Manitoba History: Constructing the Woman Artist: Marie Hewson Guest in Winnipeg
by Dr. Claudine Majzels
A history of art in Winnipeg is yet to be written but the work is underway and a number of exhibitions, books and articles have already laid a foundation for research in this field.  My own contribution to this work began as an accidental discovery, and because this is so often the way in which knowledge of the past becomes intelligible, I have chosen to tell the story of the discovery of Marie Hewson Guest as it happened. In her day, Guest was a well-known artist, nationally as well as locally, but perhaps because her works have largely remained in private homes, her name is not included in the history books. The recovery of neglected women artists is one of goals of the present generation of art historians; another is to develop a theory to explain the neglect. Perhaps this account of what can be remembered about a woman who was born in 1880, who studied, worked at her craft, travelled, taught, married, raised children, painted, sewed, sang and above all considered herself an artist, can provide us with a little more understanding of how we construct the past.
In the summer of 1988 I arrived in Winnipeg to take up a post teaching in the History of Art Program in the Department of History at the University of Winnipeg. I looked for a house for myself and my two children. One of the houses I visited was full of pictures, hanging on every wall, in every room. They all appeared to be by the same hand, many with a signature and a date, some as early as 1913, others as late as the 1940s. It was like walking unexpectedly into an exhibition and I felt as though I had suddenly met someone. A whole life, a personality, was on exhibit in that house.
Quite by serendipity I had stumbled on a large number of paintings, drawings and graphic works, as well as a number of pieces in worked metal, leather and wicker, all by the artist Marie Hewson Guest (1880-1966). These works had been kept in the Winnipeg home of the daughter-in-law, Mrs. Hessie Guest, since the time of the artist’s death. A scrapbook of photographs and press clippings kept by Marie Hewson Guest was also loaned to me by Hessie Guest, without whose support and generosity the following events would never have taken place.
As a result of that chance meeting with Hessie Guest, Sarah McKinnon, Curator of Gallery 1CO3 at the University of Winnipeg, and I designed and taught an experimental course at the University of Winnipeg, “Art History and Exhibition Practice: The Marie Guest Project”. Using the original works themselves, a third-year class researched the primary evidence and documents in depth, considering oral history methods, archival recording, conservation, and the writing of biography. From 11 March to 6 April 1991, the first retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work since her death was held. A Winnipeg History: The Art of Marie Guest brought together works from all over the country. A catalogue was prepared and printed. 
The following account of Guest’s life and work is in part composed of snatches of observations taken from articles in the press, correspondence, tape-recorded interviews, curatorial statements, and student research reports. Some of these excerpts were originally included in the 1991 exhibition catalogue. More recently, conversations with the artist’s daughter Muriel Guest in Toronto have provided further information as well as a chance to study a second cache of paintings, sketchbooks, documents, and newspaper clippings. In addition, the Winnipeg Art Gallery plans to hold an exhibition “Women’s Art/Women’s Lives, Women Artists in Manitoba, 1830-1955” in the summer of 1995, co-curated by Professor Marilyn Baker of the University of Manitoba and myself at the University of Winnipeg. Research funding in preparation for the show has provided the chance to learn more about Marie Guest’s predecessors and contemporaries, including Marion Nelson Hooker, Alison Newton, Georgie Wilcox and Lynn Sissons, thereby adding greatly to our knowledge of the opportunities for women artists in the city between 1910 and 1940.
Hessie Guest, the artist’s daughter-in-law, tells the story of the rediscovery of Marie Hewson Guest this way:
Marie Olivia Hewson Guest was born in Oxham (later Oxford), Nova Scotia on 15 August 1880. George Hewson, descended from minor Irish nobility, owned a woolen mill, and Marie’s mother Eliza was an expert needlewoman. From 1895 to 1896 Marie attended Mount Allison College where she studied with John Hammond, R.C.A. The Hewsons were well off enough that Marie, her sister and two brothers, travelled with their parents to Europe in 1896. In 1900 she returned to Mount Allison, but left without graduating to study watercolour and crafts at the Eric Pape School in Boston and the Art Students’ League in New York. On her return to the Maritimes she established herself with another woman artist, a china painter, in a studio and shop in Halifax where she made and sold her own metalwork, leatherwork and basquetry. She travelled again in Europe with her brother Harvey in 1913, and after a year of study at the Yellow Door School in London with Frank Spenlove, R.A., she spent a summer sketching in Brittany, Belgium and Holland. Between 1914 and 1916 she attended the Charles W. Hawthorne, N.A., Summer School in Provincetown, Massachusetts where she exhibited two monotypes and a painting. She also acted as a travelling companion to the daughters of Sir Charles Tupper, family friends from Amherst, at the time of Tupper’s death in England in 1915. In that year and the following she was in Ottawa, teaching crafts for the Women’s Art Association.
