Hortense Gordon

Abstract Acceleration: Modern art was born in Hamilton.

From a young age, Hortense Gordon (1887-1961) threw herself into her passion for painting. First exhibiting as a teen with the Ontario Society of Artists, Gordon’s success continued as she became the first known female artist to teach and paint Abstract Expressionism in Canada.

Hortense Gordon with her works, c. late 1950s.
Hortense Gordon. "Village in Jersey or The Mill Settlement, Burks Falls". ND. Oil on canvas. 19 x 24 in. Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hamilton.

Gordon became a teacher at the Hamilton Technical Institute, where she taught for over 35 years. During her time there, Gordon created a ceramics course and emphasized the importance of art in the workplace and society. In 1924, Gordon wrote an article for the Hamilton Spectator, “Design and Applied Art Essential to Industry,” an opinion piece indicative of her commitment to always going above and beyond her duties as a teacher. In the precarious times of the Depression, she was dedicated to teaching skills that would help students find employment, even going so far as to contact local businesses to advocate for their hireability.

Yearly trips to US cities such as Detroit, New York and Washington, DC in her early years exposed her to abstract contemporary artworks that were not commonly seen in Canada at the time. In 1922, Gordon and her husband, traditionalist artist John Gordon, travelled extensively in Europe to study modernist art movements more closely. Although John was “almost fanatically opposed to the new modern movement” (Climbing the Cold White Peaks, 127), Gordon leaned in fiercely. She recounts about her art practice, “when I got to Paris, I found I had been on the right track but hadn’t gone far enough” (Climbing the Cold White Peaks, 127).

Hortense Gordon. "Abstract Forms, Studio Interior". ND. Oil on canvas. 40 1/16 x 30 1/8 in. Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hamilton.

Formerly a landscape painter, she became enchanted by modernist movements blossoming in major cities such as Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism and Bauhaus. Frequent visitors to galleries and museums in Europe, “her and her husband would ask the gallery attendant for chairs and would then sit for hours contemplating and studying the Rembrandts, Renoirs and Cezannes” (Climbing the Cold White Peaks, 127). Her approach to art shifted after several more trips to Europe over the next decade, dabbling in Impressionist styles, and by the 1930s she began to paint with explicit Cubist and Abstract Expressionist influences.

The Canadian art world had traditionally leaned far more conservative, and Gordon’s adoption of modernist styles was not immediately understood in her home country. She began to connect with like-minded artists, such as her former student Ray Mead at the Art Gallery of Hamilton who brought her to the first Painters Eleven meeting in 1953. Now almost 70 years old, Gordon was ignited like never before. Recently retired, she had more time to pursue volunteer activism as well as spend more time on her artwork. During her time with the Painters Eleven, her output greatly accelerated and took on new shapes and forms.

The Painters Eleven consisted of a diverse range of abstract artists working and living in Ontario from 1953-1960. Gordon and Alexandra Luke were the only women artists of the group, with Gordon being the oldest member.

Painters Eleven at the Park Gallery, from left to right: Tom Hodgson, Alexandra Luke, Harold Town, Kazuo Nakamura, Jock Macdonald, Walter Yarwood, Hortense Gordon, Jack Bush, and Ray Mead. Absent are William Ronald and Oscar Cahén. c. 1957. Photo by Peter Croydon | © Lynda M. Shearer

Gordon also studied with Hans Hofmann, the renowned abstract expressionist and art teacher, at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Detroit. Hoffman was a leader in the avant garde and built off of the ideas expressed by Cezanne, such as working within the two-dimensional space of the canvas to create depth. The influence of Cezanne and Hofmann can be seen in Gordon’s Nude (1940) and Untitled (c.1952), which demonstrate her transitions between figurative and abstraction. Hofmann’s “push/pull” spatial theories explore how colour, form and texture create contrast and depth on flatness. Cezanne’s methods of emphasizing the dimensions of the canvas by moving his perspective throughout his painting process appear to have influence over these two works.

Hortense Gordon. "Nude". 1940. Oil on board. 19 x 24 in. Courtesy of Earls Court Gallery.
Hortense Gordon. "Untitled". c.1952. Oil on board. 19 3/4 x 15 3/4 in.

Although she had international experience and ambition, Gordon was dedicated to Hamilton and became actively involved in every arts organization in the city during the 1940s and 1950s, including the Women’s Art Association of Hamilton, the Contemporary Artists of Hamilton and the Art Club of Hamilton. Her strong, bold personality and unwavering dedication to uplifting the arts stirred up divisive opinions. Mid-century Hamilton was conservative in their thinking, as well as in their art practice, and some did not understand Gordon’s commitment to modernity:

“Certainly no one denies that Hortense Gordon was a force in the artistic community. Opinions diverged simply on the question as to whether she was well liked or not. Had Hortense Gordon been a man, opinions would have been less adverse. Men are seldom faulted for displaying and pursuing their ambitions… What she was to generations of students who respected, feared and loved her was, as Elizabeth Holbrook simply phrased it, ‘a matriarch to us all’” (Climbing the Cold White Peaks, 125).

Hortense Gordon. “Abstraction No. 2”. 1948-49. Oil on board. 20 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Canadian Art Group.

Archive of Artist Works:

Credits and further reading

Special thanks to Lynda and John Shearer at the Canadian Art Group.

All About Canadian History: Painters Eleven

Artnet: Hortense Gordon

The Canadian Encyclopedia: Hortense Gordon

Canada’s History: Painters Eleven: Art Shock in Toronto

James Rottman Fine Art: Hortense Gordon

Wikipedia: Hortense Gordon

Painters Eleven: The Wild Ones of Canadian Art by Iris Nowell, 2011.

Climbing the Cold White Peaks by Stuart MacCuaig, 1986.

Women’s Art Association: The First 100 Years by Stuart MacCuaig, 1996.