Miller Brittain: When the Stars Threw Down Their Spears.


180 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 978-0-86492-483-4
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.


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In the popular imagination, Canadian painting is almost synonymous with landscape and the Group of Seven—an association that places the mid-20th-century figurative art of Miller Brittain, with its focus on the human condition, socialist overtones, and religious themes, largely outside the mainstream of Canadian art.


Miller Brittain (1912–1968) was born and lived in Saint John, New Brunswick, at a time when the arts were an important aspect of the cultural life of the city. He began his art education with a respected local teacher, and in 1930 moved to New York to study at the famed Art Students League. He arrived there as the conflict between the proponents of academic art and abstraction escalated. During the two years he studied at the league, that conflict was largely resolved in favour of abstraction, but the traditional training he received in drawing and principles of pictorial composition from well-known teachers like Harry Wickey (a minor New York artist but a superb draughtsman) would provide a solid foundation for his development as an artist after his return to Saint John. But his experiences as a war artist, his enlistment in the RCAF, and the poetry of William Blake (which he carried on bombing missions) affected him profoundly. After the war, his spiritual beliefs and a personal tragedy found expression in his work as figurative abstraction with surrealist influences.


This book accompanied an exhibition by the same name at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton. Author/curator Tom Smart explores Brittain’s complex themes chronologically under such headings as “Satire and Irony,” “Art from Life,” “Art for Social Change,” “Brittain at War,” “Ecstasy and Hysteria,” “Experience of Everyman,” and “Channeling.” Finally, professor of English Allen Bentley reinterprets the iconography of Brittain’s postwar work in light of his expert knowledge of Blake’s art and poetry.


The text includes an exhibition history, a catalogue of works in the exhibition, notes, and an index. This beautifully produced and heavily illustrated book is a major contribution to the literature on Brittain and should be in all Canadian art collections.


Smart, Tom., “Miller Brittain: When the Stars Threw Down Their Spears.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 13, 2024,