It was at this time that she probably met her future husband, the journalist and then parliamentary correspondent Benson Guest of Winnipeg. She continued to paint and had five works accepted for the annual shows of the Royal Canadian Academy between 1913 and 1918. In 1916 she was rewarded with a mention in The Montreal Star. She also continued to study: in 1917 she was enrolled at Columbia Teachers’ College in New York, as well as DuMonde Summer School in Cape Breton, and worked with Arthur Covey, N.A., at Tarpon Springs, Florida. In the years 1917 to 1919 she was an instructor in painting and crafts at her alma mater, Mount Allison College. In 1919 she was mentioned in The Studio. a prestigious international art magazine, in a review of the Royal Canadian Academy exhibition in Montreal; this show included works by M.A. Suzor-Cote, Marion Long, A. Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, William Brymner, Mabel May and Homer Watson. And it was in 1919 at the age of thirty-nine that Marie married Benson Guest and moved to Winnipeg, arriving in the aftermath of the General Strike. Benson joined the Manitoba Free Press as an editor, and Marie became a mother: to Harry in 1920 and Muriel in 1923 (Fig. 1).
Guest’s education as an artist was not unusual for a woman from an upper middle-class family of the period in Canada: schools of art were quickly being established across the country in the wake of the arts and crafts movement in Britain. Travel to Europe was the mark of culture and a necessary artistic credential: the academies and schools in London and especially Paris, as well as the schools in Chicago, Boston and Provincetown, the Art Students’ League and Columbia Teachers’ College in New York, were places of pilgrimage for many aspiring artists from Canada and the United States.  Mary Riter Hamilton and Marion Nelson Hooker, both of whom had Manitoba connections, had similar backgrounds and training to Marie Hewson Guest. Both also found that they could find some employment teaching art and china painting in their early careers; Hooker subsequently married a friend’s widowed husband and raised his children in exchange for some freedom to pursue her art.
Guest’s independent income was enhanced by her business venture in Halifax and her teaching, allowing her to continue studying, travelling, and paying for art materials. Women of her generation also found work in commercial art to earn a living and pay for their art studies: Lynn Sissons and Pauline Boutal both grew up in rural Manitoba and came to Winnipeg to study at the Winnipeg School of Art. Sissons painted china which she sold and Boutal worked for Brigden’s printing firm as a fashion artist. Women illustrated the Eaton’s catalogue, and advertisements for the Hudson’s Bay store in the newspapers. Alison Newton was employed by Eaton’s, and later by Brigden’s, as an illustrator and she continued to take seasonal work producing the Eaton’s catalogue after she had married, as well as painting and exhibiting works for sale. Marie Guest was not employed outside the home after she married, but she sold her paintings and used that income to purchase a summer home at Victoria Beach on Lake Winnipeg, to pay housekeepers who liberated her from housework, and to travel extensively to exhibitions.
Marie Guest left just a few personal statements about her career. Between the pages of Marie Guest’s scrapbook I found two handwritten and signed letters from the artist and addressed to the then Art Gallery of Toronto. The first letter, dated 10 May 1927, addressed to Mr. Edward Greig, is a note to accompany the duly filled-in form for “Biographical Data for the Records of the Art Gallery of Toronto”. The tone is regretful: One senses the lost opportunities, the errors of judgement. The sadly telling phrase: “that’s all there is to that”, with the final “that” abruptly underlined, is profoundly unsettling, a diminution of all that was and what might have been, full of resignation, even anger.
A second letter, again addressed to the Art Gallery of Toronto and dated 13 March 1929, is slightly more positive, if still apologetic and self-deprecating. The desire to add to the Gallery’s file, to mark some successes, to explain, even rationalize, the past is evident. “Homemaking” justifies giving up painting, motherhood accounts for an eight-year hiatus in art. She has made a new start, she is moving ahead in her chosen direction, in 1929 at the age of forty-nine, in the year of the Wall Street crash.
The years spent at home with small children in the early and mid-1920s were not entirely without art. Guest produced numerous small pastels, drawings and oils, including portraits of her young son and daughter. There are scenes from their childhood holidays at Victoria Beach, and of one special spot named “Peter Pan Rock.” In the treasure-trove of memorabilia that Hessie Guest found when she moved house were photographs of Harry and Muriel as Peter Pan and Wendy, in costumes that were hand-sewn by their mother from real leaves and flowers. There also remain several copies of a script in simple verse: Dreaming of Peter Pan, based on the J. M. Barrie play of 1904. If motherhood was an obstacle to an artistic career it also provided Guest with subjects for her art, and an opportunity to pass her skills onto Harry, who painted in watercolour all his life, and to Muriel, whose reputation as a potter eclipsed her mother’s in the 1960s. Muriel remembers her mother laughing and singing with the children and their cousins, leaving the household chores to the help and the adults to themselves, setting up to sketch or paint whenever there was the chance.
