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 Maxwell Bennett Bates  (1906 - 1980)

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Lived/Active: Ontario/British Columbia/Alberta / Canada/England      Known for: expressionist painting, satirical figure, graphics

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Ad Code: 3
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from Auction House Records.
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Maxwell Bennett Bates CM, LL.D, RCA, ASA, CGP, FCA, CSGA, CSPWC, BCSA, FIAL, MRAIC, AAA, CAC, TG, CG, L (1906 – 1980)

“I knew I wanted to do things simply and intensely and as directly as possible, and I’ve never changed from that idea.” – Maxwell Bennett Bates (1973).

Maxwell Bennett Bates was a painter, architect, draughtsman, printmaker, poet, writer, philosopher, and one of the pioneers of Expressionism* in Canada.  He was a central figure of the Western Canadian art communities where he lived, a nationally recognized modernist, and, when he lived in London, he was welcomed into the vortex of British modernism.  Examples of his paintings, drawings and prints are in virtually every major art museum in Canada.

He was born in Calgary, Alberta and died in Victoria, British Columbia where he had lived since 1962 (1).  His other places of extended residence were London, England where he exhibited and worked from 1931 to 1939; and Stalag 9C, Bad Sulza, Thuringia, Germany, where he was incarcerated from 1941 to 1945 as a POW. (2)

His mediums included oil, watercolor, gouache*, pastel, graphite, charcoal, ink, linocut*, monoprint, woodblock prints*, serigraph*, lithograph* (3) and mixed mediums.  His subjects included social commentary, allegory*, genre*, interiors, figures, landscape, urban scenes, prairie life, puppets, symbolism, fantasy, satire, portraits, children, families, still life, circus characters, POW life, shape, color and texture.  His most recognized painting and graphic styles are Expressionism* and Fauvism*; his oeuvre also includes Abstraction*, Surrealism*, Op Art* and Realism*.  His most famous architectural work is the Neo-Gothic St. Mary's Cathedral in Calgary. AskART have some good illustrations of his most recognizable painting style and subject – Expressionist figures. (4)

Bates was mostly a self taught artist; he learned architecture as an apprentice to his father William Stanley Bates from 1924 to 1931 and in England working for J.H. Gibbons and Harold Davies from 1934 to 1939.  His formal art education involved a year at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art [now the Alberta College of Art & Design] in Calgary (1926 – 1927) under Lars Jonson Haukaness (5) and four months at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, New York (1949 – 1950) under Max Beckmann and Abraham Rattner. (6)

He briefly taught evening classes in life drawing and children's classes at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art (1948 – 1949).

Travelling to exhibitions over the years, he has visited most of the major cities in Canada. His travels in the USA include Chicago, New York and Seattle.  His European travels before the war included Belgium, the Channel Islands and Paris (c.1936 – 1938) and after the war extensive travel in continental Europe (1958 – 1959). (7)

As an important figure in the art community, Bates was a member of most of the applicable National Canadian art and architecture organizations like the Federation of Canadian Artists* (1946); the Canadian Society of Graphic Artists* (1947); the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour* (1951); the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (1957); the Canadian Group of Painters* (1957); and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts* (Associate – 1961, Academician – 1970).

He was also a member of many of the provincial and community art associations in the two provinces where he lived like the Calgary Art Club (1926 – 1928); the Calgary Group [founder] (1946); the Alberta Society of Artists (1947); the Alberta Association of Architects (1951); the British Columbia Society of Artists (Associate – 1965, Member 1967); and The Limners* (1971, also President).

He was a member of the International Society of Plastic Arts (1956), a Fellow of the International Institute of Arts and Letters [FIAL] (1960) and, while in England, he was invited to be a member of the Twenties Group (8) (1932 – 1939). (9)

