Mabel May

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H. Mabel May
Born(1877-09-11)September 11, 1877
Montreal, Quebec
DiedOctober 8, 1971(1971-10-08) (aged 94)
Burnaby, British Columbia
EducationArt Association of Montreal
MovementBeaver Hall Group, Group of Canadian Painters

Henrietta Mabel May (September 11, 1877 – October 8, 1971) was a Canadian artist in the early 20th century and an organizer of women artists. Based in Quebec early in her career, and later in Vancouver, she was a well-known painter and member of multiple important Canadian artist groups, including the Art Association of Montreal, the Beaver Hall Group and the Canadian Group of Painters. Her works have been displayed at the Canadian War Memorial, National Gallery, the Vancouver Art Gallery and many smaller galleries throughout Quebec. She has been commonly referred to as the "Emily Carr of Montreal"[1] due to her interest in landscape and nature. Her art was influenced by her avid interest in French Impressionism.

Early life[edit]

May was born to Evelyn Henriette Walker and Edward May. Her date of birth is often reported as 1884, but she was in fact born on September 11, 1877. Her father, Edward May was a self-made man and became the mayor of Verdun, a borough on the outskirts of Montreal.[2] He later became a successful real estate developer and moved her and the rest of her family to a more prosperous neighbourhood in Montreal called Westmount.


Though May displayed an active interest in art throughout her early years, she did not pursue formal education until she was in her mid-twenties. She delayed her education in order to help take care of her nine younger brothers and sisters while her parents worked trying to provide for them.[3] In 1902 she became one of the first female students enrolled in the Art Association of Montreal (1909 – 1912) under teachers Alberta Cleland and William Brymner. There she was awarded scholarships twice.[4] During this time, she exhibited small watercolours as part of the 1910 Art Association of Montreal Annual Spring Exhibition.[5] Cleland was a female artist from Montreal that worked with a broad range of subjects and tools. Brymner was an important influence on May's style of art, and taught her from 1909 until the end of her studies in 1912. May was influenced by Brymner's teachings of French modernism, including Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, and his encouragement for students to find their own individual style.[6] These influences took her to France, England and Holland alongside artist and peer Emily Coonan after her graduation in 1912.[7] There she traveled, visited galleries, studied and painted until her return to Quebec in 1916. During her travels she studied with James Wilson Morrice, who strongly influenced her style of painting.[8] In 1916 she would move back in with her family, there she would practice her painting technique in a small cottage while her career began to take off.


The years following her education brought May a series of remarkable achievements and work opportunities. In 1913 the National Gallery bought three of her art works and would eventually buy two more before 1924. In 1916 after May returned to Montreal to her family she became an Associate of the Royal Academy. There she would join multiple other female artists who worked on commissioned pieces specifically of women and their involvement in the First World War. One of her major works was a detailed six-by-seven foot canvas entitled Women Making Shells (1919) depicting female munitions workers in a factory.[9] During May's commissioned employment with the Royal Academy she was making 250 dollars per month, an outstandingly high wage for a female artist in her time and a lot of money to May, who had struggled financially her entire life.

Beaver Hall Group[edit]

In 1920, May was a founding member of the Beaver Hall Group in Montreal, which supported the local Montreal art community and organized exhibits of their work.[10] Lacking funds, the group dissolved two years later. May and nine other women artists continued a lasting friendship and working relationship that would later become widely recognized as the Beaver Hall Group. The group continued to exhibit, often including the painters Prudence Heward, Kathleen Morris and Ethel Seath.

Directly after her involvement and association with the Royal Academy, May, along with Randolph Hewton, Edwin Holgate and Lilias Torrance Newton, Mabel Lockerby and many others founded the Beaver Hall Hill Group. The Beaver Hall Group was a tight selection of talented painters from Montreal; most of them had attended the Art Association of Quebec and/or studied under William Brymner. The Beaver Hall Group was extremely progressive at the time for allowing women to join and hold up important roles and positions.[11] Though the group is rumoured to have disbanded around 1924, slowly losing more and more members, a majority of the female members continued to do artistic work afterwards, nearly all of them sacrificing having children or getting married to do so. Many of the women, who May actually stayed in touch with, continued to work with and exhibit with each other. Of those women were Lilias Torrance Newton, Mabel Lockerby, Anne Savage, Sarah Robertson, Nora Collyer, Kathleen Morris and Ethel Seath.

In the winter of 1924, May traveled to Baie St. Paul, where she painted with A.Y. Jackson of the Group of Seven.[4] In 1927 May, along with three other women from the Beaver Hall Group, met with the British Columbian painter Emily Carr.[12]

Canadian Group of Painters[edit]

Shortly after the Beaver Hall Group had drifted apart, May founded a new group; The Canadian Group of Painters, which officially began in 1933. The groups had their first exhibition the same year of their founding in Atlantic City, New Jersey, followed by another exhibition in Toronto a few months later. The group was the successor of the Group of Seven. May's involvement with The Canadian Group of Painters lasted a few years, but, while she was in that group financial issues within her family were rising. After leaving the group she began learning to teach and in 1938 she was appointed leader of children's classes at the National Gallery of Canada.[13] She taught for 12 years until 1950 when she retired to Vancouver, British Columbia.

