A pioneer female artist's portraits and Montreal family ties
In her own time, Laura Muntz Lyall was celebrated as the foremost painter of women and children. She exhibited extensively in both Toronto and Montreal, as well as participating in shows in France, England, and the United States.
Muntz moved to Montreal in 1906, where she rented a studio on Beaver Hall Square. As she had previously done in Hamilton and Toronto, Muntz continued to teach art at private girls’ schools. Muntz’s move to Montreal, celebrated curator and scholar Joan Murray says, “proved to be a good decision” (p. 39). Journalist, photographer, and friend Harold Mortimer-Lamb wrote of Muntz’s relocation and its effect on her art, describing her subsequent output as having “increased knowledge, deeper insight, and a more refined and broader technique” (ibid.).
While in Montreal, Muntz met Dr. C. Colby and his wife, Frances, who commissioned Muntz to depict their children. Dr. and Mrs. Colby spoke highly of Muntz and her artwork to their acquaintances. As Dr. Colby was a professor of history at McGill University, where the female sitter’s father, Dr. Alexander Blackader, was a professor of pharmacology and therapeutics, one may reasonably assume Dr. Blackader, and thus his family, as one such acquaintance.
Muntz portrayed Dr. Blackader’s daughter, Elsie Kemp (née Blackader), in a fashionable pompadour. The great folds of the sitter’s voguish garments, such as the nearly translucent shawl at which she grasps, are created with a stunningly free brush. The gaze of her deep-set eyes is at once severe and kind. As a result of Muntz’s painterly brilliance, Ms. Kemp is presented as poised, sophisticated, and in control of her image.
Muntz was likewise engaged by the Maxwell family to depict the young H. Stirling Maxwell. She tenderly depicts the small child at full length with a blue kerchief around his neck and with her characteristically plump, rosy cheeks and delicately full lips. The blonde youth is seated amidst a wooded landscape, a possible reference to the family’s prosperous business, E.J. Maxwell & Co., a firm of contractors and lumber suppliers.
These portraits were painted around the same time and were commissioned entirely separate of one another. However, the woman, Elsie Kemp, would later become H. Stirling Maxwell's mother-in-law, when Maxwell married her daughter, Vera Elizabeth “Betty” Kemp. Both portraits have remained in the Maxwell family until now.
Joan Murray, Laura Muntz Lyall: Impressions of Women and Childhood (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2012)