November 27, 2021
  • November 27, 2021

A forgotten flower painter, resuscitated

By on September 19, 2021 0

In George Agnew Reid’s 1889 painting “Dreaming”, the model is his wife, but she is also an artist. We don’t see the face of the now almost forgotten painter Mary Hiester Reid as she leans over a fireplace in their shared Paris studio, but the glowing embers light up her long apron and clasped hands. Perhaps the fire represented the painter’s atypical artistic aspirations in a world still strongly dominated by men. But concretely, the fireplace also represented a challenge for the sitter-wife-painter, who had to cook all her husband’s meals with her. “I haven’t done a stroke of paint,” Hiester Reid later wrote to a friend in 1909, “cooking and cleaning take up all my time.”

“She must have spent hours sitting down for George’s painting,” writes Mary Peacock in her new book Flower Diary: In which Mary Hiester Reid paints, travels, gets married and opens a door (ECW Press). After the exhibition of “Dreaming” at the Paris Salon of 1889, the work was purchased by the Royal Academy of Canada and shipped to Agnew Reid’s homeland, where the artist couple lived for the most part. of their marriage. “Not a picture through Mary, but instead a picture of it would hang on the walls of the National Gallery of Canada, ”notes Peacock, echoing the patchwork successes that would characterize the couple’s artistic careers throughout their lives and continue to this day.

Mary Hiester Reid, “Capucines” (1910), oil on canvas, 30 x 45 cm (collection of Molly Peacock, Toronto)

One hundred years after the death of Hiester Reid, Flower diary reclaims the life and work of the elusive and neglected artist. Hiester Reid’s sensitive and tonal paintings of flowers and trees have sold for a fraction of her husband’s large narrative works, and she has appeared much less frequently in exhibitions and in print. She left no diaries and few letters, but the lack of documentation did not deter Peacock. Through extensive archival research and insightful readings of Hiester Reid’s paintings, she convincingly argues that the artist “made still lifes like diary pages and landscapes like logs of dreams.” Between North America and Europe, Hiester Reid witnessed the birth of modernism and the rise of abstraction, but she remained steadfast in her own artistic vision. Far from seeming picky or outdated, Hiester Reid’s images of drooping flowers and hushed night scenes always carry a poignant psychological load.

Mary Hiester Reid, “Still Life with Daisies” (undated), oil on canvas, 50.8 x 41.9 cm (University of Lethbridge Art Collection, Alberta)

Peacock is firmly aware of the “limited and destructive ideas about gender, race and colonialism” in which her subject was imbued. The author transmits the social mores of the time through a careful description of the realities of daily life, from chamber pots to rudimentary forms of birth control. These details form a rich and intimate view of what the author describes as “the socially restricted world for women whose demeaning dimensions a person today can barely grasp”, and cause the painter to challenge these restrictions – like joining the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts at 29, or his trips to Europe to write and make art, all the more revolutionary for the time.

But Peacock’s work with Hiester Reid is not just from the point of view of the scholar or the beholder. As in his previous biography of Mary Delany, the inventor of the botanical cutout collage, Peacock intertwines the story of Hiester Reid with scenes from his own life. In this case, the author tells the story of her relationship with her late husband, who died last year. Peacock is also a poet, and his prose is lyrical and poignant. The parallels and contrasts between the stories of Peacock and Hiester Reid make us appreciate how much creative married women have changed and how rich their lives can be.

Photographer unknown, “Mary Hiester Reid” (10s), reproduction of the Memorial exhibition catalog (Edward P. Taylor Library and Archives, Art Gallery of Ontario)
Mary Hiester Reid, “Studio in Paris” (1896), oil on canvas, 25.6 x 35.9 cm (Art Gallery of Hamilton)

Flower Diary: In which Mary Hiester Reid paints, travels, gets married and opens a door by Molly Peacock is published by ECW Press and is available on Bookshop.

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