Representing the Home Front: the Women of the Canadian War Memorials Fund

​While they may not have had access to the battlefields, a number of Canadian women artists made their mark on the visual culture of the First World War by representing the home front.

While they may not have had access to the battlefields, a number of Canadian women artists made their mark on the visual culture of the First World War by representing the home front. First among these were the women affiliated with the Canadian War Memorials Fund, Canada’s first official war art program. Founded in 1916, the stated goal of the Fund was to provide “suitable Memorials in the form of Tablets, Oil-Paintings, etc. […], to the Canadian Heroes and Heroines in the War.” While expatriates Florence Carlyle and Caroline Armington participated in the initiative while overseas, artists Henrietta Mabel May, Dorothy Stevens, Frances Loring and Florence Wyle were commissioned by the Fund to visually document the war effort at home in Canada.

A joint private-public initiative driven by Sir Max Aitken (made Lord Beaverbrook in 1917), the Canadian War Memorials Fund financed more than 100 Canadian and British artists working in diverse styles, subjects and media, ultimately creating a collection that included over 800 works of art. Before the 1916 appointment of Captain H. E. Knobel as Canada’s first official war photographer, the visual record of Canadian participation in the war was reliant on foreign contributions, later reconstructions of sketches, and rare (and sometimes faked) amateur photographs. As such, the Fund answered the public desire for visual evidence of distant events; it also served as extremely effective patriotic propaganda.

The first picture commissioned by the Fund was by British artist Richard Jack; The Second Battle of Ypres, 22 April to 25 May 1915 (1917) remedied the prior lack of representation of that engagement. Although Jack’s large canvas was completed in the romanticized style of a traditional history painting (paintings that depict scenes from actual historical events), other artists adopted more modernist styles. Compare, for example, British painter William Roberts’ stake on the same subject, The First German Gas Attack at Ypres (1918). Artists who created work under the auspices of the Fund overseas included prominent Canadians such as Maurice Cullen, David Milne, A. Y. Jackson and F. H. Varley, as well as British artists like Wyndham Lewis and Augustus John.

The Second Battle of Ypres, 22 April to 25 May 1915
22 April to 25 May 1915. At the Second Battle of Ypres the Germans attacked, using chlorine gas for the first time. The French Algerian Division was hit the hardest by the gas attack, which broke a significant section of the Allied lines. Canadians nevertheless repulsed numerous assaults. Four Canadians won the Victoria Cross (painting by Richard Jack, courtesy Canadian War Museum/8179).
A.Y. Jackson, Gas Attack, Lievin, 1918.
Image: \u00a9 Canadian War Museum/Beaverbrook Collection of War Art/19710261-0179.\r\n

Beginning in the spring of 1918, under the supervision of Sir Byron Edmund Walker, President of the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario), and Eric Brown, Director of the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian War Memorials Fund extended its efforts to representing another source of Canadian pride: the home front and its valuable industrial and natural resources. The new “home work section” aimed to celebrate subjects such as troops being recruited and trained, agriculture and forestry, and ship, aircraft and munitions factories.

Munitions factories were an especially popular topic for women artists: May, Stevens, Loring and Wyle all tackled the subject. Munitions workers were the most highly visible women workers during the War. Starting in 1916, approximately 35,000 women entered the munitions workforce. Although many of these women were employed in factory labour before the war as well, it is arguable that the extreme popularity of depictions of female munitions workers not only in fine art, but in film, photography and print propaganda as well helped to make women’s work outside the home more commonly accepted and to popularize an understanding of female identity that was centred on health, strength, activity and independence.

Montréal artist Mabel May was commissioned in 1918 to produce a painting of women’s munitions work. May had studied at the Art Association of Montreal before traveling to Paris, where she discovered Impressionism. A prominent member of the Montréal art scene known for her industrial landscape and harbour scenes, she was a natural fit for the Canadian War Memorials Fund program. She was initially approached by Brown on this basis, who asked if she had considered painting the work of women in munitions or airplane factories; she eagerly accepted. May’s large canvas Women Making Shells (1919) shows the artist’s interest in Impressionism: the scattered light and textured brushwork highlight the unposed figures hard at work in the factory and give the viewer an intimate glimpse of a scene to which the public would not otherwise have had access.

Dorothy Stevens provided her own take on the munitions factory in a series of etchings that also depicted shipbuilding, forges and airplane factories in Toronto. Born in Toronto, the artist trained at the Slade School in London and the Académie Colarossi in Paris before returning home, where she made her name as an etcher and painter. Stevens approached Brown on her own initiative, suggesting a series of prints on the subject of home front activities; she was granted the commission in 1918. The resulting images, like Munitions – Heavy Shells (1918), show both men and women working with heavy equipment, their poses and expressions reflecting the physical nature of their labour. Another print, Munitions Fuse Factory (1918), depicts a large number of women working in the close quarters of a factory floor.

The sculptures of Frances Loring and Florence Wyle also emphasize the physical labour of the female war worker. Life partners often nicknamed “the Girls,” both artists were born in the United States and met at the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to New York, and finally, to Toronto, where the pair would become the centre of an artistic circle that dominated the Canadian art world throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Already well-known, Loring and Wyle were approached by Brown in 1918 to produce a series of small bronze statues commemorating “the various types of girl war workers”; fifteen works were produced in all (six by Loring, nine by Wyle), nine of which had women as their subject. Depicted as types rather than individuals, their solid, muscular figures have been called heroic, and are frequently compared to classical Greek statuary. The formal poses and serene expressions of the women in Wyle’s Noon Hour (191819) and Farm Girl (191819), for example, project a sense of stoic grandeur even in a relatively small format. Meanwhile, works such as Loring’s Girls with a Rail (191819) and The Shell Finisher (191819) emphasize the active physicality of work: fabrics ripple, muscles strain and bodies stretch.

Loring’s and Wyle’s sculptures were well received by critics, audiences and other artists alike; in one letter from Brown to Wyle, the former reported on a recent conversation with A.Y. Jackson: “He says you have done a series of bronzes which make him wish to knock down all the statues in Toronto and let you replace them with anything you wish.” Likewise, May’s and Stevens’ images were very well received when exhibited in 1919. Ultimately, the Canadian War Memorials Fund had a number of important successes that went well beyond memorializing the war in visual form. In addition to employing artists at a time when money was tight and public patience low for frivolous cultural production, the Fund established a large-scale public infrastructure and professional artistic network that had not existed in Canada in the pre-war period.

Works created under the program were exhibited and donated to the Canadian public after the war. The collection was shown on a wide scale for the first time in early 1919 at the Royal Academy in London; it drew enormous crowds, who praised the spontaneous nature of the pieces. The exhibition toured to New York before coming home to Canada in August 1919, showing first at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, and then at the Art Association of Montreal. The collection was handed over to the government officially in 1920 and stored in the National Gallery, where it was eventually joined by the works produced under the Canadian War Artists’ Committee of the Second World War; both were transferred to the Canadian War Museum in 1971.

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Further Reading

  • Maria Tippett. Art at the Service of War: Canada, Art, and the Great War. Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 1984.

    Kristina Huneault. “Heroes of a Different Sort: Gender and Patriotism in the War Workers of Frances Loring and Florence Wyle.” Journal of Canadian Art History 15 (Summer 1994): 26-49.

    Susan Butlin. “Women Making Shells: Marking Women’s Presence in Munitions Work, 1914-1918. The Art of Frances Loring, Florence Wyle, Mabel May, and Dorothy Stevens.” Canadian Military History 5, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 41-48.