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Born in Westmount, Montreal, the daughter of Edward and Evelyn Henrietta
May, she attended public and private schools in Montreal and Moncton, N.B.
She had an early interest in drawing and began painting landscapes and people
at the age of twelve. At the age of twenty-five she entered the classes of
William Brymner at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1909-1912) where she
received valued instruction and encouragement from him. It was during this
study that she was awarded scholarships for two years to continue at the school.
She was quick to reveal her feeling of gratitude towards Brymner throughout her
After completing her course in Montreal she went abroad to study in France with
a fellow student, Emily Coonan. In Paris they spent their time sketching and
visiting numerous exhibitions and museums. From there they travelled with
several other artists to Northern France, Belgium and Holland. Later she visited
London, Edinburgh and Glasgow. From her sojourn in Europe she came under
the spell of the Impressionists, particularly the work of Monet, Renoir and
She found an abundance of subject matter in the streets of Montreal, the banks
of the St. Lawrence River and the rolling hills of the Laurentians. In 1916 she
was elected an Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy and in 1918 painted
several canvases for the Canadian War Memorials of women making shells.
By 1920 there was a thriving community of women artists in Montreal all of
whom had studied under William Brymner. They banded together to share studio
space on Beaver Hall Hill. There were two men artists with them, Randolph
Hewton and Edwin Holgate. The foursome of May, Hewton, Holgate and Newton
discovered the building where they were to work under the name of the Beaver
Hall Hill Group. Later they disbanded for lack of funds. Mabel May painted with
A.Y. Jackson, Mr. and Mrs. Newton, Edwin Holgate and the Gagnons at Baie
St.Paul during the winter of 1924.
By 1925 her canvases began to reveal the influence of the Group of Seven as
in "Melting Snow". In 1933 she became a founding member of the Canadian
Group of Painters. She continued to make trips in Quebec until her appointment
as supervisor of children's classes at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, in
1938. Her excellent teaching methods filled her students with great enthusiasm
and some became outstanding Canadian artists.
In 1947 she returned to Montreal and for the next three years was active there.
In 1950 she decided to retire to Vancouver and held a retrospective show and
sale of one hundred of her paintings at the Dominion Gallery. She died in 1971
at the age of eighty-seven.
Source: MacDonald, Colin S. A Dictionary of Canadian Artists. Ottawa:
Canadian Paperbacks, 1967.
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