The Life and Work of Maud Lewis, Canadian Folk Artist

Maud Lewis painting in her home in Nova Scotia
Maud Lewis painting in her home in Nova Scotia.

© CBC

Maud Lewis (March 7, 1903 – July 30, 1970) was a 20th-century Canadian folk artist. With a focus on subjects in nature and ordinary life and a folk style of painting, she became one of the best-known artists in Canadian history.

Early Life

Born Maud Kathleen Dowley in South Ohio, Nova Scotia, Lewis was the only daughter of John and Agnes Dowley. She had one brother, Charles, who was older than her. Even as a child, she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, which limited her movements, even down to her hands. Despite this, she began making art at an early age under the tutelage of her mother, who taught her to paint watercolor Christmas cards, which she then sold.

Maud dealt with multiple physical disabilities that left her hunched over. At the age of fourteen, she dropped out of school for unknown reasons, although it is possible that the bullying of her classmates (due to her visible birth defects) was at least partially at fault.

Family and Marriage

As a young woman, Maud became romantically involved with a man named Emery Allen, but they never married. In 1928, however, she gave birth to their daughter, Catherine. Allen abandoned Maud and their daughter, and they instead continued to live with her parents. Because Maud had no income and no means to support her child, a court required Catherine to be placed up for adoption. Later in life, an adult Catherine (now married with a family of her own and still living in Nova Scotia) attempted to get in touch with her mother; she was never successful in her attempts.

Maud’s parents died within two years of each other: her father in 1935 and her mother in 1937. Her brother Charles inherited everything, and while he allowed his sister to live with him for a short while, she soon moved to Digby, Nova Scotia, to live with her aunt.

In late 1937, Maud answered an advertisement placed by Everett Lewis, a fish peddler from Marshalltown, who was seeking a live-in housekeeper. While she was unable to perform her job well, due to the advancement of her arthritis, Maud and Everett married in January 1938.

Painting Every Surface

The painted interior of Maud Lewis' home, as it is preserved in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
The painted interior of Maud Lewis' home, as it is preserved in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

 Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

The Lewises lived mostly in poverty, but Everett did encourage his wife’s painting – especially once he realized they could make a small profit. He procured painting supplies for her, and she then accompanied him on selling trips, starting with small cards like those she had painted as a child and eventually expanding to other, larger media. She even painted nearly every suitable surface in their small home, from typical sites such as walls to more unconventional ones (including their stove).

Because canvas was difficult to come by (and expensive), Maud worked on beaver boards (made of compressed wood fibers) and Masonite, among other things. These smaller items, early in her career or for personal use, were full of bright colors and designs of flowers, birds, and leaves. This aesthetic would carry over into her later work as well.

Early Sales

Maud Lewis, White Cat (2), 1960s, oil on pulpboard, 31.1 x 33.8 cm. Collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, gift of Johanna Hickey, Vancouver, BC, 2006. 

Maud’s paintings, throughout her career, focused on scenes and items out of her own life, experiences, and surroundings. Animals appeared frequently, mostly domestic or farm animals such as cows, oxen, cats, and birds. She also portrayed outdoor scenes: boats on the water, winter sleigh or skating scenes, and similar moments of ordinary life, often with a playful and cheerful tone. The greeting cards of her youth came back again, this time as inspiration for her later paintings. Bright, pure colors are a hallmark of her paintings; in fact, she was known to never blend colors, but only use the oils as they came originally in their tubes.

Most of her paintings are quite small, not exceeding eight by ten inches. This is mostly due to the constraints of her arthritis: she could only paint as far as she could move her arms, which was increasingly limited. However, there are a few of her paintings that are larger than that, and she was commissioned to paint a large set of shutters by American cottage owners in the early 1940s.

Gaining Wider Attention

Maud Lewis, Fall Scene with Deer, c. 1950, oil on pulpboard, 29.5 x 34.9 cm. Collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, purchase 1974.

During her lifetime, Maud’s paintings did not sell for large amounts. By the late 1940s, tourists had begun to stop at the Lewises’ home to purchase her paintings, but they rarely sold for more than a few dollars. In fact, they wouldn’t sell for even close to ten dollars until the final years of her life. The Lewises continued to live a meager existence, with Everett taking on the lion’s share of work around the house as Maud’s arthritis continued to degenerate her mobility.

Despite the attention of the occasional tourist, Lewis’s work remained fairly obscure for the majority of her life. All that changed in 1964, when the Toronto-based national newspaper Star Weekly wrote an article about her as a folk artist and brought her to the attention of audience across Canada, who quickly embraced her and her work. The attention only increased the following year, when the broadcasting network CBC featured her on its program Telescope, which featured Canadians of varying degrees of notoriety who had made a difference in some way.

In the final years of her life and following these major public mentions, Lewis was on the receiving end of commissions from a wide array of important figures – most notably, American president Richard Nixon commissioned a pair of paintings from her. She never left her home in Nova Scotia and was unable to keep up with the demand for artwork.

Death and Legacy

Maud Lewis, Maud Lewis House, mixed media, 4.1 x 3.8 m. Collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, purchased by the Province of Nova Scotia, 1984. 

Maud’s health continued to deteriorate, and in the late 1960s, she spent most of her shuttling between painting in her home and visiting the hospital for treatment. Her declining health was exacerbated by the wood smoke of their home and the constant exposure to paint fumes without proper ventilation, and the lung issues this caused left her susceptible to pneumonia. She died on July 30, 1970, after battling pneumonia.

After her death, demand for her paintings skyrocketed, as did the appearance of forgeries. Several paintings purported to be Maud’s were eventually proven to be fakes; many are suspected to be the handiwork of her husband Everett in an attempt to continue cashing in on her prominence.

In recent years, Maud’s paintings have only grown more valuable. She has become something of a folk hero in her home province of Nova Scotia, which has long embraced artists with authenticity and unusual styles, and in Canada as a whole. In the 21st century, her paintings have sold at prices well into five figures.

After Everett’s death in 1979, the Lewises’ house began to fall into disrepair. In 1984, it was purchased by the Province of Nova Scotia, and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia took over the care and preservation of the house. It now dwells in the gallery as part of a permanent exhibit of Maud’s works. Her paintings have made her a folk hero among the Canadian art community, and the bright joyfulness of her style, combined with the humble, often harsh realities of her life, have resonated with patrons and fans worldwide.

Maud Lewis Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Maud Kathleen Lewis, née Dowley
  • Occupation: Canadian painter and folk artist
  • Born: March 7, 1903, in South Ohio, Nova Scotia, Canada
  • Died: July 30, 1970, in Digby, Nova Scotia, Canada
  • Key Accomplishments: Despite physical limitations and living in poverty, Lewis became a beloved folk artist, known for her brightly colored, cheerful paintings of animals, flowers, and other outdoor scenes.
  • Quote: “I paint all from memory, I don’t copy much. Because I don’t go nowhere, I just make my own designs up.”

Sources

  • Bergman, Brian. “Paying Tribute To Painter Maud Lewis.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/paying-tribute-to-painter-maud-lewis/
  • Stamberg, Susan. “Home Is Where The Art Is: The Unlikely Story of Folk Artist Maud Lewis.” NPR, https://www.npr.org/2017/06/19/532816482/home-is-where-the-art-is-the-unlikely-story-of-folk-artist-maud-lewis
  • Woolaver, Lance. The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis. Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 1995.