Daphne Odjig ~ Distinguished Canadian Artist

map of Ontario, showing the location of Manitoulin Island

Today, I want to take you back in time to the early decades of the 20th century in  Canada. Canada had been a state for just over 50 years. It was still basically an agrarian society, concerned with farming and the extractive industries like fishing, trapping, mining and logging. The west was only just being opened up to settlement, and the country had recently participated in the Great War (1914-1918) which speeded the progress of the country’s maturation and awareness of itself on an international stage.

the family home - a dairy farm near Wikwemikong owned by Daphne Odjig's family

In the context of art, Canada was just emerging as a power in its own right rather than imitating the old European classical standards. The Group of Seven had begun attracting some notice from their base in Toronto and would soon become movers and shakers in Canadian art, but for the most part, in the rest of Canada, Canadian scenes and people were still being painted from a European sensibility. Emily Carr’s work was a major exception to this rule.


Cut to the mid-northern Ontario area of Manitoulin Island – this island had seen early settlement in the mid 1600’s as it was a way point on the route northwest into Lake Superior and saw the annual coureur de bois fleets going upcountry in their huge freight canoes to supply trading posts and coming back down carrying furs for Montreal. The land was at that time settled by the  Anishnewabe people,  who after 1650 were defeated in the struggle for control of the Manitoulin trade centre by the Iroquois and left the area – this was the same inter-ethnic struggle (fueled by English and French aspirations for a Canadian empire) that had resulted in the destruction of Ste Marie among the Hurons (and the martyrdom of the Jesuits led by Jean de Brebouef) on the north shore of neighbouring Georgian Bay.

For about a century and a half the area was devoid of settlement until after the War of 1812, when Potawatami, Odawa and other Obijwe peoples began to drift back to the island. These people had a long history of living settled agrarian lives close to European-settled areas  and did so here too.

In the early 1900’s, life on Manitoulin Island was little different from life in any of the other back settlements of the mid ontario area – these settlements relied on subsistence farming, logging, trapping and trading and were usually small and rather primitive, whatever the settlers’ ethnic origins were. The settlements closest to a railway line or a navigible body of water such as Lake Huron/Georgian Bay were somewhat better off in that if they could produce an excess of goods above their needs, they could ship out to markets that could provide cash returns to them.

The Odjig family, who could trace their descent back to several well-regarded chiefs; lived on and worked a relatively prosperous dairy farm near Wikwemikong – which is the “unceded” reserve on the eastern end of the island.

One of the sons went off to the Great War as did so many young Canadian men and like so many others, he brought back home with him a young English bride at the close of the war.


They settled into the multigenerational household of the paternal grandfather Jonas and there their four children grew up – Daphne among them. There was singular pride in the accomplishments of the family and their tribal group and Daphne was mentored in sketching and drawing by a grandfather who steeped her in tribal legends and encouraged her creativity. Both parents were also talented and influenced and encouraged their daughter.

At the age of 18, both her mother and her grandfather passed away and Daphne left home for Parry Sound a nearby community on the mainland.

Daphne soon moved to the Toronto area where she met and married her first husband and followed him out west for wartime postings and raised their two sons to school age before embarking on her art career – one of the trade-offs of the time for women wishing to work outside the home, or develop in areas other than homemaking.

Rather than going through her sucesses here I am going to suggest you explore some websites that deal with Ms. Odjig’s successes and career milestones to get a far fuller picture of the breadth of her skills and inspiration than I can give in the confines of a short post.

this book is a fine introduction to Odjig's work and is available through the Canadian War Museum's online store

Enough to say that her technique and subject matter reflect the much wider world experience of art developing during the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s which influenced the basic foundation of her experiences as a Canadian of First Nations descent.



http://daphneodjig.com/copyright.html    this site gives a great number of images covering the artist’s long and diverse career



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