Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Smidgen Of Art History.... The Primitive Art Of Maude Lewis

When we use the term "Art History" our thoughts turn to names like Renoir, Picasso, Micheal Angelo. Names that have shaped the future of fine it is unlikely that you have heard the name Maude Lewis in the same conversation as the aforementioned. Maude Lewis did not lead a revolution in the Art world, she didn't belong to a group that became representative of a Movement. She was not a darling of society nor a was she a formally trained or  technically adept artist.

Maude Lewis 1903-1970
Maude Lewis was born in 1903 in Yarmouth Nova Scotia. She was effected by birth defects, that gave her an Elf like appearance. She was very small in stature, with hands and arms crippled by defects and exacerbated by arthritis, as a result she was unable to work for most of her adult life.

Maude was born into an affluent family, but her appearance and disabilities prevented her from garnering any significant education and was removed from school at the age of 14, with no more than a grade 4 education. She had little chance of a good marriage because of her disabilities and at the death of her parents, Her father in 1935 and her Mother in 1937, Her brother saw to it that  she was sent to live with an aunt in Digby.As was common at the time , Maude's brother inherited the family business and money... Maude was left with nothing. Destitute and reliant on the reluctant  kindness of her aunt, she found employment as a house keeper for a local Fishmonger, named Everett Lewis. She and Everett were married shortly after. Everett had a reputation as a miserly and cantankerous fellow,  life was not to be easy.

The Lewis Home 
The Lewis Home,  much like it's mistress, was very small. The 10 x 12 cottage, housed her and Everett in a single room, shared by a large wood stove that warmed them through the winters, and a tiny sleeping loft at the top of the stairs. There was no running water, indoor plumbing or electricity.

   As time passed and her arthritis advanced,  her mobility and strength decreased, and she could no longer work around the house,  Maude began to paint. She began with cards, and notes as she was taught by her mother as a child. Everett sold them  to his customers as he made deliveries to supplement their meager income. She then began to paint on found objects, items that others had disposed of. Then on to any inexpensive surface. She used  Oil paint, boat paint, and inexpensive hobby paint, whatever was at hand. and when there was nothing to paint on.. She painted her home,decorating it with bright flowers , and butterflies.
  Maude and her husband sold her paintings to tourists and locals as a means of survival, often they would sell for as little as $2.00 and larger pieces for $5. This was to become  their sole means of income as time passed.

Though her life was less than idyllic, Maude's view of the world was bright, colorful and optimistic and it is delightfully expressed in her artwork. With No formal training, rudimentary supplies and crippled hands , Maude expresses wonder and joy in every piece of work she created.
  Painting from daily life and the surrounding country side, she worked right from the jar, tube, or bottle, and never mixed colors. She used whatever brushes she could scrounge or buy cheaply,(hairs from them are often found in her paintings.)
   Her work exhibits an innate understanding of proportion, perspective, and composition., and while simplistic and primitive in style, there is an underlying sophistication in her paintings. A beauty that is undeniable and inescapable... the spirit of the artist shines through.

She was a renowned folk artist by the mid sixties and was subject of a documentary and books,  There is a story about her told by the Aide of then President Nixon, Maude had been commissioned by the White house to complete two paintings... she either did not understand or did not care who she was doing them for .... She agreed ... but only if she was paid in advance.
She was never a wealthy woman,they barely survived, but she seemed content with her place in life. Her art never took on a somber tone, never reflected any unhappiness or self pity. She painted what she saw and how she saw it. There is an exuberance for life evident in every painting, a sheer joy of living!

Her health and strength continued to deteriorate, and Maude succumbed to pneumonia in 1970. She painted until the day she died. Her husband Everett was murdered 9 yrs later by an intruder looking for the fortune that was said to have been hidden in and around the little Lewis home.

The Lewis Home has been restored and rebuilt and is on permanent display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. In Halifax Nova Scotia. Along with a collection of her works. Original Maud Lewis paintings  that she sold for 2 dollars now sell today for thousands.

Just a smidgen of Art History.


  1. That was really interesting and inspiring. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I have a 2015 calendar that is all Maude Lewis paintings. I'm really glad to learn more of the history surrounding her art. Thanks for sharing!

  3. An amazing little woman. So glad to finally meet her, on my computer, at home.