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After Her Work Was Misattributed to Men, a 19th-Century Woman Gets Her Due

A chance encounter with some 19th-century watercolors at Canada’s Confederation Centre of the Arts revealed decades of misattribution for the work of a Victorian woman.

Caroline Louisa Daly, “A Whale Stranded In Tracadie Harbour, North Side Of P.E.I” (September 1858), watercolor on paper (courtesy Confederation Centre Art Gallery)

After years of being erroneously credited to two men, a group of 19th-century watercolors and drawings are now rightly attributed to Caroline Louisa DalyIntroducing Caroline Louisa Daly, on view at the Confederation Centre of the Arts on Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada, debuts this rediscovery of a Victorian artist.

Caroline Louisa Daly (1860) (photo by Caldesi Blanford & Co, London)

Daly, who lived from 1832 to 1893, was the daughter of former P.E.I. Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Dominick Daly, and thus got to travel more of the world than most Victorian women — one painting depicts the inside of her cabin on a ship to Australia. However, she was a self-taught artist who never exhibited in her lifetime, and following marriage, her international adventures were mostly over. She settled in Bournemouth, Dorset, for the rest of her life.

As the Guardian reported this month, the question over the longtime attribution of the paintings — signed only with “CL Daly” — was sparked by a 2014 visit from Daly’s great-grandson, who recognized her hand in the displayed work.

“As soon as I dug through the files, it was very clear that we had no legs to stand on with our own attributions,” Paige Matthie, Confederation Centre of the Arts gallery registrar and the exhibition curator, told Hyperallergic.

Matthie spent two years researching Daly’s art, including scouring public records, in what developed into a personal passion project outside of her normal job duties. “The thing that kept me coming back was giving proper credit to the true artist, and it quickly became evident that was probably Caroline Louisa Daly,” Matthie said. “But the research project was really a matter of making it very plain for everyone to see.”

Based on the subject matter, featuring views of PEI, such as a whale stranded at Tracadie Harbour, the real Daly was a local. As Matthie found, one of the supposed artists — Charles L. Daly, a City of Toronto clerk and art instructor —  had never visited Prince Edward Island, while the other — John Corry Wilson Daly, a Stratford, Ontario, merchant and politician — was not a painter. The biographical timeline and consistent style all pointed to Caroline Louisa Daly.

Caroline Louisa Daly, “Our Cabins – Ship ‘Suffolk’ bound for Australia” (1861), watercolor on paper (Gift of Richard Jenkins, courtesy Confederation Centre Art Gallery)

It’s not clear exactly how the misidentification started, yet it was likely more carelessness than anything deliberate. The Confederation Centre of the Arts acquired six pieces of Daly’s art in their collections in the 1960s, and her family recently donated six additional works. That visual legacy is supported by an album of her art identified at the Library and Archives Canada.

“I think that after looking at quite a few of her works, it showed to me that she was a woman with a very committed artistic practice, as the art ranges from quick pencil sketches to highly sublime depictions of Canadian wilderness,” Matthie said. Sometimes her landscape paintings were based on other artists’ work, a common form of study, which also offered her more diverse material beyond her limited world as a woman in the 19th century.

Caroline Louisa Daly, “Government House In Winter With Sleigh” (1855), watercolor on paper (courtesy Confederation Centre Art Gallery)

And although her watercolors may not seem radical or visually experimental, they do reveal a sharp artistic eye for daily life, particularly when she captured an outdoor settings while painting en plein air. “She had a great deal of skill with architecture,” Matthie noted, pointing out that her renderings of the Government House in Charlottetown, PEI, were later used as reference for a restoration project. Finally, over a century after her death, art that was in her lifetime considered simply a hobby is being reexamined in a new light.

“I think that that’s something that we don’t often think about with women’s watercolors of the 19th century, is their grasp of detail,” Matthie said. “I think that though her work might look simplistic or not that challenging when you compare it to the grand oil paintings of other 19th-century artists, it allows us into her world. They’re wonderful documents of history that show us what Charlottetown looked like that time, what the island was like. To me, it’s part of a larger narrative of women’s artwork that might have been overlooked.”

Introducing Caroline Louisa Daly continues through May 7 at the Confederation Centre of the Arts (130 Queen Street, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada). 

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