Guest does not appear to have exhibited at all between her arrival in Winnipeg in 1919 and 1927, when Harry would have been seven years old and Muriel approaching five. The Guest family were members of Young United Church, and the Guest women were always heavily involved in church activities. Marie was obliged to join in although apparently “she couldn’t boil an egg”.  Marie and Benson boarded until they bought a home at 109 Lenore Street in Wolseley. At the birth of their first child Harry, it was Benson who had to fetch the baby formula every morning from the hospital.
In 1926 an inspirational meeting with the poet Bliss Carman gave Marie Guest the confidence to begin painting and showing her work in public again. Although he was born in Frederickton, New Brunswick, Carman had achieved considerable fame in the United States and died there in 1929. While on a lecture tour through Canada, Carman was invited to speak at the University of Manitoba and as he was staying with relatives in Wolseley, he attended services at the same Furby Street church as the Guests.  Carman’s transcendental philosophy of the triumph of the human spirit in kinship with nature seems to have re-awakened Guest’s need to work:
She rededicated herself to painting with considerable energy; in the next few years she produced a large number of works and pursued a busy schedule of exhibitions, doing the tour of annual shows in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and the prairie cities of the Western Circuit. Conventional subjects such as landscape and still life were her forte, presented at modest prices and successfully sold: Peonies and Delphiniums was purchased by the Women’s Art Association of Regina and now hangs in the Mackenzie Art Gallery. More interesting are the pastels and oils of colourful local subjects: Dufferin Street Market, a chalk pastel, in Winnipeg’s North End is now in the Winnipeg Art Gallery (Fig. 2), and a portrait in oils of her housekeeper Katie Harlyk, posing in her national dress for The Ukrainian Girl (Fig. 3), received much attention in the press. Guest would drive out to the country to sketch and paint farm buildings and laborers; she painted Polish farmers at work for The Potato Pickers. (See cover illustration).
Guest travelled to many exhibitions with her works: the Ukrainian Girl was shown four times in 1929, priced at three hundred dollars, while the sitter herself remained in Winnipeg tending to the painter’s home and family (Fig. 3). It is significant that the children had both entered school by this time, giving Guest greater freedom to travel. She attended five shows that year, taking her works by train to Montreal’s Art Association, to the National Gallery in Ottawa, as the only Manitoba woman represented to the Detroit International Women’s Art Exposition, and twice to Toronto: for the annual R.C.A. show and later in the year for the Ontario Society of Artists’ show. To be invited and able to participate in the O.S.A. exhibition was something of a coup:
This observation demonstrates how important class could be to an artist’s success; Marie Guest’s private income, augmented by her sale of work, her married status and her housekeeper made it possible for her to advance herself. A few women had emerged with careers as painters and sculptors and had even been elected to the R.C.A. by this time in Canada, but they were still excluded from most positions of power in the art institutions. In 1929 in Winnipeg only W. J. Phillips had been admitted as an Associate member of the Academy, but for the period between 1927 and 1945 Marie Guest maintained a dominant role as a Winnipeg woman painter, together with Lynn Sissons, Alison Newton, Georgie Wilcox, Pauline Boutal and Jean Eyden. The Manitoba Society of Artists, The Winnipeg Art School and the Art Gallery were the chief local institutions, largely run by men, although it appears from the press notices and exhibition lists that as many women as men were exhibiting their work in the city in those years. This was not dissimilar to the situation elsewhere in Canada, although the larger populations of the eastern cities naturally afforded greater opportunities for women to be given official recognition. 
In 1927 and 1928 Marie Guest painted and exhibited some of her best work. She never parted with the Indian Encampment, priced too high to sell, unlike her many flower pieces. This work would later win first prize at the Pinellas County Fair of 1949, Largo, Florida, and is still in the collection of Mrs. Hessie Guest. Marie Guest had prepared a pastel sketch for this spontaneous and lightly-worked oil, and had even taken a snapshot, still taped to the back of the frame, of a swaddled infant in the entrance to a tent at the scene itself, the summer camping grounds at Gonor. This fragment of the artist’s process betrays an attitude to the “picturesque” object of her attention that is both a sign of her social position and her artistic heritage.
