Maud Lewis was a 20th-century Canadian painter and folk artist. She is best known for creating irrepressibly lively, colorful, and almost childlike artwork depicting her rural surroundings with joy and affection. She is one of the most popular artists in Canadian history.
Born in 1903 in rural Nova Scotia, Lewis’s life was not one that many would envy. She was born with several defects that left her with various physical deformities. Her chin was almost nonexistent and pressed into her chest, her shoulders were hunched, and her fingers were misshapen.
Lewis lived much of her life in poverty. She used recycled boat paint and the most rudimentary of surfaces, including wallpaper and particleboard, to create her first paintings. She sold these to neighbors and passing tourists for a few dollars each.
The artist’s home was her miserly husband’s tiny one-room cottage that had neither electricity nor running water. She was practically a recluse.
Still, Lewis managed to find the beauty in her circumstances. Practically every inch of her humble abode was painted with colorful flowers, birds, and butterflies. For three decades, she managed to make a living by painting and selling charming artworks with such cheerful subjects as wide-eyed cats, deer, oxen, and children skiing down snowy slopes.
Lewis was not a formally trained artist. Her work was created with solid, bright colors straight from the tube and was rendered in distinctively flat planes with limited use of perspective. Because she didn’t travel or leave her house much, she drew inspiration from what she could remember of her childhood.
For much of her life, Lewis never made more than a few dollars for any of her artwork. She didn’t achieve national recognition until 1964, a few short years before her death. Since then, Lewis’s work and life have inspired and become the subject of several plays, books, documentaries, and films.
Lewis’s works, as well as the house in which she made her art, are on permanent display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Some of her artworks are in the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Lewis is the subject of the documentaries The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis (1998) and Maud Lewis — A World Without Shadows (1997). The biopic Maudie, which stars Golden Globe-nominated actors Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, was released in 2016.
Maud Lewis Career
Maud Lewis didn’t have much of an artistic career; in fact, she barely thought of herself as an artist. Throughout most of her life, she made do with whatever art materials her husband, Everett, could scrounge up. She painted for a living but didn’t make more than $10 for any piece until years after she died.
When she was a child, Lewis’s mother introduced her to art. Under her mother’s tutelage, she painted watercolor Christmas cards and sold them. It wasn’t until many years later when she was living in poverty with her husband that she began making and selling artwork again.
In the early years of Lewis’s marriage, her husband collected leftover house and boat paints from around their small town. The French Shore fishermen in their community were known for their vividly colored boats. Because Lewis used whatever paint was available, her paintings featured the same bright hues as the fishermen’s boats.
Lewis had limited resources for art supplies. She used soup cans and sardine tins to hold her brushes, paints, and turpentine. Instead of canvas, she used scraps of wallpaper, pulp boards, Masonite, and cookie sheets.
Occasionally, Lewis painted on rocks, shells, and household objects, including the washbasin and the breadbox in her home. Almost every available surface in the tiny Marshalltown cottage was painted on. The walls, doors, window panes, and even the stove were covered in her artwork.
Lewis’s first customers were also her husband’s. As he made his daily rounds selling fish from door to door, she accompanied him and brought along her hand-drawn Christmas cards, which she sold for about 25 cents each.
When her Christmas cards proved popular, Everett encouraged her to paint more and even bought her a set of oil paints. Soon, tourists began stopping at her home and buying her paintings for $2 or $3 each.
In 1965, Lewis became the subject of a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary. In the same year, she was featured in an article published in the Toronto Star. The publicity brought on by the documentary and the newspaper feature brought in a torrent of requests in the last few years of her life.
One of Lewis’s most famous customers was the Richard Nixon administration. Through John Whitaker, an aide in the Nixon White House, the administration commissioned two Lewis paintings. The artist, who was either unaware of or unimpressed with the fact that the President of the United States wanted to own two of her paintings, agreed to paint the pieces but asked to be paid up front.
Unfortunately, Lewis’s worsening arthritis made it impossible to complete many of the orders that came in as a result of her newfound fame.
Today, Lewis’s paintings sell for thousands of dollars. In 2003, an exhibition of some of her work completed a hugely successful 18-month national tour.
- Lewis’s paintings are relatively small. Most measure no bigger than eight by 10 inches. This was a result of the artist suffering from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and her reach being limited by the degree to which she could move her arms.
- Lewis’s paintings were made with tiny, quick strokes. She didn’t stop painting until each piece was done. She is said to have painted as many as two or three paintings a day.
- Lewis’s technique was to coat the board in white paint, draw an outline, and apply oil-based paint directly from the tube. She didn’t mix or blend colors.
- When Lewis’s health was declining, she started using cut-out figures to make painting easier. This is why some of the oxen and other figures in her later work are outlined in pencil and have exactly the same size.
- In contrast to her quiet, solitary, and mostly indoor life, Lewis’s paintings are full of life and color. Her artwork is filled with vibrant hues and joyful scenes with flowers, cats, oxen, birds, deer, children, sleigh rides, and horse-drawn carriages. She painted many outdoor scenes, such as horse-drawn sleighs on a wintry landscape, rolling farmland, Cape Island boats on the harbor, carriage rides, and oxen hauling logs.
- Lewis’s paintings were inspired by memories of her childhood. The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis author Lance Woolaver said that Lewis’s paintings are, in essence, a series of remembrances from the time she was still living with her parents. That was, according to Woolaver, possibly “the last time she was truly happy.”
