From Victorian Girl Reader to Modern Woman Artist: Reading and Seeing in the Paintings of the Canadian Girl by William Brymner, Emily Coonan, and Prudence Heward

  • Loren Lerner University of Winnipeg


In lieu of an abstract, here is an excerpt from this article: In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, “the girl reader” was a popular theme for artists. Concurrently, what girls should read and how this would affect their growth and development was the subject of numerous advice manuals, novels, magazine articles, and books written especially for and about girls (Flint 71–136; Lyons; Bollman). Creating effective visual documents of the transformation of the Victorian girl into the modern girl through reading and seeing were three Canadian artists: William Brymner (1855–1925), director and teacher for thirty-five years at the Art Association of Montreal (AAM); and two of his female students, Emily Coonan (1885–1971) and Prudence Heward (1896–1947). Brymner’s depictions of late nineteenth-century daughters, and the more enlightened girls depicted by Coonan and Heward, advanced educational ideals that linked reading, looking at images, and making art. The subject of this essay is the representation of the “girl reader” by these artists. The analysis considers the formal features of the images, elements such as composition, colour, line, scale, and rhythm, to explain how the artists arrange and use these aspects to communicate certain beliefs and ideas. The discussion focuses on the context in which the artworks were produced and how and why each work with the same subject is a variation on the theme. This encompasses the ways that the paintings involve larger meanings like gender, artistic creation, culture, art trends in which the artists participated, and intellectual influences. The interpretive approach is synthetic, taking into account these factors and, more specifically, the biographies of the artists, the art education of girls, and the books read by women during this era.