The Influential Doris McCarthy


EDITOR’S NOTE: There is also a newer Art Junkie post on McCarthy, here.

The late Doris McCarthy had a profound impact on the Canadian view of the Arctic, a heritage highlighted in an exhibition running through April.  McCarthy made her first trip to the Arctic in 1972, traveling by dogsled to her first iceberg and painting alone in remote communities far above the Northwest Passage. (Above:  Icebergs among the islands / Wynick/Tuck Gallery)

dorismccarthy-McCarthy painting at Grise Fjord, Nunavut 1976 / Image from Canadian Art

“McCarthy was besotted,” according to exhibition notes in a superb online catalogue for Glam North, Dorothy McCarthy and her New Contemporaries (the show includes works by Sarah Anne Johnson and other Canadian artists who glamorized the north). The trip was life changing, and the Arctic became a key subject for the Alberta-born artist for the rest of her life. She returned to the Arctic frequently, making her last trip in 2004 at the age of 94. (She died in 2010 at age 100)

ice-research-station Ice Research Station, Arctic, 1976 / image from the exhibition online catalogue

But McCarthy’s art was much broader than the Arctic. Primarily a landscape painter, she explored abstract and surreal painting along with other new concepts through her long career.  She influenced a generation of artists as a teacher at  Central Technical School in Toronto and was also an author. Her own mentors were Group Of Seven members  Arthur Lismer, A.Y. Jackson, J.E.H. MacDonald and Lawren Harris.


Landscape was always an inspiration for her, and she painted scenes from every Canadian province and territory. She also had a summer studio on Georgian Bay. (Above: Rock and Pine / Below Village Under Big Hills, both from Michael Gibson Gallery)


Doris McCarthy “Selected Works 1963 – 2005” from Michael Gibson Gallery on Vimeo.


13 replies »

  1. I have one of her paintings. Too bad I didn’t buy a bigger/more complex one. Anyway, I recall meeting her when she was around 90.

    She was delightful and wore some sort of East Indian inspired top …and gold high heels. It was slightly out of character..but she is an artist. I can’t remember exactly what I said to her but it was related to feeling I had so much to learn about art and to try. She was defiantly and pleasantly encouraging: “There’s nothing to be afraid of”.

    I’ve read 3 of her autobiographies. She was ice skating in her 70’s outdoors! And a teacher at Central Tech. Collegiate in downtown Toronto for several decades I believe.

    To me personally, she is not only an artist to be inspired by, but someone who lived her life productively, with passion to learn and with many good friends in life. Not your reclusive, taciturn artist.

    I was working for a major global accounting firm in downtown Toronto where to my shock, I was in a board room that a piles of temporary office furniture. Our floor was in transition, including my dept. And behind, all that stuff…was one of McCarthy’s paintings. An original. I really should have taken a photo of it. I scarcely doubt 90% of staff knew the value of this piece now!


    • That’s a great set of recollections, and I’m quite sure she did live her life exactly the way it has been described by McCarthy and by those who knew her. (Love the gold sandals.)


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