Blind Contour Homage: “The Plough” 1931-33, Anne Savage
Dedicated to art and education, Anne Savage left an indelible mark on Canada’s artistic community. Born to a wealthy family in Montreal, Anne went directly from high school to studying at the Art Association of Montreal, where she pulled from her summers in the Laurentians as her main source of inspiration.
After suffering the loss of her twin brother, who died on the French battlefront during World War I, Anne studied art at the Minneapolis School of Art. Having spent years as a medical artist at military hospitals, she nursed dreams of continuing her art education in New York City. But in 1922, her father died; as the family’s youngest, unmarried child, it fell to Anne to take care of her mother. She returned to Montreal and began teaching art at a high school, where she remained for twenty-six years.
Although these circumstances restrained the choices Anne could make, she remained committed to art. In 1920, she had joined local artists Prudence Heward and Sarah Robertson to form the Beaver Hall Group, a collective of artists with studios on a street named Beaver Hall Hill. These friendships scaffolded most of these women’s artistic production, as well as their private ideologies; they shared the motto: “This above all: to thine own self be true.” Once her yearly teaching was done, Anne would spend summers with her fellow artists at Fern Bank (Heward’s “spiritual home”), where painting picnics, parties, and rich conversations inspired their work, and became reflected in one another’s canvases. Indeed, when Heward passed away, Anne remarked on the paintings hung in the gallery that hosted the memorial: “It is as if symphonic music was floating through the room, the melody and rhythm flowing and echoing from one canvas to another.” As she acknowledges, her connections with female artists helped her stay committed to work that “had a tendency to disappear” amidst “a world of male masterpieces.”
Anne’s paintings were recognized by the Group of Seven, with whom she shared “a romantic vision of the Canadian landscape as a symbol of nationalism, as well as a modernist concern for the formal elements of painting.” A.Y. Jackson was particularly fond of the Beaver Hall artists, encouraging them to paint despite social restrictions on women’s roles. After spending a holiday with Jackson at Georgian Bay, Anne received his letter proposing marriage; she declined—matrimony would have meant leaving her mother and perhaps sacrificing her art—but they remained lifelong friends.
In addition to her art, Anne was well known for her generosity (in fact, Jackson once bemoaned: “Her life is too full of good deeds to spend time in mere fancies”). During WWII, Anne took refugees into her home, and she cared for her mother and her former nanny. She also accommodated three nephews while they studied at university.
After the war, she maintained her commitment to education and justice, helping to form the Child Art Council while also lecturing at McGill University. As a member of the League for Women’s Rights, she spoke out against sexism, and through a series of CBC broadcasts, she sought to inspire other women. By the end of her life, Anne Savage’s impact was therefore not only through her incredible canvases, remarkable for their “muted use of colour, skilful design, rhythmic tension, and contrasts of mass and space.” She also had a major impact on the lives of other women, on children, and on new Canadians.
“Anne Savage.” National Gallery of Canada, https://www.gallery.ca/collection/artist/anne-savage
By Woman’s Hand. Directed by Pepita Ferrari and Erna Buffie, National Film Board of Canada, 1994.
Walters, Evelyn. The Beaver Hall Group and Its Legacy. Dundurn, 2017.