter known for his postage stamp and currency designs, and French academic painter Louis-Joseph-Raphaël Collin (1850–1916). She subsequently travelled to Italy and Holland in order to view art and to paint.

After she returned from studying in Europe, Dignam established the Art Studios of Moulton Ladies' College at McMaster University, where she subsequently taught. Dignam was one of the first Canadian art educators to provide female art students with nude models in life drawing classes. The ability to draw the nude human form had long been regarded as fundamental knowledge for an artist to have according to the European academic curriculum. Women artists who did not have access to nude models were therefore relegated to the margins of the artistic profession.

Women’s Art Association of Canada

Dignam founded the Women's Art Club in 1886; the Club was eventually renamed the Women's Art Association of Canada, which was registered in 1892. The Women’s Art Association was significant for being the first organization in Canada to be comprised solely of professional women artists. There was a need for this kind of organization, as women artists were still regarded chiefly as amateurs at this time. Dignam was the association’s first president (1892–1913).

Dignam invited Lady Aberdeen, wife of John Campbell Hamilton Gordon, 1st Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair and Canada’s 7th governor general, to act as official patron for the Women’s Art Association. Lady Aberdeen consented, and the governor general continues to be a patron of the Women’s Art Association. In 1897, Dignam organized the production of the Cabot Commemorative State Dinner Service, which is comprised of 192 pieces of china dinnerware, each hand-painted with Canadian scenes by Canadian women artists. The pieces were created to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the “discovery” of Canada by John Cabot, although what is now known as Canada was already inhabited by Indigenous peoples. The service was eventually presented to Lady Aberdeen.

Dignam wrote to female artists in Montréal in 1894 encouraging them to establish a Montréal branch of the Women’s Art Association. The inaugural meeting of the Montréal branch took place in June 1894. Although Dignam appears to have been invested in promoting the production of both arts and crafts by women, the Montréal branch focused on handicraft while the Toronto branch, headed by Dignam, was more concerned with fine arts such as painting. Ellen Easton McLeod suggests that the early success of the Montréal branch caused tensions between Dignam and some of the Montréal members. In December 1904, the Montréalers decided to take their handicrafts project out of the Association. In January 1905, Alice Peck (1855–1943) and Mary May Phillips (1856–1937) co-founded the Canadian Handicrafts Guild in Montréal, with Phillips as the guild’s first president.

By 1898, the Women’s Art Association of Canada had almost 1,000 members and it had branches in several Canadian cities. Dignam was president of the Association until 1913, after which she continued on as advisory president for many years. She returned as president in 1936 to mark the Association's 50th anniversary.


In addition to founding and heading the Women’s Art Association of Canada, Dignam exhibited frequently with a range of artists’ societies. She exhibited at the Art Association of Montreal between 1886 and 1931, with the Ontario Society of Artists between 1883 and 1913, at the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts between 1883 and 1924, and at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition between 1891 and 1900. Nonetheless, Dignam was repeatedly refused membership by the Royal Canadian Academy and the Ontario Society of Artists.

In 1900, Dignam helped organize the first all-women, international art exhibition. She solicited contributions from members of the Women's Art Association as well as members of the Women's International Art Club, eventually amassing 235 works, which were subsequently displayed at the Grafton Gallery in London, England. In 1897–98, she organized WAAC shows at Toronto's prestigious Roberts Gallery at 79 King St. E.

Dignam’s work has been included in solo exhibitions in Europe and North America, such as her one-woman show at the Durand-Ruel Galleries in New York in 1928. Dignam was also one of eight Canadian female artists to exhibit oil paintings at the World's 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

In 2000, there was a retrospective exhibition at the Women’s Art Association of Canada, Toronto, which displayed Dignam’s paintings produced in Italy, France, Holland and Canada, as well as examples of her paintings on china.