Artistic style[edit]

Henrietta Mabel May's primary medium was painting and she followed the impressionistic technique as her main focus was landscapes.[14] Her paint strokes were very strong and pleasing to the eye as the colours flowed together softly. The colours she used were not straight from the tube but blended for more of a naturalistic approach.[15] While May traveled to France, England, and Holland with Emily Coonan to visit galleries and study various paintings she spent a majority of the time painting and sketching new works. She was inspired by the culture of Paris, which was incorporated into her work.

During the time she spent at her family's cottage in Hudson every summer, she painted the views around her, creating some of her most successful works. In 1913 her paintings began garnering a lot of recognition and attention. She sold four of her works to the National Gallery and continued to sell several more in the following years.She was elected as an associate of the Royal Canadian Academy in 1915.[16] May was a bold painter who painted unusual scenes which shocked society. For instance, her large canvas "Women Making Shells was a powerful painting conveying a scene where women were working in a factory along with men, a novel scene at that time.

Soon after that in 1920 she became one of the founders of the Beaver Hall Group, along with Anne Savage, Sarah Robertson and Nora Collyer who shared May's passion for impressionistic painting.[15] As the years went on May's naturalistic approach of colours as soothing rhythmic brushstrokes developed greatly. After 1920 her art exhibited more realism showing a greater understanding of light and the atmosphere in her landscapes. She began to take on the style of the Group of Seven by whom she was heavily influenced. She also took on a whole new approach which is widely thought to have been influenced by the religious group she joined in the late 1930s. The group was called I AM and believed that one should avoid dark colors because they had negative effects. This is when May's art was noticed to change more in the direction of stylized landscape rather than impressionism. May's Melting Snow (1925) was a reflection of the dancing waters and lyrical mountains surrounded by flat colours and hills. May's sympathy towards the Group of Seven was expressed through the symbolic treatment of the loose brushstrokes in the sky. May was very involved with her art and taught many classes throughout her life. During 1937 to 1947 May was a supervisor of many art classes that were held in the National Gallery of Canada which was in Ottawa.


The Regatta (1914) and Street Scene, Montreal (1914) are both part of the permanent collection at the National Gallery of Canada.[8]


May exhibited frequently throughout her life. Upon her retirement to Vancouver at the age of 50, she held a retrospective of her work at the Dominion Gallery. This show resulted in the sale of 100 of her paintings.[4] A posthumous exhibition of her work along with other works from the Beaver Hall Group occurred at the Sir George Williams Art Galleries in October 1982.[17]

Personal life[edit]

May remained single her entire life. After the dissolution of the Beaver Hall Group's studios, she retained close personal friendships with the remaining female artists, including Lilias Torrance Newton, Mabel Lockerby, Anne Savage, Sarah Robertson, and Nora Collyer.[12]


  1. ^ Walters, Evelyn (2005). The Women of Beaver Hall: Canadian Modernist Painters. Dundurn Press. p. 71.
  2. ^ Walters, Evelyn (2005). The Women of Beaver Hall: Canadian Modernist Painters. Toronto: Dundurn Press. p. 62.
  3. ^ Skelly, Julia (November 2015). "Beaver Hall Group". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved February 1, 2017.
  4. ^ a b c Deis, Author: Vancouver Art Gallery, Design: Eric. "Henrietta Mabel May, Autumn in the Laurentians - Artist's Biography". Retrieved 4 March 2017.
  5. ^ Watson, William R. (April 13, 1910). "Notable Canvases in Art Exhibit. But Tone Would Have Been Improved by Elimination of Many Pictures. Review of Chief Features. What Morrice, Cullen, Brymner and Other Leaders in Canadian Art Offer This Year. ( April 05, 1910))" (PDF). Montreal Gazette. p. 4. Retrieved 4 March 2017.
  6. ^ "May Henrietta Mabel". Canadian Women's Art Initiative. 6 June 2013.
  7. ^ Skelly, Julia (30 Nov 2015). "Beaver Hall Group". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved February 1, 2017.
  8. ^ a b "The Regatta. H. Mabel May c. 1914". Retrieved 4 March 2017.
  9. ^ Shearer, Lynda (2006). "The Canadian Group of Painters". The Canadian Art Group. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  10. ^ "Canadian Women Artists History Initiative : Artist Database : Artists : MAY, Henrietta Mabel".
  11. ^ Walters, Evelyn (2005). The Women of Beaver Hall:Canadian Modernist Painters. Toronto: Dundurn Press. p. 62.
  12. ^ a b Skelly, Julia. "Beaver Hall Group". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 4 March 2017.
  13. ^ Walters, Evelyn (2005). The Women of Beaver Hall: Canadian Modernist Painters. Toronto: Dundurn Press. p. 71.
  14. ^ "May, Henrietta Mabel". Canadian Women Artist's History Initiative. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  15. ^ a b Millar, Joyce (1992). "The Beaver Hall Group: Painting in Montreal, 1920-40". Woman's Art Journal. 13: 3–9. JSTOR 1358252.
  16. ^ Millar, Joyce (1992). "The Beaver Hall Group: Painting in Montreal, 1920-40". Woman's Art Journal. 13: 3–9. JSTOR 1358252.
  17. ^ Kollar, Kathryn L. Women painters of the Beaver Hall Group. Montreal: Concordia University.