NEW YORK — Maud Dowley Lewis (1903-70) spent all her life in Nova Scotia and reportedly never traveled more than an hour from her birthplace in the tiny town of South Ohio. Her folksy and playful paintings that first captivated neighbors and then tourists have traveled far and wide, however. Although Lewis never lived to see her works exhibited in museums or galleries, she is now one of Canada’s best-known folk artists. A 1965 newspaper article about her, which helped propel her international reputation, was titled The Little Old Lady Who Paints Pretty Pictures. Idyllic scenes of sleigh rides across a snowy landscape, children waving at a colorful train, and animals such as black cats or pairs of oxen were among her most popular paintings.
Lewis left school at age 14 after completing the fifth grade. In 1937, she answered an ad placed by local fish seller Everett Lewis, who was seeking a live-in maid for his small home in the equally tiny town of Marshalltown. She took the job, and eventually the two married. Her artistic career began with hand-painting Currier and Ives-style Christmas cards and selling them door-to-door before she shifted to painting on boards, at which time people began to come to her home to buy her art.
Lacking formal art training as well as area museums where she could study other artists’ work, Lewis instead took heed of what customers wanted when deciding what to paint. Her genre scenes were in high demand, and she created many variations on that subject matter. Describing them as serial images, Ethan Miller, co-owner of Miller & Miller Auctions Ltd. in New Hamburg, Canada, said, “No two images are exactly the same. She would pick certain images that people liked and then she would paint them over and over again.” Some Lewis themes have become especially desirable. “Her cats are considered to be among her best serial images, and they bring in more money than, say, oxen or some of the harbor scenes,” he said.
Lewis suffered from arthritis all her life and in her later years, it made the act of painting especially difficult. In stark contrast to the physical and economic hardships she faced, her paintings are always bright and cheerful. They reflect a bygone age, perhaps the Nova Scotia of her childhood, when there was lots of leisure time for sleigh and carriage rides, fishing and sailing. She also painted scenes of work: farmers plowing fields or harvesting crops, a blacksmith at his forge or fisherman hauling in a catch. Tourists arriving from big cities were drawn to her depictions of a simpler life. Most of her works were painted from memory, and she often took liberties with details, such as painting a three-legged ox. “I think a lot of it [her appeal] just has to do with the simplicity, the color, the sort of levity and lightheartedness,” Miller said. “People can identify with the simplicity of her work … I just feel like the world right now is in desperate need of that kind of thing.”
She was dubbed by some as Canada’s Grandma Moses, although a few academicians, as well as Miller, disagree with that comparison.“Both are certainly folk artists and people that follow their passion, but Maud Lewis is an outlier — a folk artist in the truest sense,” Miller said. Lewis’ shack-like house was barely big enough for her and Everett. In the early days, she only netted CA$2 to $3 for her paintings in the 1940s and 50s, but as time went on and her reputation grew, she earned a bit more for her art, but was always poor. “She lived in poverty and struggled with all kinds of physical adversity, serious arthritis and things that prevented her from painting well, especially near the end of her life,” Miller said. “No matter what she was faced with, though, she overcame it as an artist. The optimism and color that you see in her work, it’s almost a reflection of the life that I think she wanted to see despite the situation she was in.”
Chief among her serial images was a 1967 oil on board, Black Truck, which achieved CA$350,000 (or $257,410) plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022 at Miller & Miller Auctions. Lewis frequently painted different vehicles that were known to her and was particularly fond of painting black vehicles, but no two were exactly alike. The springtime scene is rare for the type of truck shown.
Snowy winter scenes of the sort that Currier & Ives created were coveted by those who purchased Lewis’s art. She knew her market, and she painted several variations on scenes of horse-drawn sleigh rides cutting across snowy landscapes. A circa-1955 mixed media painting depicting just such a scene earned CA$80,000 (or $62,514) in October 2022 at Miller & Miller Auctions Ltd.
Animals, especially black cats, were another favorite subject matter for the artist. A 1969 mixed media work of three whimsical and primitively-sketched black cats surrounded by flowers sold for CA$60,000 (or $44,127) plus the buyer’s premium in October 2022 at Miller & Miller Auctions Ltd. Other animals she enjoyed painting were oxen working, which were essential to the area’s lumber industry. A 1966 Lewis painting on pulp board of oxen in winter pulling logs made CA$42,000 (or $30,889) plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022 at A.H. Wilkens Auctions & Appraisals.
Everett Lewis had a Model T Ford in the early days of his marriage, and he and Maud almost certainly would have enjoyed outings together in the car. A painting, likely one of many she did depicting a couple out for a leisurely ride in a Model T, went for $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2019 at Woodshed Art Auctions. According to the Art Canada Institute website, she likely based this and other paintings of its type on her memories of her first year as part of a married couple when “she would accompany him [Everett] on his rounds around Digby County as he sold fish.”
The market for Maud Lewis’s work increased after a 2016 biopic movie of her life that starred Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke.“Her earliest works are considered to be the most desirable, and it seems like in the earlier part of her career, she had more time to paint well. As her fame grew, the rate at which she produced paintings grew as well,” Miller said. The market for her art also surged dramatically after the 2022 sale of Black Truck, which ended long-running speculation regarding when one of her paintings would break the $100,000 mark. “It sent a surge of enthusiasm and awareness through the entire art world and we found a lot of the common serial images were bringing twice, triple or even four times what they were before,” he said. While the market has since corrected somewhat to levels before that surge, Miller said Lewis artworks have proven to be a sound investment.