Celebrated for the verism of her subjects, Prudence Heward advocated for realism over idealization. Her complex portraits of women split from a narrative of conservatism to create works that challenged historically deficient characterizations of gender and race in art.
Born Efa Prudence Heward in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Heward was the sixth of eight children. Her early interest in art was encouraged by her family and she started drawing lessons at the Art Association of Montreal when she was twelve. During World War I, Heward lived in England serving as a volunteer with the Red Cross. At the end of the war, she returned to Canada and continued painting. She began to see professional success as an artist in the early 1920s and went on to study art in London and then Paris. Though Heward also painted landscapes and still lifes, she was primarily a painter of human subjects. In 1929, Heward’s painting, Girl on a Hill, won the top prize in the Governor-General Willingdon competition organized by the National Gallery of Canada.
In Girl on a Hill Heward aligned herself with an unmistakably modernist perspective. The subject, Montreal dancer Louise McLea, is seated within a verdant shelter overlooking a bucolic landscape – her reddened cheeks and the gleam of sweat on skin suggests the exertion of physical activity. With hair slackened by movement, McLea’s loose-fitted, sleeveless dress is indicative of the liberated fashion, culture, and wider philosophy of the 1920s. In addition, the visibly dirtied soles of McLea’s bare feet emblematize the practice of modern dancers performing without the restriction of shoes.
McLea’s gaze is aimed squarely at the viewer, a slightly wary, slightly preoccupied glance accentuated by unsmiling lips. With her head turned at an angle, McLea’s thoughts expand beyond the trenchant gaze of the viewer. As a performer, McLea knows the expectations of traditional audiences and subverts them with an intrinsic serenity. The organic knots in the cloister of tree trunks echo the part in McLea’s hair and the texture in her gown.
Centred around the improvisational, uninhibited, and provocative, expressionist dancers (and the wider modernist movement) strove for progress and forward momentum. Modernism, expressionism, vitalism, and the avant-garde sprang from a united front of proponents who sought values that reflected modern industrial life. On canvas, painters conveyed realities and hopes with modernized materials, perspectives, and techniques. In dance, modernism was personified in methods of movement and dress reinvigorated and transformed into a manifestation of art, the self and bodily expression. In a painting where layers of modernist techniques and disciplines coalesce, Heward’s Girl on a Hill articulates the fundamental shift in a changing Western society.