Throughout his career and posthumously, his works have frequently been included in group exhibitions at major Canadian public venues, some examples are: “Exhibition of Canadian Painting”, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (1930); “Calgary Group”, Vancouver Art Gallery, B.C. (1947); “Canadian Painting”, National Gallery of Canada (1953); “Progressive Painters of Western Canada”, Winnipeg Art Gallery, Manitoba (1953); “The First Canadian Biennial”, National Gallery of Canada (1955); “Winnipeg Show”, Winnipeg Art Gallery (1957); "Surrealism in Canadian Painting", Museum London, Ontario (1964); Canadian Pavilion, Expo ’67, Montreal (1967); “Directions in Western Canada Print Making”, Winnipeg Art Gallery (1968); “Major Movements in Twentieth Century Canadian Art”, Edmonton Art Gallery [now Art Gallery of Alberta] (1978); “Canadian Art in Britain”, Canada House, London (1982); “Winnipeg West”, Edmonton Art Gallery (1983); “The Canadian Landscape”, Canadian Cultural Centre, Paris (1984); “Picasso on the Prairies”, Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina, Saskatchewan (1993); “ART BC: Masterworks from British Columbia”, Vancouver Art Gallery, B.C. (2000); “Face Forward: Six Canadians confront the Millennium”, Glenbow Museum, Calgary (2000); “Plastic Universe”,  Firestone Collection*, Ottawa Art Gallery, Ontario (2003); “Paint: A Psychedelic Primer”, Vancouver Art Gallery, B.C. (2006); “Degrees of Fantasy”, Ottawa Art Gallery (2006) and “Line, Colour and Muscle: The first exhibition lithographs of John Snow and Maxwell Bates”, Nickle Arts Museum, Calgary (2009). (10)

He also exhibited in the Spring shows at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts from 1954 to 1968, with the Ontario Society of Artists* in 1961 and 1965 and at the Stratford Festival, Ontario in 1962 with fellow prairie artists Ronald Bloore, Ted Godwin, Bruce Head (1931 – 2009) , Kenneth Lochhead, Jack Markell, Herbert Franklin Palmer, Ron Spickett and George Swinton.

The venues for his foreign exhibitions include the “Artists International Association Exhibition”, London, England (1937); the Royal Academy, London, England (1939); the “First International Biennial of Color Lithography”, Cincinnati, USA (1958); the Philadelphia Print Club (1958); “Canadian Water Colours and Graphics Today”, American Federation of Arts, touring USA (1959); “New Directions in Printmaking”, Chicago (1960); and the “Second International Biennial Exhibition of Prints”, Tokyo (1960).

The public venues for his solo exhibitions include the Vancouver Art Gallery, B.C. (1947,1975,1981); Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, B.C. (1962); Nickle Arts Museum, Calgary (1992); Ottawa Art Gallery, Ontario (2001); Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton, "Maxwell Bates: At the Crossroads of Expressionism" (2004); and the Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon (2006).

Retrospectives were mounted by the Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina. (1960); Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, B.C. (1966, 1976, 1982); Winnipeg Art Gallery, Manitoba (1968); and the Vancouver Art Gallery, B.C. (1973).

Through the years, venues for his private gallery solo and group shows have included the Wertheim Gallery, Manchester and London, England; Canadian Art Galleries, Calgary; Calgary Allied Arts Centre; Here and Now Gallery, Toronto; Bau-Xi Gallery, Vancouver; Upstairs Gallery, Winnipeg and Edmonton; Print Gallery, Victoria; Galerie Allen, Vancouver; Backroom Gallery, Victoria; Winchester Galleries, Victoria, B.C.; New Design Gallery, Vancouver; Gallery Pascal, Toronto; Seligman Gallery, Seattle; Opportunity Gallery, New York; Laurel Gallery, New York; Bloomsbury Gallery, London, England; Storran Gallery, London, England; Dominion Gallery, Montreal; and Triangle Gallery, Calgary.

Bates works are among the most avidly collected in Canada.  They are also in numerous public collections. According to the Canadian Heritage Information Network* there are 249 of his works in museums across Canada. They include: Museum London (Ontario), the Art Gallery of Hamilton (Ontario), the Winnipeg Art Gallery (Manitoba), the Vancouver Art Gallery (B.C.), the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (Halifax), the Mendel Art Gallery (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan), the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (Kleinburg, Ontario), the Owens Art Gallery (Sackville, N.B.), the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery (Owen Sound, Ontario), the Simon Fraser University Gallery (Burnaby, B.C.), the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (B.C.), the Mackenzie Art Gallery (Regina, Saskatchewan), the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Gallery of Alberta (Edmonton), the Robert McLaughlin Gallery (Oshawa, Ontario), the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, the Nickle Arts Museum (Calgary), Agnes Etherington Art Centre (Kingston, Ontario), the Ottawa Art Gallery (Ontario), the Quebec Museum of Fine Arts (Quebec City), the Confederation Centre Art Gallery & Museum (Charlottetown, P.E.I.), the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto), the Glenbow Museum (Calgary, Alberta), the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies (Banff, Alberta) and the National Gallery of Canada. His works are also in Tate Modern, London, England and, thanks to a donation by Lucy Carrington Wertheim, 3 Maxwell Bates works are in the Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand. (11)

