Elizabeth Maude MacVicar
Elizabeth Maude MacVicar was born in Winnipeg in 1881. She was one of a few people in Canada to paint miniatures, a genre that goes back to fifteenth century France and Renaissance Italy and was used to decorate buttons, jewelry, keepsakes, and even boxes for gambling counters (with a picture of the man’s family to remind him of his family obligations). Historically, vellum was used, but with the introduction of ivory as an art medium in the eighteenth century, this type of portraiture achieved much popularity in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. During MacVicar’s time, it was seen as ”refreshing to find a Canadian woman not only taking a keen interest in the work, but furthering the art through her own efforts in this, her homeland.” (D.O. Reed-Palmer, Vancouver Newspaper, WAG artist file). She painted and exhibited mostly during the 1920s to 1940s, and lived in Toronto, New York, Montreal, London, Ontario, Hamilton, and Vancouver before returning to Winnipeg, where she died after a lengthy illness in 1965.
Strongly encouraged by her family, MacVicar showed an early interest in drawing and painting and “[could not] remember a time when I was not going to some sort of art lesson.” She eventually attended the Winnipeg School of Art, where she studied during the time when Alex Musgrove and then Franz Johnson (Group of Seven member) were the School’s principals. At the early age of five, she painted Scotchmen Curling, which showed her talent for portraying personality and describing action. Depicting people and their personalities became MacVicar’s lifelong passion and drew her to portraiture. In turn, her zest for exacting and detailed work drew her to the world of miniatures. As an adult, MacVicar studied miniature painting on ivory in London, England, visiting the famous Wallace Collection of miniatures in that city, and later toured Italy.
Warned by her teachers in England not to spend more than 3.5 hours a day doing this intricate painting because of the intense focus required, MacVicar with her infinite patience and love of painting, never found it taxing. To get the most of the northern light, MacVicar would set up her work area in front of a western-facing window, using what looked like a wooden sewing box with the lid propped open, so it would stand like an easel. She would then pin up an 8.89 x 10.16 cm sheet of ivory, which was stored in a drawer below the easel. Ivory was used because it had inherent warmth and gave a natural transparency to the flesh tints, with the colours growing softer with age. She would mix the watercolours on a celluloid palette, and then, without using a pencil, would outline her portrait with a fine brush, a technique known as the “purist” method. Afterwards, she would slowly and delicately fill in areas to recreate the look of different textures such as satin fabric to children’s curls. This work required precision and detail, and MacVicar once said she “envied the artist who painted canvas in a free, bold style, where they [could] slather the paint on.” (Interview with Jean Hinds, 1943, WAG artist files). Considering ten days to be a quick turnaround, the completed painting would be cut, framed, and mounted on a velvet lined case, put into a locket, or set in a jeweled frame and used as a pendant.
In regards to the medium, MacVicar felt it important to distinguish the description of miniature from the name, because it was not done for the sake of smallness or size. She believed that if it was a good portrait, then it was sometimes preferred to life-size because it was more intimate and she could “catch the spirit” of the subject. She would always work from life and preferred to paint children because of their “elusive quality” (Hines), but found older faces, full of lines and shadows, much simpler to paint. Besides private commissions for individuals, she also painted miniatures of servicemen and women during World War II. Perhaps her most famous subject was His Excellency, Lord Willingdon, Governor General of Canada from 1926 to 1931, whom she was commissioned to paint a miniature of in 1931.
Other private commissions brought her to Victoria, Seattle, and New York City, where she met Miss Lydia Longacre, then head of the Association of Miniature Painters of America, who along with other miniaturists suggested she stay in New York, as her paintings would receive wider recognition in the United States. However, MacVicar returned to Canada where she participated in solo and group juried exhibitions as well as private exhibitions. A member of the Manitoba Society of Artists, she exhibited in the first open exhibit of the Manitoba Society of Artists in 1926, and the Royal Canadian Academy throughout the 1920s. She held an exhibition at Hart House at the University of Toronto in 1930 and numerous private exhibitions in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, London, Ontario, Winnipeg, and Vancouver.