Portrait of Helen McNicoll, by Robert Harris, 1910
Picking Flowers, by Helen McNicoll, ca 1912
Helen Galloway McNicoll, "one of Canada's foremost impressionist painters" (Luckyj, p. 70), was born in Toronto, Ontario, in 1879. The following year, she moved with her family to Montréal, Quebec, where her father had a successful career with the Canadian Pacific Railway Company.
At two years of age Helen became deaf due to scarlet fever. She learned to lip-read, however, and her wealthy family supported her artistic talent and her interest in art. In 1899, she began her studies at the Art Association of Montreal, under William Brymner. From 1902 to 1904, she pursued her studies in life drawing and painting at the well-known Slade School of Art, University of London. After a brief working stay in France, Helen returned to England and studied at St. Ives. Of this period in McNicoll's career, Paul Duval wrote: "there is no question that McNicoll, although she travelled and sketched widely in Europe, always identified closely with the contemporary British school of painting. From the beginning, her style and temperament merged easily with the prevailing tendencies of Impressionism in England" (Duval, p. 92).
At St. Ives, Helen met Dorothea Sharp, with whom she lived and painted and formed a close friendship. Natalie Luckyj has observed that "throughout Britain, Europe and North America, when women like McNicoll and Sharp set out to engage more directly with the institutions of the art world, they were challenging long-held conventions ... Dorothea Sharp's company provided McNicoll with camaraderie, security, and saved her from what would be difficult negotiations with models" (Luckyj, p. 44).
Beginning in 1906, McNicoll's work was included in Canadian exhibitions of the Art Association of Montreal (AAM), the Royal Canadian Academy and elsewhere. In 1908, she won the AAM's Jessie Dow Prize with W. H. Clapp. In 1913, examples of her work were included in the Royal Society of British Artists' exhibition and she was elected to membership in that society the same year. In 1914, she won the Women's Art Society Prize and was elected an Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy [of Art].
McNicoll continued to live in England until her death, in 1915. She died at Swanage, Dorset, at the age of thirty-six. The publication Saturday Night included the following comments in an article that appeared at the time of her death: "Commenting on her death, 'Beck's Weekly' says: The death of Helen McNicoll, one of the most profoundly original and technically accomplished of Canadian artists, is a matter for the sincerest regret among all lovers of art" (Saturday Night, July 10, 1915, p. 3).
The AAM held a memorial exhibition of over 140 of her paintings and sketches in 1925. In 1926, three paintings held by the McNicoll family were exhibited at the Art Gallery of Toronto. The Art Gallery of Ontario presented a major exhibition of McNicoll's works, curated by Natalie Luckyj, from September 1999 to January 2000. The catalogue of that exhibition, and an insightful essay on McNicoll and her work by Natalie Luckyj, are included in the publication entitled Helen McNicoll : a Canadian Impressionist.
The National Gallery of Canada purchased McNicoll's work Stubble Fields, in 1912 and The Saint John Art Club acquired The Farmyard, c. 1908. Because of her lack of financial concerns, McNicoll did not need to sell her works during her lifetime. After her death, the bulk of her paintings were in her family's possession. It was not until late in the 1970s, that collectors first had the opportunity to purchase a number of her paintings and they expressed a keen interest in them.
Natalie Luckyj wrote the following of McNicoll's work:
her paintings of children, workers, family and friends present a primarily female world, where the rituals of everyday life and the relationships between sisters, friends and family become the touchstones of her artistic voice... McNicoll positioned her art within the lived reality of her female world.... Like other painters of her day who were caught up in the "larger Impressionist impulse," McNicoll's vision is both collective and personal. Far from the rugged wilderness landscapes of the Group of Seven that would dominate Canadian modernism in the postwar era, McNicoll's radiant women, children and sunlit landscapes distill the essence of an epoch largely neglected in Canadian art history.
(Luckyj, p. 70)
"A loss to Canadian art". — Saturday night. — Vol. 28, no. 39 (July 10, 1915). — P. 3
Duval, Paul. — Canadian impressionism. — Toronto : McClelland and Stewart, 1990. — 166 p.
"Helen McNicoll". — Artcyclopedia [online]. — All links last verified April 18, 2002. — [Cited May 31, 2002]. — Access:
Luckyj, Natalie. — Helen McNicoll : a Canadian impressionist. — Toronto : Art Gallery of Ontario, 1999. —  p.