Other group shows all over the country followed, right up to 1947. Respected art critics found Guest’s work noteworthy in their newspaper columns: she was represented in the Annual Exhibition of Canadian Artists at the National Gallery in Ottawa in 1931 and received a favourable mention from Marius Barbeau in his review for The Ottawa Citizen. Photographs of her works, often accompanied by poems of her own composing, were published in local magazines and newspapers.
By 1932 Guest’s reputation was such that she held a widely publicized and highly praised solo show at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s store in Winnipeg. One major work shown was a large oil painting called The Tapestry Weaver, a portrait of another woman artist in her own right, the well-known tapestry weaver and teacher Mitzi Anderson Dale (Fig. 4). W. J. Phillips devoted a full column to Guest in The Winnipeg Tribune, beginning:
But she was not an Emily Carr, forced by circumstance to become self-sufficient, driven by her obsession, separated by her nature or tempered by abuse much more extreme to live a life on the outside of convention. Possibly Guest, because of her class and ethnicity, was an artist on the one hand encouraged by permission to engage in art and the privilege to do so, but on the other hand equally held back by comfort, family, and friends. Perhaps, because of her gender, she lacked greater support and acceptance for her work, or greater personal ambition.
In November of 1932 Marie Guest was interviewed by Dorothy Muir for Coach magazine. This feature article, which was illustrated with a photograph of the artist, provides us with a contemporary biographical sketch. The interviewer makes some personal observations but also gives the impression of quoting directly from a conversation with Marie Guest:
In middle-age Guest had come to be recognized as a leading Manitoba artist. Rural subjects like the small, romantic Manitoba Farmyard remained a major source of inspiration (Fig. 6). She was always painting people at work and the landscape of work: at home in Manitoba and on holidays back to Nova Scotia, wintering at Tarpon Springs in Florida and in California. An interesting composition of ramshackle farm buildings on the Gonor Road titled Mike Garega’s Place was exhibited in 1937 at the Manitoba Society of Artists and in 1938 at the Royal Canadian Academy (Fig. 5). Commenting on the Manitoba Society of Artists’ exhibition for 1944, Robert Ayre introduced his article by distinguishing between the holiday painters, the commercial artists, and those who are “gifted with a wider vision, a keener sensibility and greater ability”. Lemoine Fitzgerald, Ayre writes, “is in a class by himself” but then says this about Guest:
War-time did not diminish Guest’s productivity, rather it provided a her with new images: in 1943 she made a large chalk pastel on dark coloured paper of Winnipeg men leaving for the front, saying their farewells in Train No. 2 Going East (Fig. 7).
The departure of the men may have had some bearing on the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s 1944 exhibition of paintings by four women artists invited by the Art Gallery Association. The year before four men had shown their works in a similar joint exhibition. The four women artists were Marie Guest, Alison Newton, Lynn Sissons and Georgie Wilcox. The event was reported by Lillian Gibbons in The Winnipeg Tribune with photographs of each painter posing beside one of her works.  In a review of the show, Charles Nichols wrote:
In spite of some apparent success and public recognition, it seems that Marie Guest still had some doubts. Tucked away between the pages of her scrapbook a few sheets of autobiographical notes in Marie Guest’s handwriting betray her continuing sense of having achieved less than she might have. Because many passages match the information received in October, 1965 by the National Gallery of Canada and included in the Dictionary of Canadian Artists we can probably date these notes to that year, the year before her death at the age of eighty-five. 
In these six handwritten pages there appear to have been several attempts at making order out of the disparate facts and events of a lifetime. Certain dates of attendance at schools and colleges, memberships in various associations, are repeatedly copied out. But three passages are inscribed only once, and then each is firmly crossed out with a single slash. Passages that might have seemed proud, or even ambitious:
and then, also cancelled from memory:
Lastly there is an incomplete phrase crossed out, yet again a symptom of some latent pride that needed to be stifled. In reference to the Manchester exhibition that her teacher Frank Spenlove recommended she try, she writes of that exhibition: “which next to the Royal Academy was the [sic., crossed out]”.  It is not difficult to surmise that a superlative would have completed the thought.
As a young woman she had once overcome her timidity to jump aboard, to set sail for distant, grander shores. But her later career is a complex mix of forces and counter-forces, and she left behind a painful archive of unfinished works and unexpressed desires, hopes, and dreams.
