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Two Women - Two Perspectives - Part 1


Aileen Cherry - History of a Belleville Artist

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Aileen Cherry was a Belleville native who painted throughout her lifetime, yet whose talent was only discovered years after her death.

She started her art career at a young age. She studied and painted alongside Canadian painting icons, exhibited her work in national group shows, travelled internationally to paint and while she died much too young at the age of 62, we can say that she dedicated her life to her craft. 

Even though she didn’t often sell her work, we know that she declared herself an artist1.  It is remarkable then, that the first exhibition dedicated to Aileen Cherry's artwork occurred twenty years after her death.

Aileen Cherry was a Belleville native who painted throughout her lifetime, yet whose talent was only discovered years after her death.

She started her art career at a young age. She studied and painted alongside Canadian painting icons, exhibited her work in national group shows, travelled internationally to paint and while she died much too young at the age of 62, we can say that she dedicated her life to her craft. 

Even though she didn’t often sell her work, we know that she declared herself an artist1.  It is remarkable then, that the first exhibition dedicated to Aileen Cherry's artwork occurred twenty years after her death.

Around 1977 Elaine Cherry Benton, Aileen's niece, discovered a collection of paintings hidden away in a family attic. She contacted the art collector Linda Durham, who owned a gallery in Santa Fe where Elaine lived.

Durham was appropriately impressed with the body of work that she had been presented. She recognized that Aileen Cherry, "had a solid grasp of the Impressionists' technique and took her paintings beyond the simple reproduction of Nature.  She depicted, with deftness and sensitivity, both the stillness and the motion of the landscape."2  

Aileen Cherry, who had studied under Group of Seven artist Arthur Lismer, would have been fully immersed into that group's painting style and practices, and this is reflected in her painting.

It is possible that Linda Durham had already been interested in this famous Canadian art group previous to seeing Cherry’s body of work. She would most probably have been familiar with another group member Lawren Harris, who had lived and painted in Santa Fe for several years.

In 1978 Linda Durham presented this newly discovered collection of paintings at the Hazelton Lanes Art Gallery in Toronto. "Aileen Cherry Ontario Landscapes" would have been the first time that Cherry’s work had been available to view (and purchase) in an exhibition dedicated to her work. 

The following year Durham exhibited Cherry's work in her gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico in a show called "Aileen Cherry and the Transcendental Group of Painters". Although we know that Aileen travelled to New Mexico in 1924 to paint, the only connection she may have had with this specific group of abstract artists would have been Lawren Harris.

Lawren Harris was a founding member of both the Group of Seven (1920-1933) and The Transcendental Group of Painters (1938-1941).

Lawren Harris, "Abstraction", oil on canvas, 1939. From the National Gallery of Canada Collection.

Several exhibitions followed in her home town of Belleville. 

In 1981 her artwork was featured at the Hastings County Museum which included examples of work that spanned her entire painting career in a show called “A Retrospective Loan Exhibition.” 

Later that year The Corby Library Art Gallery featured a show called, “Aileen Cherry 1895-1958: A Quinte Artist in Retrospect.”

At that time it was said that 350 oils and 150 watercolors by Aileen Cherry were known to exist.3

Around the time of these exhibitions, Elaine Benton began the difficult task of writing a biography on her Aunt.

As prolific an artist Aileen Cherry may have been, her artistic life and career remained a secret that proved difficult to unravel.

However far Benton got into her research, no biography was ever published.

The artwork of Aileen Cherry was finally in the public realm however, and we have been able to enjoy it ever since!

In 1996 and then again in 1999 the Belleville Library Gallery exhibited the work of Aileen Cherry. 

Both shows were accompanied by newspaper articles that offered personal accounts by Belleville locals who either knew her as a friend and neighbor, or they remembered seeing her (with her easel) painting by the side of the road, or in a field somewhere.

These recollections can't help but echo sentiments that have often described her contemporary, artist Manly MacDonald.

Aileen Alma Cherry was born on September 4, 1895 to Clara Louise (Ostrom) and her husband Edwin Thomas Cherry.

Her parents, who married in 1894, were both born in Hastings County to immigrant parents, claiming Irish and German origins.

Her father had already established his printing company "Cherry Printing" in Belleville before he married and started a family.

