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sculptors Loring and Wyle

by Elizabeth Dobson | May 4, 2000

As women, Frances Loring and Florence Wyle were radicals in society’s terms because they rejected the norms of getting married and having children. They lived together for 55 years, did not marry and did not have children. For them, work was their most important focus. They became artists and chose sculpture, a field that had been virtually closed to women until around mid-century.1 By making these choices for themselves, they set an example for other women.

In 1913, two attractive young women moved into a studio over a carpenter’s shop at Church and Lombard Streets in downtown Toronto, Ontario. The area was poor and disreputable. “Keep a special eye out for those girls!” the Chief of Police would caution Constable Charles Taylor who walked that beat at night.2

The “girls,” Frances Loring (age 26) and Florence Wyle (age 32), did not seem to mind the area. They were too busy working in their studio on their sculptures. In the evenings they would walk their two dogs, cheerfully disregarding the prostitution activity on the streets and tales of local murders.

Seven years later, they moved their house (a church school house) from Lawton Boulevard to a more respectable residential area at 110 Glenrose Avenue. The school house was a very suitable building to work in if you were making large sculptures. It had a high roof! Unfortunately, though, it was now their neighbours who saw them as somewhat disreputable. This was because Loring and Wyle, now approaching middle age, did not look like conventional ladies. They looked “Bohemian”:

They would be proceeding along the street, oblivious of the impression they were creating; the one large majestic figure (Loring had gained quite a lot of weight) cruising along with the dignity of a ship under full sail, the other tiny figure following in her wake – bristly, bemused, cursing away under her breath about the noise and fumes from the wretched automobiles. Both would be wearing trousers, men’s shoes, baggy coats with scarves dangling from the neckline, and moth-eaten berets pulled down over one ear.3

They didn’t behave like most ladies of their time either. They lived together, apparently as a lesbian couple. They did “manly” things like chop wood, climb ladders and hammer nails. And, their house was such an “eyesore!” Chopped wood for the fireplace was piled indecorously on their shaggy front lawn. Wyle usually collected twigs – which she would say she rescued. Everything lived for Wyle. Paint peeled from the exterior walls of their house; their two dogs and numerous cats seemed to have the run of the place.

However, their most serious transgression, according to Loring, was that they were two women living together. “They thought it a peculiar thing,” she said.4 This attitude hurt, but they took it philosophically. “You can’t go through life worrying about what the public’s going to think of you.”5 Anyway, they had friends of their own within the artistic and cultural community: A.Y. Jackson, Fred Varley, Barker Fairley, Gwendolyn Williams, Jeanne Dusseau, Robert Flaherty, Illy Gepe, Adolphe Loldofsky (concert master of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra) and many others.

During their lifetimes, Loring and Wyle achieved considerable critical acclaim. But they also had their detractors, critics (usually male) who dismissed them as minor talents.6 There weren’t many female artists or critics then.

They were often poor, although Loring’s father helped them.

After the World War Two, when the modern art movement took off, their work seemed old fashioned to many people, as their work was after the Greek style.

It is only in recent years that these two artists have come to be celebrated as great sculptors and radical feminist sculptors who made an important contribution to Canada’s artistic heritage.

Any critic hesitates to use the word “great” but in the case of Loring and Wyle I believe it applies.

— Alan Jarvis, Director, National Gallery of Canada | 19687

This exhibition recognizes Loring and Wyle as the truly great artists they were ... pioneers in their field.

— Christine Boyanoski, AGO curator, commenting about the exhibit Loring and Wyle: Sculptors’ Legacy, Art Gallery of Ontario | 19878

Loring’s and Wyle’s figures of active, noble working women stand as road markers in the self-representation of women, and in women’s own efforts to engage the definitional boundaries of gender in serious debate.

— Kristina Huneault, art historian, Concordia University | 1993 9

Both Loring and Wyle grew up in 19th century America when middle-class women had begun the fight to extend their influence beyond the domestic sphere. Women had experience during the war with their work in the fields, in the factories and demands were being made, for the vote, for participation in society.10 At the same time, liberal-minded parents (many Quakers and Unitarians steeped in free thinking and Utopian theories) were providing their daughters with wider opportunities to attend school and to develop their own interests. These changes, however, were not generally intended to alter the basic relationships between men and women. Girls were still expected to marry and have children, to provide a refined and supportive home for her husband and children.