- There is a sense of nostalgia to Lewis’s paintings, as though she was trying to evoke the simple joys of Nova Scotian life just after the turn of the century. She also drew inspiration from calendars and Christmas cards.
- The artist’s materials consisted of repurposed paints and primitive surfaces. She painted on pieces of particle board that were usually ill-measured. Her brushes were not well-made and would shed hairs that can often be found embedded in her paintings.
- Lewis is an icon of the Canadian folk art movement and is often referred to as the Grandma Moses of Canada.
- Art Gallery of Nova Scotia director Bernard Riordon told Maclean’s magazine that people are intrigued by Lewis because she painted such beautiful and cheerful pieces despite the challenges she faced.
- Lewis’s art is often described as being carefree and childlike. But they show a subtle sophistication in arrangement and a strong sense of composition. She probably learned how to compose her paintings by studying the materials that were available to her — mainly greeting cards and calendars.
- Another key part of her work’s appeal is the keen observation of everyday rural life.
Maud Lewis was born Maud Kathleen Dowley to Agnes Germain and John Dowley on March 7, 1903. Though it is generally accepted that she was born in Nova Scotia, there is some confusion about her specific birthplace. Recently, research has shown that the artist was born in Yarmouth, a small port town in southwestern Nova Scotia.
Lewis was born with physical defects that reduced her mobility. As a child, she was a loner, mostly because other children would tease her mercilessly about being short and having deformities. The bullying may be part of the reason she dropped out of school at the age of 14, having only completed fifth grade.
But Lewis did enjoy spending time with her parents and her older brother, Charles, and she had some cherished hobbies. She played the piano until her arthritis forced her to stop. Her mother taught her to paint Christmas cards to sell, thus setting off her artistic career.
In her 20s, Lewis became involved with a man named Emery Allen, who is often described as the love of her life. In 1928, they had a daughter, Catherine Dowley, out of wedlock.
Allen abandoned Lewis and their baby, leaving Lewis no choice but to continue living at home with her parents. Because she had no way to support her daughter, it was determined by the court that the baby had to be given up for adoption. As an adult, Catherine tried to get in touch with her birth mother but was unsuccessful.
Seven years after she had her child, Lewis’s father died. Two years later, her mother also passed. Her older brother inherited the family home and, after living with him for a short time, Lewis moved into her aunt’s home in Digby, Nova Scotia.
When she was 34, Lewis showed up at the doorstep of 40-year-old Everett Lewis, an itinerant fishmonger. She had seen his advertisement for a “live-in or keep house” and wanted the job. Weeks later, they were married.
The couple lived mostly in poverty. While Lewis painted, her husband took care of most of the housework.
Lewis died on July 30, 1970, at the age of 67. She had pneumonia that had been aggravated by years of constant exposure to wood smoke and paint fumes. She was placed in a child’s coffin and buried in a pauper’s grave.
Nine years after Lewis died, Everett was killed by a burglar in his cottage.
Maud Lewis Artworks
Three Black Cats (1955)
One of the artist’s most iconic body of work, this painting was initially purchased more than 50 years ago by a resident of Ontario for no more than $10. The owner then passed the painting down to her children. It recently sold at auction by the Gardiner Museum located at Toronto for an astounding $22, 420, surpassing the estimated amount of $15,000.
Cats were a recurring subject in many of Lewis’s paintings. She painted several versions of this specific painting, changing the color of the background and the flowers around the cats in each piece.
Two Oxen with Yoke (c. 1960s)
Lewis painted numerous variations of this painting, using cut-out figures of the oxen when she had difficulty drawing. In this painting, Lewis depicted two centrally placed oxen yoked together and decorated with bells and chains. The two animals are flanked by apple trees exploding with white and pink flowers.
In front of the oxen are tulips, a favorite element of the artist’s. In other versions of this painting, the oxen are in a wintry scene and flanked by green pines. Some versions show the animals with four legs each; in others, they have three legs each.
Maud Lewis House
In the years she lived in her husband’s cottage, Lewis painted practically every paintable surface with her cheerful motifs of birds, blossoms, and butterflies. After her and her husband’s deaths, a local group purchased the house and sought to restore it. It was later acquired by the Province of Nova Scotia and transferred to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
The gallery restored the cottage and placed it on permanent display in an exhibit on Maud Lewis and her artwork. The Maud Lewis House is considered a mixed media piece.
Maud Lewis did not receive any formal art training, never went to art galleries or exhibited with other artists, and probably didn’t study — or was even aware of — the work of the best painters in art history. She was influenced by what she saw around her in nature, her memories of her childhood, and the images she saw in commercial greeting cards and calendars.
Since her death, Lewis’s style has influenced a younger generation of artists. She has inspired the work of filmmakers, playwrights, and authors.
Greg Thompson wrote and produced A Happy Heart: The Maud Lewis Story in 2009. Sherry White wrote the screenplay for, and Aisling Walsh directed Maudie (2016). Jane Churchill wrote and directed I Can Make Art… Like Maud Lewis (2005).
ArtGalleryOfNovaScotia. (n.d.) Maud Lewis. Retrieved from https://www.artgalleryofnovascotia.ca/maud-lewis
Colley, S. (2018, November 22) Bought for a song, iconic Maud Lewis painting fetches $22K at auction. CBC, Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/maud-lewis-painting-auction-sold-folk-artist-gallery-1.4915088TheCanadianEncyclopedia. (2003, March 17) Maud Lewis. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/paying-tribute-to-painter-maud-lewis