An excerpt from

Painting Friends: The Beaver Hall Woman Painters
by Barbara Meadowcroft

Prudence Heward's painting Girl on a Hill (1928) and Rollande (1929) are monumental portraits of women in pastoral settings. In Girl on a Hill , the model, a well-known modern dancer, is sitting, barefoot and bare-armed, under a stylized arch of trees. Her naked limbs, and loose dress, are appropriate for her profession, and suggestive of the greater freedom women were enjoying. In Rollande, the model in her high-necked black dress and pink pinafore could be a schoolgirl or a servant. She confronts the viewer boldly, her arms akimbo, and her back turned to the farm, but her defiant stance is somewhat is somewhat diminished by her costume. These paintings invite us to reflect on the changes to women's political and social position in the 1920s. As Quebec became increasingly industrialized, young women were leaving the farms to work in factories or as domestics. More single middle-class women were also taking jobs. But most were obliged to stop working once they married, since school boards, government offices, and many private firms did not employ married women. Although marriage was still considered the "real" career for middle-class women, working before marriage was justified on the grounds that it would help them become more competent wives and mothers.

Politically, women's status was improving. The federal government granted them the vote in 1918 and the next year admitted them to the House of Commons. In 1929, women were legally recognized as "persons" and thus eligible for appointment to the Senate. They had little real power, but their enfranchisement and a token presence in Parliament increased their status and self-confidence.

The mass circulation magazines of the 1920s claimed that women had more opportunities than ever before. The magazines popularized an image of the Modern Woman, with short skirts and short hair, who danced, played sports, and worked at interesting jobs. But many women may have been confused, as feminist Anne Anderson Perry suggested in 1928, "between old ideals of shrinking, dependent femininity, and the more modern conception of woman as an independent entity with a destiny of her own, both political and economic."

The symbolism of Girl on a Hill and Rollande evokes the ambiguities in women's situation. The dancer - whose profession links her to the city, modernism, and art - is shown sitting alone on a hill. Her bare feet can be read as an allusion to her profession (modern dance was based on natural movements) and as a reference to a rural past. The fence in Rollande can be seen as cutting the girl off from the past and/or closing within herself. Taken together, the paintings offer a pertinent commentary on the predicament of women in the 1920s - caught between the traditional values of domesticity and rural stability (symbolized by the apron and the farm) and the prospect of independence and self-fulfillment suggested by the successful dancer.

In other works of this period, At the Café (c. 1928) and At the Theatre (1928), Heward shows women enjoying the social and cultural life of the city. In the late 19th century when modern-life painting became a popular genre, public spaces were divided by class and gender. The impressionists Mary Cassat and Berth Morisot represented middle-class women in Parisian parks and theatres, but not in cafŽs, which were associated with mistresses and courtesans. By depicting a woman painter, Mabel Lockerby, sitting alone at a café table, Heward draws attention to the increased independence of middle-class women. The shadowy male figures in the background reinforce the impression of strength in the solidly-painted woman, while simultaneously reminding the viewer that the world in which the artists moves is still dominated by men. At the Theatre portrays women in evening dress, half-turned toward the stage. Light ripples over the shoulders of the central pair, creating a warm, intimate feeling. While Marry Cassat's At the Opera (1879) draws attention to women's vulnerability by showing a man training his binoculars on a female spectator, Heward's image suggests that women are autonomous beings (the viewer, not the viewed) with the artistic taste and means to support the arts.

Lilias Newton's Self-Portrait raises interesting questions about the public perception of professional women. As a married woman and a mother, Newton's position was somewhat anomalous in a period when wives were expected to devote themselves to their families. In the portrait she presents herself as an elegantly dressed woman, staring confidently at the viwer. Her profession is suggested by the outline of a palette at lower right and a picture frame at the top of the canvas. Newton's attention to fashion details (the bobbed hair, bright lipstick, and gold choker) Suggest that she may have been concerned (consciously or unconsciously) to show that her profession had not undermined her "femininity". Although Newton was not the first woman to represent herself as a painter, this self-portrait has a particular resonance in a period when the Group of Seven was forging an image of the painter as a virile, outdoors man.