For examples of Bates’ writing there are the books: A Wilderness of Days. An Artist's Experiences as a Prisoner of War in Germany (1978); and Far Away Flags [poetry] (1964). There are also the magazine articles: “Maxwell Bates Poetry”, Canadian Poetry Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 4. Toronto, June, 1948; "The Flight from Meaning in Painting", Canadian Art II (Winter 1954); "Some Reflections on Art in Alberta", Canadian Art, 13, (Autumn 1955); "Jock Macdonald, Painter-Explorer", Canadian Art 14 (Summer 1957); and “Letter to the Editor", Canadian Art 15 (January 1958). (12)

Among his numerous honors and awards is one of Canada’s highest, appointment as a Member of the Order of Canada (CM) in 1980.  He also received the Centennial Medal in 1967 and an honorary doctorate from the University of Calgary (LL.D) in 1971. (13)

As an important Canadian artist his work is illustrated and discussed in most recent books about Canadian art history and Canadian modern art.  There is also the biography by Kathleen M. Snow Maxwell Bates: Biography of An Artist (1993) and several monographs and exhibition catalogues such as Maxwell Bates (1966), by Colin Graham; Maxwell Bates in Retrospect, 1921 – 1971 (1973), by Maxwell Bates and Terry Guernsey; Maxwell Bates: Landscapes 1948 – 1978 (1982) by Nancy Townshend; Maxwell Bates – A Retrospective (1982), by Ian M. Thom; The Architecture of Maxwell Bates (1992), by Cammie McAtee; and Maxwell Bates: Canada's Premier Expressionist of the 20th Century: His Art, Life and Prisoner of War Notebook (2005), by Nancy Townshend (see all in AskART book references).


(1) A massive stroke in November 1961 paralyzed the left side of his body and forced Bates to give up his architectural practice in Calgary.  He continued painting until his death.

(2) Source for residences: Maxwell Bates: Biography of An Artist (1993), by Kathleen M. Snow (see AskART book references).  Note: During World War II, Bates served in the British Army from 1939 to 1945.  In 1940, he was taken prisoner about 80 miles south of Dunkirk in St. Valery, France, and spent the rest of the war as a POW working in the salt mines near Bad Sulza.  Source: Ibid.

(3) “Although Bates made prints in the late 20s, it was in 1953 that he discovered lithography along with John Snow.  The two artists came across a press and some stones that were being discarded by a commercial press, and set out to teach themselves lithography.  Bates completed numerous prints until he suffered a stroke in 1961.  In 1962 he moved to Victoria where he died in 1980.”  Source: Glenbow Museum

(4) Source: Museum illustrations and descriptions of mediums in the Canadian Heritage Information Network* data base; and at Maxwell Bates.Net a site created by the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria for the Virtual Museum of Canada

(5) All artist teachers, and artist associates mentioned in this biography, except those with bracketed dates after their names, have their own pages in AskART.

(6) Source for education: A Dictionary of Canadian Artists (1974), by Colin S. MacDonald (see AskART book references).

(7) Source for travel: Maxwell Bates: Biography of An Artist (1993), by Kathleen M. Snow (see AskART book references).

(8) Lucy Carrington Wertheim (1883 – 1971) the owner of a private gallery in London that specialized in the work of young artists founded the Twenties Group in 1930.  Its members included Barbara Hepworth, Roger Hilton, Robert Medley, Victor Pasmore, Christopher Wood, Elizabeth Rivers and Norah McGuinness; all aged between twenty and thirty.  On the outbreak of war in September 1939 the Wertheim Gallery closed, and the Twenties Group folded.  Source: Maxwell Bates. Net

(9) Source for associations: A Dictionary of Canadian Artists (1974), by Colin S. MacDonald (see AskART book references).

(10) Sources for all exhibitions: Maxwell Bates: Biography of An Artist (1993), by Kathleen M. Snow; The Collector's Dictionary of Canadian Artists at Auction (2001), by Anthony R. Westbridge and Diana L. Bodnar; A Dictionary of Canadian Artists (1974), by Colin S. MacDonald (see AskART book references); the Art Gallery of Ontario archived catalogues (online); and Maxwell Bates.Net

(11) Sources: Canadian Heritage Information Network; Tate Modern; and Auckland Art Gallery “Lucy Carrington Wertheim gifted 154 works by modern British artists to the Gallery in 1948, through her support of expatriate artist Frances Hodgkins [see AskART].” Source: Ibid.

(12) Source: Art and Architecture in Canada (1991), by Loren R. Lerner and Mary F. Williamson (see AskART book references) and Maxwell Bates. Net

(13) Sources: Governor General of Canada and Maxwell Bates.Net

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

Prepared and contributed by M.D. Silverbrooke.




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