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The early decades of the 20th century were a time of momentous change for women in Canada. During World War I, women were not recruited as official war artists. Instead, female artists were limited to commissions on subjects deemed appropriate for women to witness. For example, women working in the munition factories was an acceptable theme.
Dorothy Stevens was one of a few remarkable women who did receive a commission—in September 1918—from the Canadian War Memorials Fund, (CWMF), and she subsequently created six etchings of the Canadian home front during WW I.
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Born in Toronto in 1888, she had a father who loved to paint and he quickly recognized the huge talent in his 15-year-old daughter. When his work took him to England, he enrolled her in his old art school—the Slade School of London. After Slade, Stevens went to Paris for two years where she continued her art at the Académie Colorossi. While there she developed an interest in etching.
On her return to Canada she turned to portrait and figure painting, which became her signature style.
In all, the CWMF commissioned more than 20 artists to document the home front. Four of them were women. Stevens approached the CWMF with a proposal to create a series of prints that would detail work in the munitions plants as well as airplane and shipbuilding construction. These commissions met with critical acclaim and were hailed as some of the most successful works in the Canadian War Memorial exhibitions that toured from 1919-24.
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The artist’s busy compositions focus on the female worker amid the hustle and bustle of factory work. Her graceful figures pose like dancers while the vertical lines of factory cables and pulleys create an interesting backdrop. Stevens is an exquisite sketcher and her six etchings are a wonderful contribution to our Canadian collection.
Throughout her life, she loved to travel and she captured the faces and landscapes she discovered along the way. Mexico was a particular favourite. For several years she taught at the Ontario College of Art, and instructed a class for students of all ages on Saturday mornings, sponsored by the Women’s Art Association in Toronto. Stevens was also well known for her vivacious personality, and that energy and enthusiasm are as remembered as her art.
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Her work is in the permanent collections of galleries across Canada. She died at Toronto in 1966.
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Many of the Canadian War Museum’s holdings are available in reproduction at affordable prices. For more information, contact Image Reproduction Services, Canadian War Museum, 1 Vimy Place, Ottawa, ON K1R 0C2; tel: 1-819-776-8686; fax: 1-819-776-8623; e-mail: Imageservices@warmuseum.ca