Miller Gore Brittain (1912-1968)


Miller Brittain is widely regarded as one of Canada's greatest artists.

To view a documentary on the artist's life by the National Film Board of Canada, please click here. Additionally, to view a discussion by Tom Smart, who authored the book "Miller Brittain - When the Stars Threw Down their Spears", please click here.

He was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1912. His first instruction in art began at the age of eleven with Miss E.R. Holt. In 1926 he entered the Saint John Vocational School as an art student. From 1930 to 1932 he studied under Harry Wickey at the Art Students League in New York and for a decade after gained recognition as 'the Canadian Bruegel', by depicting scenes of the inhabitants of his hometown during the depression in a social realist style. In 1942 he joined the R.C.A.F. and flew thirty-seven missions as an air bomber before accepting an appointment as official war artist three years later.

The war itself, however, did not inspire him. His art during the war concentrated on depictions of his fellow soldiers rather than on the scenes of battle. However, it was during this period that he became enamoured of the work of two artists who were to have a lasting impression on his art: William Blake and Henry Moore.

In 1946, he was discharged from the air force and returned to Saint John. Perhaps as a reaction to his wartime experiences, he began a series of biblically inspired works in a very expressive style. His daughter, Jennifer, has said "he invested (the) religious archetypal figures with the humanity and individuality of the people he loved …. and the people he loved with their share of the divine." After his wife's death in 1958, he became increasingly reclusive and eccentric and began producing extremely powerful depictions of archetypal attenuated figures in surreal settings, often transgressing the boundaries which separate man from nature. It is this last period of his oeuvre which is considered his mature style, for he achieves a fusion between form and content, capturing a spiritual reconciliation between the individual and his environment. He died of a stroke at the age of fifty-six and was awarded posthumously that same year (1968) the Canada Centennial medal for his contribution to Canadian art.

The National Film Board produced an award-winning film of his life in 1981. Brittain's work is held in private collections and a number of art galleries in Canada including the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian War Museum and retrospectives of his work have appeared in various Canadian galleries including the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and the National Gallery of Canada.