As artists, they rejected, when possible, the prevailing model of gender differences, expressing in their work a woman’s perspective that was as strong and independent as a man’s. This model of gender differences (still in use today) casts women as fundamentally different from men.11 They are portrayed as essentially passive, dependent, and weak – not active, independent and strong like men. They were then, and some would argue still are, valued primarily for their beauty and sexuality, and not for their abilities, intellect or worldly accomplishments. In artistic terms, women were wonderfully attractive “objects” for male delectation.

Wyle’s path

Wyle, born in Illinois, very early came to resent the inequalities between men and women. Her father, a local chemist, had been a strict Victorian patriarch. A story is told that he, believing human beings to be the only species capable of sleeping on their backs, insisted that his children sleep always in this position (this, no doubt, a personal response to Darwin’s recently published Descent of Man [1871]). To ensure that his offspring did not “lower themselves” to the level of beasts, he regularly checked up on them at night.12

He also is known to have favoured Wyle’s twin brother, praising him more often than her, and allowing him more freedom to go out into the world. This treatment appeared patently unfair to Florence, as she often outperformed her brother, and resented being restricted to domestic duties. According to her biographer, “She seemed never to recover from those early injustices.”13

At age 19, apparently against her father’s wishes, the independently minded Wyle entered pre-medical school at the University of Illinois. As part of her curriculum, she took anatomical drawing, painting and sculpture. “When I got into sculpture, I knew that was for me,” said Wyle.14

Three years later, she switched over to the Art Institute of Chicago under Laredo Taft.15 There she received an academic training in the American “Beaux-Arts”. This involved the use of Greek and Roman models as interpreted by the contemporary art schools of Paris: “flickering surfaces and spontaneous modeling, a vigorous naturalism and decorative qualities in both subject and form”.16 The human figure was the dominant mode of expression and required a thorough knowledge of anatomy. Throughout her career, Wyle adhered to her academic training. To be sure, she adopted modern forms of expression, but always within a classical framework.

Loring’s path

Loring’s family background was quite different from Wyle’s. She was born in Ohio into a well-to-do family (possibly of Quaker ancestry) that valued cultural achievement. Her father, a successful Canadian mining engineer, encouraged his high-spirited daughter to follow her interests. Thus, at age 13, when in Europe with her family, she enrolled at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Geneva. Before returning to America, she travelled throughout Switzerland, Germany and France seeing a lot of new art along the way.

On her return to America in 1907, she enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago where she met Wyle. They were to become lifelong friends and partners.

Her style, like Wyle’s, was fundamentally classical. But from the beginning she displayed a marked influence from Rodin whose powerfully expressive works she had seen in Europe. Many of her commissions were large scale memorial monuments in public spaces. “She doesn’t like to do pieces unless she has to climb a ladder to get at them,” Florence once wryly observed.17

In 1913, Frances’ father wanted her to return home to Canada with Florence. At the time, they were living in Greenwich Village in New York City and he was mightily disturbed about their safety in such a Bohemian environment. The girls refused to leave. But Mr. Loring was not to be thwarted. He went to New York and personally closed out their apartment. So, partly for family reasons, and partly for artistic reasons, (Loring said she was attracted to the pioneering opportunities in Canada, and also liked being “a big fish in a small pool” the two young women came to Canada.18

their art, their way

They knew that their lives would be difficult, for there was very limited interest in sculpture in those early days: few public commissions and not many private patrons. When they arrived, only a handful of sculptors were in the whole country (one other woman, Winifred Kingsford, and a few men: Walter Allward, Emmanuel Hahn, Hébert, Laliberté, Suzor-Coté.19 However, the demand for sculptors increased dramatically during World War One.

The federal government needed artworks to honour the Canadian heroes and heroines of the war. Sir Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook) established the Canadian War Memorials Fund, and in 1918 commissioned Loring and Wyle to provide memorials to women civilians who had contributed to the war effort on the home front. One of the pieces Loring produced was Girls with a Rail (1919).

