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Doris McCarthy: Art and Legacy

By Carol Boran Sun


 Doris McCarthy, Glacier Bay, date unknown

Doris McCarthy (1910-2010) is a remarkable figure in Canadian art history. Known for her vibrant landscape paintings, she had an influential role as an educator and made groundbreaking contributions to the profession as a woman in a male-dominated field. McCarthy's journey as an artist and educator spanned over seven decades, during which she forged a unique path that has left a lasting mark on the Canadian art landscape. 


This article discusses the significant contributions of Doris McCarthy to Canadian art, emphasizing her role as an influential figure whose landscape paintings and contributions significantly altered the portrayal and appreciation of Canada’s natural scenery in particular. Analyzing McCarthy’s unique artistic approach to the landscape and her lasting impact on future generations as an educator and public figure, this article highlights her essential function in the discourse of Canadian art and culture, accentuating the enduring significance of her contributions on an individual and national scale.

McCarthy's landscape paintings

Doris McCarthy's paintings are celebrated for their emotive power and vivid portrayal of landscapes. They showcase a masterful use of colour to evoke the diverse moods of the Canadian wilderness. Her palette transforms the canvas into a dynamic symphony of hues that depict the scenery and convey its emotional essence. The interplay of light and shadow in her works further accentuates textures and shapes, bringing depth and life to serene lakes, rugged terrains, and ethereal skies.

In constructing her compositions, McCarthy skillfully guides the viewer's gaze, using natural contours and elements to create harmonious scenes that invite exploration and curiosity. Her use of perspective—often consisting of sweeping aerial views—presents the vastness and grandeur of the landscapes, offering a sense of majesty. This perspective captures the physical expanse and suggests a connection between the artist and the natural world. McCarthy incorporates texture in her paintings to add a tangible dimension, with varied brushwork techniques that mimic the roughness of stone, the softness of clouds, or the fluidity of water. This attention to detail enriches the viewer's experience, making the landscapes feel accessible and authentic. Additionally, her use of line and form provides clarity and structure to the natural chaos of the wild while allowing room for abstract interpretation and personal reflection.

The undated painting at the Faculty Club, titled Glacier Bay, is representative of one of her earlier approaches to painting. It features a striking illustration of a mountainous landscape, likely inspired by icy, Arctic environments. The composition is characterized by a strong sense of depth and space, achieved through the layering of mountain ranges and the contrasting scales of the foreground and background elements. McCarthy has skillfully employed a monochromatic colour palette, predominantly featuring shades of gray, blue, and white, enhancing the scene's cold, serene atmosphere.

Formally, the painting exhibits a balanced distribution of visual elements. The mountains in the background are depicted with softer edges and lighter tones, contributing to the illusion of atmospheric perspective and drawing the viewer's eye toward the more sharply defined features in the foreground. The icy peaks above and floating icebergs in the lower part of the composition are rendered with sharper lines and darker shades, creating a tactile contrast to the ethereal quality of the distant mountains.

The use of light and shadow in this painting is particularly interesting. McCarthy appears to have considered the direction and quality of light, using it to sculpt the mountains and ice, adding volume and a sense of realism to the otherwise stylized depiction. The reflection of light on the water's surface adds a layer of texture and movement to the composition, contributing to the overall dynamism of the scene. McCarthy’s use of a limited colour palette, combined with careful attention to light, shadow, and composition, results in a piece that is both serene and dramatic, capturing the haunting beauty of the Arctic landscape.

Beyond physical representation, McCarthy's work is permeated with symbolism, reflecting deeper themes of isolation, resilience, and the passage of time. Her landscapes are more than backdrops; they become narratives of human experience and emotion, resonating with viewers personally. As embodied in the Faculty Club piece, with her unique blend of colour, light, composition, perspective, texture, and symbolism, she transcends the conventional boundaries of landscape painting, offering a rich, multi-layered exploration of Canada's natural beauty and its profound impact on the human spirit. 

Influence & Legacy

McCarthy's artistic journey was significantly shaped by her mentor, Arthur Lismer (1885- 1969), a prolific educator and iconic Group of Seven member. Under Lismer's guidance, she developed a profound connection with the Canadian wilderness, which became the central theme of her work as we have seen. 

Similar to her mentor, beyond her contributions to the art world, McCarthy's legacy is profoundly evident in her role as an educator. For four decades, she taught at Toronto's Central Technical School, where she inspired generations of artists. Her innovative teaching methods encouraged students to explore their own unique artistic paths, fostering a deep appreciation for the natural world and the arts. 

In later years, McCarthy's influence extended to her students, notably Joyce Wieland (1930-1998), who considered McCarthy a significant inspiration in pursuing an art career. Wieland's development and the acknowledgment of "female lines of influence" in her work draw attention to McCarthy's role as an artist and a mentor who redefined Canadian art.

In Patricia Jagger's thesis, "Biographical Portraits: Exploring Identity, Gender, and Teaching in Narrative," she delves into the interconnection between McCarthy's identity as an artist and educator and the broader Canadian art narrative. Jagger highlights McCarthy's influence and representation in art and education, emphasizing the significance of narrative forms in understanding gender and identity within the art community. For instance, as the first woman president of the Ontario Society of Artists, McCarthy paved the way for future women artists, and played a significant role in shaping Canadian art through leadership and participation in art organizations.


Today, her name lives on in the Doris McCarthy Artist-in-Residence Centre established by the Ontario Heritage Trust in 2010 at "Fool's Paradise," her former home and studio in Scarborough. Similarly the Doris McCarthy Gallery was established in 2004 at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus. Both of these institutions continue to support artists and contribute to Canada's cultural heritage.

Doris McCarthy's life and work offer a rich tapestry of artistic brilliance, educational influence, and pioneering spirit. Her dedication to capturing the Canadian landscape, her innovative approach to teaching, and her trailblazing role as a female artist in a male-dominated field make her an enduring figure in Canadian art history. McCarthy's legacy continues to inspire artists and art enthusiasts, ensuring her place as a foundational figure in the narrative of Canadian art.



Armatage, Kay. "Fluidity: Joyce Wieland's Political Cinema." The Gendered Screen: Canadian Women Filmmakers (2010): 95-112.

Campbell, Claire. "'Our Dear North Country': Regional Identity and National Meaning in Ontario's Georgian Bay." Journal of Canadian Studies 37, no. 4 (2003): 68-91.

Grigor, Angela Nairne. Arthur Lismer, visionary art educator. McGill-Queen's Press-MQUP, 2002.

Huneault, Kristina, and Janice Anderson. Rethinking professionalism: Women and art in Canada, 1850-1970. Vol. 8. McGill-Queen's Press-MQUP, 2012.

Jagger, Patricia. "Biographical Portraits: Exploring Identity, Gender, and Teaching in Narrative." PhD diss., University of Calgary, 2008.

Levis Auctions. "Catalogue." Accessed March 11, 2024.

McCarthy, Doris. Doris McCarthy: My Life. Second Story Press, 2006.

Muskoka Arts and Crafts. Accessed March 11, 2024.

Zemans, Joyce "A Tale of Three Women: The Visual Arts In Canada / A Current Account/ing". RACAR: Revue d’art canadienne / Canadian Art Review 25, no. 1-2 (1998): 103–122.

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