Advertisement found in the 1913-14 St. Agnes School for Girls Yearbook 

Aileen had two brothers: Clarwin Clifton who was born on September 28, 1898 and Edwin Arnold born exactly two years later (to the day). By 1901 the Cherry family was living in their home on Highland Avenue (then called Commercial Street).

Not only is this house a grand residence, indicating that the Cherry's were financially well off, the 1901 Census shows that the family had a live-in servant at that time. 

It has been written that Aileen Cherry was a recluse who lived alone (with her cats) however she in fact lived in this home with her parents her entire life. Her Father died in 1955 and her mother died after Aileen, in 1961.

According to her Aunt, Aileen had decided at a young age to be an artist.4 

We know that she attended St. Agnes School for Girls on the corner of Ann and Bridge Streets in Belleville, and this would have been where she received her first formal art training.

The below image is from a 1903 booklet published the year the school opened. We can see that the art teacher at that time, Emma Weir Armstrong was well educated and fully qualified to teach her subject.5

In the 1913-14 Year Book from St. Agnes School, we get a glimpse into how important attending this school may have been to Aileen.  Principal Fanny Carroll writes:

"The School has become well and favorably known, many of our girls have distinguished themselves in Music, Art or Literature, some of them are University Graduates, some of them are married, and others are filling responsible positions.”6

It is significant that higher education was both encouraged and celebrated at this school for girls.

In this same publication - which would have closely coincided with Aileen's time at the school - we learn that visitors that year included the Duke & Duchess of Connaught and their daughter Princess Patricia. The Duke, aka Prince Arthur, was the third son of Queen Victoria, and had been appointed Governor General of Canada in 1911. 

Also, it mentions that Sir Gilbert Parker had visited and spoken with the students. It adds, "Having known the building as a private residence, he wished to see it as a school.”7

The students listed in this booklet comprise a virtual “Who’s Who” of well to do families from the Quinte area and further abroad. 

After leaving St. Agnes School, Aileen Cherry studied painting through a correspondence course at the Minneapolis School of Art.

This timing would have coincided with the First World War, when according to one article, her fiancé died overseas. It says, “after her first love died she determined never to marry but to devote herself to painting.”8

One can’t help but wonder if this isn’t a romanticized version of reality, as well as a simplified way to explain why a woman would choose a career over marriage.

Whatever her reasoning, we know that she chose to study painting.

Aileen Cherry enrolled at the Ontario College of Art in 1920, studying under Lismer among other well established artists and teachers.

We also know that she took summer classes where she learned to paint “en plein air”, and her love of Ontario lakes and countryside was established.

There has been a tendency to characterize Cherry as a recluse and an eccentric who hid her paintings away rather than share them with the public.

She didn't marry and didn’t often sell her work, but those who knew her described her as a friendly, happy person.

Perhaps she painted because she loved to paint and didn't need to sell her artwork, so she didn't. We don't know her reasoning, and we can't ask her now!

After graduating from OCA in 1924, Aileen Cherry went on a painting trip to California and New Mexico. 

Her paintings were accepted into Group Exhibitions at the National Gallery in Ottawa, The Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal and at the Art Gallery of Toronto, as well as in New York.

Aileen also travelled to Europe to paint in 1954. Her diary from that time has been quoted several times: She wrote, “How few rivers I have seen since leaving Canada….The formalized style of landscape (here) has little appeal for me.”9

We do know that Aileen Cherry lived in a large, lovely home with her parents throughout her lifetime. This allowed her to pursue a career as an artist without having to worry about paying rent, or food or raising children for that matter. She could afford to paint without having to sell her work.

In 1978, Marilyn Linton wrote about her in an article saying, “Cherry was a lady who never played the game…Not part of any art community, not applauded by students nor promoted by patrons, hers was a private and overlooked career.”10

Aileen Cherry died of a heart attack on Wednesday August 27th, 1958.

Friends and neighbours had commented on the fact they had seen her walking downtown and shopping earlier that same day.11 

She was well known, and highly regarded however it would take several decades until her artwork would receive the same recognition.

She is buried beside her parents in Belleville Cemetery.

 

 

We look forward to hosting the show "Two Women - Two Perspectives" Paintings by Aileen Cherry and Philippa Faulkner at the Parrott Gallery later in 2021.

In the meantime, we’d like to acknowledge and thank David Bentley for allowing us to use his Aileen Cherry painting images, and to Trish Clarke for her permission to use the image of The Cherry Home.

For notes and bibliography click HERE