As art historian Kristina Huneault points out, the workers from a distance do not seem to be women at all as their caps and overalls hide their feminine form. Also, their stance – legs firmly apart, knees and backs bent – imply strength through exertion, a pose customarily associated with men. A muscular forearm reinforces this message of man-like strength. They also appear completely absorbed by their task, an attitude that effectively resists the prevailing intention to view women as passive, accessible objects for male delectation. And, so, with such “vibrant activity” and “self-absorption,” Loring has successfully managed to offer an alternative mode of female representation, one that does not co-opt the female body.20 In other words, the women here appear to be strong and independent, characteristics normally reserved for men.

This successful alternative has come at a price, however. In the process, Loring has effectively de-sexualized her figures. That, however, is not the case with Wyle’s Noon Hour (1919).

Here a worker pauses from her work to take a drink. She is clearly a woman, for the folds of her clothing reveal her breasts, stomach and thighs.Her balanced stance, the backward tilt of her head, the chest pressed forward: all speak of self-confidence and even nobility – equal to that of a man. This similarity between the two sexes is reinforced by a work she did much later: The Harvester (1938) is a male worker with precisely the same pose.

Until recently, some art historians have suggested that such an alternate definition of the female body would be impossible, because its image is so saturated with the masculine idea of it.21 How, for example, can you present a woman’s breast without evoking all the male responses to it? “The language you speak is made up of the words [or images] that are killing you.”22

Others, drawing on new semiotic theory (theory of signs) are more optimistic. For them, words and images are only representations of things – and fairly arbitrary too. As “re -presentations,” they are seen to refer primarily to the cultural context out of which they were made, rather than to any so-called “reality” in nature. The meanings of words and images (not being intrinsically real) can therefore be significantly changed.

It is thus possible to re-define the gender codes.

A breast, for example, often represents or signifies an erotic zone for men, or a source of nurture for infants. But the breast of Wyle’s Noon Hour worker is placed in a new context that suggests it belongs primarily to her. It is hers to offer (or not) to others. It is a subtle shift in language, a “glimpse” of how the male/female code can be changed.23

No one noticed Loring and Wyle’s new visual language for women until recently. That is because times have changed and women now have taken more power to speak and think for themselves. The “girls,” Loring and Wyle, were women way ahead of their time.

Songs of the Skeena

THE LOVERS
(B.C. Mountains, Hazelton)

We shall stand forever side by side
In pride of strength and beauty,
Never to tire or falter
Never grow old –
Always for us green dawns will break
in loveliness,
Radiant noons smile down and slow
nights come with sound of singing water,
Cool mists will shield us from
the heat of summer days
and snowy drifts will wrap us
from the winters cold –
We shall watch the dark eternal
forests climbing up about our feet
and see the mighty Skeena leave
his cloud-hidden lair
and rush shouting on his journey
to the sea –
Dark towering peaks, brave
warriors once, will ring us in,
Our guard forever more,
And sister ranges, clad in
celestial blue and purple
earth-stained robes
Stand by in proud amaze;
and all the silent stars come
out to honor us,
Mortals whom love has given
immortality.
more to consider

Loring and Wyle did not buy into the modernist art movement wholeheartedly. As a result, many people came to see them as “old fashioned” artists who clung too much to the academic style. Yet today many art historians see them as radicals, true avant-gardists with feminist voices. Who is right? Can both views be right?

footnotes

1 Loring and Wyle, by C. BOYANOSKI, pg. 4 | 1987
Art academies had refused to admit women until the 1880s.

2 The Girls: A Biography of Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, by R. SISLER, pg. 5, Clarke, Irwin, Toronto | 1972

3 Ibid., pg. 3

4 The Girls, F. Loring in R. SISLER, pg. 26 | 1972

5 The Girls, F. Loring and F. Wyle, in R. SISLER, pg. 26 | 1972

6 For example:
— Painting and Sculpure in Canada, by M.O. HAMMOND, Ryerson Press, Toronto | 1930
— Canadian Art: Its Origin and Development, by W. COLGATE, Ryerson Press, Toronto | 1943

7 Frances Loring – Florence Wyle, catalogue of an exhibition held June 2–July 12, 1969 [n. p.], A. Jarvis in Pollock Gallery, Toronto | 1969

8 Loring and Wyle: Sculptors’ Legacy, by C. BOYANOSKI, pg. vi, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto | 1987