Lillian Crossman, a student in the Marie Guest Project recorded the recollections of a domestic servant in the Guest household and presents this picture of daily life for the woman artist:
Jennifer Gibson, also a student in the project, offered this interpretation of Marie Guest’s situation:
Debbi Schellenberg, another student in the course, came to these conclusions:
During the experimental course, the results from our research work only very gradually emerged. This was somewhat anxiety-provoking for both teachers and students, but thrilling as well. We all emerged from that experience with a vaguely unsettling feeling that we still did not know all that much about our subject, having been so closely focused on details such as the minutiae of provenances and dates for the works, and sources for all those undated clippings in the artist’s scrapbook. That sensation of the persistent mystery regarding our subject bought home the truism that informs all historical and intellectual pursuits: the more we learned, the more we realized how much there was to learn. Another implication of our archival research and oral interviews was the inescapable subjectivity and the continual transformation of the evidence under the force of interpretation. That these concepts were actually “lived” by each student was a unique and valuable aspect of the course.
All through the year of the experimental course we had been developing the concepts of interpretation and memory, and the idea of a process in conceiving history and how it is written, how works of art become public or remain hidden, how artists’ reputations are made, how society conditions our expectations. Marie Guest appears to have gained a reputation as both a “lady” and an “eccentric”, and therein lies the key.  If she had been only the first she would never have been an artist, and if only the second perhaps an artist, but not a “lady.” She was both, by birth and education, and only because she had the money to be an independent spirit. Others less fortunate embraced poverty or commercialism, fueled themselves with ambition and hard work and made it into the history books. Basically, Marie Guest just didn’t need to or even really want to. Perhaps she didn’t think she ought to want to. Perhaps she didn’t know how much she could want to.
Hessie Guest tells a story about her mother-in-law: how one evening at the lake the supper had to be made and there was no help in the house; so Marie, who had suddenly been taken by an urge to paint a bunch of sunflowers from the garden, offered Hessie the painting of a picture in exchange for the preparation of the meal.  For Marie it was not the material object that mattered but the process of making, the act of painting itself. She was fortunate that she could find herself in art, that she could afford to be introspective and independent, a wife, a mother, a traveller, a painter and a poet.  The poetry is slight and sentimental, the paintings are derivative and sometimes even awkward, but the creative urge is there, the knowledge of Impressionism, and the awareness of Expressionism, in the style of the Canadian avant-garde of her youth. She remains rooted in representation and her subjects are never very adventurous but she has her place in the historical scheme, as do so many other women artists of the past too compromised by their gender and position, whether too far up or too far down the social ladder to fully realize their identities. Marie Guest had a presence on the Winnipeg art scene of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s that set a precedent for a younger generation of women. She was not as bohemian as Lynn Sissons and not as grand as Georgie Wilcox but within the limits of her family and social roles she maintained her independence financially and artistically, as a free spirit and a woman before her time.
This paper is dedicated to the memory of Angela Davis, a pioneer in the writing of women’s history and the history of art in Manitoba.
1. See 150 Years of Art in Manitoba: Struggle for a Visual Civilization, Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg, 1970; Angela Davis, “Laying the Ground: The Establishment of an Artistic Milieu in Winnipeg: 1890-1913”, Manitoba History, vol. 4, 1982, pp. 1-14; and Marilyn Baker, The Winnipeg School of Art, The University of Manitoba Press, Winnipeg, 1984.
4. The establishment of art education for women in Canada and the value of study abroad is dealt with by Maria Tippett in By A Lady: Celebrating Three Centuries of Art by Canadian Women, Viking/Penguin Books, Toronto/London/New York/Victoria/Auckland, 1992, pp. 27-54.
10. Walter J. Phillips, A.R.C.A., “Art and Artists,” The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 16 March 1929, p. 33.
11. A general history of women’s advancement in the visual arts in Canada in this period is presented by Maria Tippett, op. cit., pp.27-75. Only very little information is provided regarding Winnipeg or Manitoba women.
12. W. J. Phillips, A.R.C.A., “Marie Guest’s Art Shows Energy. Devotion to Ideal,” The Winnipeg Tribune, 31 October 1932.
15. Lillian Gibbons, “Four Winnipeg Artists Exhibit their Paintings,” The Winnipeg Tribune, 21 April 1944, p. 9.
25. These terms are repeatedly used by many of the persons interviewed who knew the artist. This is interesting not only in regard to Marie Guest, but to all women artists of her generation and to how they were viewed by the general public.
27. Private Collection of Mrs. Hessie Guest. A portfolio of signed manuscripts is enclosed in Marie Guest’s scrapbook. Some poems were published, such as Canadian Tapestry, illustrated with a drawing by the artist (Country Guide, 57, July 1938, p. 37), or to accompany the photograph of a painting, as in The Guardian of the Shore (with After Sunset), which appeared in the Free Press Evening Bulletin, Winnipeg (10 September 1932).
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