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Mary Ella Dignam

August 8, 2000

It is easy to have an idealized view of art, thinking of artists who live freely, pursuing their inner vision. But, an artist’s life is not that simple. There are institutions and politics in art, just as there are in many other aspects of life. How does a young woman study art? Where is her work exhibited? Who reviews it and comments on it to the broader public? Who purchases her art? In what public and private collections is it held? Mary Ella Dignam’s life as an artist and activist for women artists gives us some insight into the relationship between inner vision and the day to day life of some of Canada’s early women artists.

Mary Ella Dignam (1857–1938), founder of the Women’s Art Association of Canada (WAAC), was a pioneer in this country’s arts and crafts movement. Born in an era when a woman was expected to function solely as wife and mother, Dignam managed to live a life devoted to both her family and her art. Her enormous capacity to focus on each of the many facets of her life enabled her to study abroad, to paint and exhibit extensively, to promote women artists, and to bring about the opportunity for them to exhibit their work alongside that of men. She was founder of the first International Society of Women Painters and Sculptors, first convener for fine and applied arts and letters for the International Council of Women, first convener for arts and letters for the National Council of Women, and founder and first Head of the Department of Art at McMaster University.

To honour her memory, there was a retrospective exhibition in 2000, at the Women’s Art Association of Canada, Toronto, highlighting her paintings from Italy, France, Holland and Canada, as well as examples of her painting on china.

Mary Ella Dignam:

  • was the first Canadian artist/educator to provide female life drawing students with nude models
  • founded the Women’s Art Club in 1886 which became the Women’s Art Association of Canada (WAAC), registered WAAC in 1892
  • with her leadership skills and financial acumen enabled the WAAC to be the first Canadian women’s group to own its own premises. The building at 23 Prince Arthur Avenue, Toronto, was purchased in 1916
  • founded the Women’s International Art Club with branches in Philadelphia, London, Paris and Melbourne
  • organized the first all-female, international art exhibition, calling on Women’s Art Association members and Women’s International Art Club members for 235 works which were displayed in 1900 at the Grafton Gallery in London, England
  • was the first artist to approach the Canadian National Exhibition on hearing the former agricultural fair would build a public art gallery on its waterfront property. The inaugural show included works by many Women’s Art Association members
  • invited Lady Aberdeen, wife of Canada’s 7th Governor General, to act as official patron for the WAAC. Rideau Hall patronage continues to this day
  • spearheaded the creation of “The State Dinner Service,” 192 pieces of china dinnerware, hand-painted by Canadian women artists. Royal Doulton’s Staffordshire pottery mills agreed to provide the “blanks” – the first and only Doulton china to be released with the Company backstamp despite being undecorated
  • met the arrival of Dukhabor immigrants to British Columbia and trained the Russian homemakers in developing and marketing their traditional needlework skills
  • travelled regularly throughout French Canada, showing women artisans of Quebec how to promote and sell their work in the craft markets of the United States and Europe
  • organized Women’s Art Association of Canada shows at Toronto’s prestigious Roberts Gallery in 1897–98, when the Association lacked appropriate space for a public exhibition
  • maintained close friendships with The Group of Seven, who included 15 WAAC artists in their 1923–30 shows

Despite having more than 40 paintings accepted in Canadian juried shows, Mary Ella Dignam was constantly refused membership in the Royal Canadian Academy and the Ontario Society of Artists. She was a feminist, and she was on her own.

resources for this story
  • By a Lady: Celebrating Three Centuries of Art by Canadian Women, by MARIA TIPPETT, Viking, ISBN: 0670844586 | 1992
  • To contact the Women’s Art Association of Canada, telephone (416) 922-2060 or write to WAAC, 23 Prince Arthur Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, M5R 1B2
  • The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work, by GERMAINE GREER, Farrar, Straus, Giroux ISBN: 0374224129 | 1979
  • This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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