9 Heroes of a Different Sort, by K. HUNEAULT, Journal of Canadian Art History, volume 15:2, p.42 | 1993

10 Women, Art and Society, by W. CHADWICK, pg. 205, Thames and Hudson, London | 1996)

11 For further discussion, see:
— Heroes, by K. HUNEAULT | 1993
— The Feminist Critique of Art History, by T. GOUMA-PETERSON and P. MATHEWS, The Art Bulletin volume LXIX: 3, pgs. 26–45 for further discussion | September 1987

12 The Girls, by R. SISLER, pg. 15 | 1972

13 Ibid., pg. 83

14 Ibid., pg. 17

15 Visions and Victories: 10 Canadian Women Artists, 1914-1945, by N. LUCKYI, pg. 93, London Regional Art Gallery, London, Ontario | 1983

16 Loring and Wyle, by C. BOYANOSKI, pg. 3 | 1987

17 The Girls, F. Wyle in R. SSISLER, pg. 31 | 1972

18 Loring and Wyle, F. Loring in C. BOYANOSKI, pg. 10 | 1987

19 The Girls, by R. SISLER, pg. 24 | 1972

20 Heroes, by K. HUNEAULT, pg. 31 | 1993

21 See for example, Rememoration or War? French Feminist Narrative and the Politics of Self Representation, by LINDA M. ZERILLI, differences 3, number 1 | 1991
— cited in Heroes, by K. HUNEAULT, ff 11 | 1993

22 Original quotation from Monique Wittig in Heroes, by K. HUNEAULT, pg. 31 | 1993

23 Heroes, by K. HUNEAULT, pg. 42 | 1993

where to find examples of their work:
  • Toronto Art Gallery of Ontario
  • Loring and Wyle Sculpture Park, St. Clair Avenue East and Mount Pleasant Avenue: portrait busts by Loring and Wyle, c1911, and The Harvester, c 1938, by Wyle
  • St. Anne’s Anglican Church, 270 Gladstone Avenue: symbols of the Evangelists (the eagle of St. John, the lion of St. Mark, the angel of St. Matthew, and the ox of St. Luke) in four octagonal high relief plaster moulding pieces on the ceiling of St. Anne’s, by Loring and Wyle
  • Women’s Art Association on Prince Arthur Street
  • Gzowski Park, Lakeshore Blvd. W: The Queen Elizabeth Monument, 1940, by Loring and W.L. Somerville
  • Kew Gardens, Queen Street E.: W.D. Young Memorial Fountain, 1920, by Wyle and Maurice Klein
  • Northern Secondary School: War Memorial Tablet, c 1946, by Wyle
  • Osgoode Hall, Great Library, Law Society of Upper Canada, Queen and University Avenue: The Osgoode Hall War Memorial, c 1930
  • Ryerson University, O’Keefe House Board Room: Beer Making in Greece: The Brewing, 1939, by Loring. Toronto General Hospital, University Ave: Memorial to Nurse Edith Cavell, 1919-1921, by Wyle
  • Kleinberg McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Ontario
  • London Regional Art Gallery in London, Ontario
  • Ottawa National Art Gallery and the Canadian War Museum; on Parliament Hill: Sir Robert Borden, 1957, by Loring; Memorial Chamber, Parliament Buildings: Recording Angel and War Widow, 1928, by Loring
  • Galt Ontario: The Galt War Memorial, c1930, by Loring and W.L. Somerville
  • Keswick Ontario: Georgina Public Library: Dream within a Dream, c1917, by Wyle
  • Niagara Falls Ontario: Customs House: Canadian Coat of Arms, c1939 by Loring and Wyle
  • Rainbow Bridge (Canadian approach plaza): reliefs, c1939
bibliography
  • The Clay Ladies, by MICHAEL BEDARD (fiction for young readers), Tundra Books, Toronto | 1999
  • Loring and Wyle: Sculptors’ Legacy, by CHRISTINE BOYANOSKI, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto | 1987
  • Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? by LINDA NOCHLIN, Thomas B. Hess and Elizabeth C. Baker, eds., pgs. 1-39, Art and Sexual Politics, New York | 1973
  • The Girls: A Biography of Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, by REBECCA SISLER, Clarke, Irwin, Toronto | 1972
  • Poems, by FLORENCE WYLE, Ryerson Press, Toronto | 1959

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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