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Prudence Heward (1896 – 1947)

“In my opinion, she was the very best painter we ever had in Canada and she never got the recognition she richly deserved in her lifetime. I wanted her to join the Group of Seven, but like the Twelve Apostles, no women were included.”

- A.Y. Jackson

Despite the popularity of landscape painting during her lifetime, Prudence Heward was a Canadian painter primarily known for her figure painting of defiant women. She used bold and rich colours that challenged conventional representations of passivity and created portraits of complex, brooding, and independent modern women.

Many of her subjects returned the viewer’s gaze. She also painted nude subjects; one painting of a naked black woman, titled Hester (1937), provoked hostile reactions in the press.

Born into a wealthy family, Heward took her first drawing lesson at the age of twelve and soon started painting at the Art Association of Montreal. After living out World War I in England as a volunteer with the Red Cross, she returned to the Art Association in 1918.For two summers, Heward painted with Maurice Cullen in rural areas outside Montreal. In 1925, she travelled on scholarship to Paris. There, she met another Canadian student, Isabel McLaughlin, who became her lifelong friend. The two returned to Paris in 1929 and took sketching classes at the Scandinavian Academy before traveling together to the Mediterranean town of Cagnes.

Heward’s first major success was in 1929 when she won first prize at the Willingdon Arts Competition for Girl on a Hill. This remarkably modern piece depicts the dancer Louise McLea posing with dirty bare feet and challenging the viewer with her gaze.Heward’s works were selected for numerous international exhibitions. She was invited to show her work with the Group of Seven in 1928 and again in 1931, and held her first solo exhibition in 1932 at the Scott Galleries, Montreal. She was also associated with the Beaver Hall Group, and she was a founding member of the Canadian Group of Painters and Contemporary Arts Society, and a member of the Federation of Canadian Artists.

In 1947, Heward died at age 50 in Los Angeles while seeking treatment for the asthma that had plagued her all her life. While frail in a physical sense, she was as robust and defiant as many of her subjects when it came to her dedication to her work. Her work continues to draw attention from art historians due to the issues she revealed about class, gender, and race in Canadian society.The National Gallery of Canada held a memorial exhibition in 1948, the year following her death.

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