Reta Summers Cowley


108 pages
Contains Photos
ISBN 1-55238-183-8
DDC 759.11




Reviewed by Kathy E. Zimon

Kathy E. Zimon is a fine arts librarian (emerita) at the University of
Calgary. She is the author of Alberta Society of Artists: The First 70
Years and co-editor of Art Documentation Bulletin of the Art Libraries
Society of North America.


Reta Cowley (1910–2004), an artist who worked primarily in
watercolour, was the recipient of the Saskatchewan Arts Board’s
Lifetime Award for Excellence in the Arts and the Saskatchewan Order of
Merit in 1990. According to author Terry Fenton, she was “the best
Canadian watercolour painter since David Milne,” yet she is relatively
unknown beyond the prairie provinces where her lyrical landscapes are
sought after by discerning collectors.

Although focused on the development of Cowley’s art, the text
provides enough biographical detail for context; the “Dirty
Thirties” in southwestern Saskatchewan, a time and place that limited
her options and shaped her values. Cowley chose one of the few
occupations available to young women at the time, and taught in
impoverished rural schools. She was in her late 20s when she received
her first art training at Emma Lake, but it was summers at the Banff
School of Fine Arts and instructor Walter J. Phillips who influenced her
the most. Phillips, trained in the British watercolour tradition,
recognized her talent for the medium and encouraged her to concentrate
on “exhibition size” works painted outdoors. A chance remark by
Kenneth Noland at an Emma Lake workshop, that “close values,” or the
restriction of darks and lights, enhance unity in a painting, also made
a lasting impression on her. Settling in Saskatoon with her husband
after the war, they made day trips by automobile to find suitable
landscapes to paint. Thus her natural affinity for the watercolour
medium was nurtured by training, circumstances, and proximity to her
preferred subject matter, the aspen parkland north of Saskatoon. Her
later work incorporates close values and loose, patchy brush strokes
that result in airy, almost abstract impressions of landscapes that
shimmer in the prairie light.

Number 5 in the Art and Profile series on Canadian artists and
architects, this book is liberally illustrated in colour, and like the
others, reflects the character of its subject. Designer Mieka West’s
cover and horizontal format provide a most appropriate showcase for
Cowley’s subtle but evocative paintings.


Fenton, Terry., “Reta Summers Cowley,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 21, 2024,