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Miller Brittain Mural
Miller Brittain, Mural Cartoons for the Tuberculosis Hospital in Saint John (1941-1942),
Collection of the New Brunswick Museum.
Miller Brittain at work on mural cartoon, May 1942 (photograph from the collection of the New Brunswick Museum
Miller Brittain (1912-1968) was born and raised in
Saint John New Brunswick. His father was proprietor of a successful wholesale business until the early 1930s when the family’s finances were constrained by the general economic collapse. At eleven or twelve years of age, Brittain established a reputation as a child prodigy at Elizabeth Holt’s art school in Saint John. In 1930 Brittain began attending classes at the Arts Students’ League in New York. Two years later, when Brittain’s family could no longer afford to support him in New York, he returned to Saint John where, outside of the years of his service in the Air Force, he lived for the rest of his life.
Brittain first began to attract attention in the Canadian art world for his drawings, several of which were published in the national magazine,
He began painting seriously in 1938, and completed his first mural in 1941 for the Physical Education building at the University of New Brunswick
The Mexican mural movement – with famous practitioners such as Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco – inspired many artists in
North America to seek mural commissions. In the United States, the New Deal Administration of F. D. Roosevelt was responsible for commissioning hundreds of murals in public buildings between 1933 and 1941. In Canada, generally, mural commissions were much rarer. In New Brunswick, however, artists were very active in promoting muralism. At the Vocational School in Saint John (where Brittain taught part time), mural design and execution was part of the art department’s curriculum. In Woodstock, Pegi Nicol MacLeod executed a huge mural for the Fisher Vocational School in exchange for homespun material woven by the school’s students.
When Brittain accepted the commission to prepare a mural for the Tuberculosis Hospital in Saint John, the city was at the tail end of a decade long Depression. In 1931, 37 per cent of the city’s labour force had been unemployed or underemployed.[ii] In February of that year, three soup kitchens had opened in the city. Circumstances were still dire in 1939 when a Family Welfare Association survey revealed that amongst the city’s less fortunate citizens there was “plain evidence of slow starvation among many adults and little children.” Many families were in quarters “unfit for human habitation” suffering from “cold, lack of clothing, bedding and cooking utensils.”[iii] Even with the economic boost provided by the war effort there were still more than 1000
Saint John families on relief in 1942.
Dr. R.J. Collins, who commissioned Brittain to paint the mural, believed there was a connection between poverty and the prevalence of Tuberculosis. In a 1933 speech to the commissioners of the Tuberculosis hospital, Collins argued that economic conditions in
Saint John posed a major public health risk: "Never before has there been greater need for the care of tuberculosis patients than at the present time. The main reason is that more and more patients are incapable of paying their own way….With the widespread lowering of our living values, and especially that of food, there is present greater danger for breakdowns." When Brittain set out to illustrate the causes, treatment, and hoped-for cure of tuberculosis, he was clearly influenced by Collins idea that social conditions, what Collins called “living values” were the root cause of the disease.
Miller Brittains mural cartoons are, paradoxically, some of the most publicized works of art by a 20th-century New Brunswicker, and simultaneously works that have been neglected, ignored, and about which many questions remain unanswered. At the moment of their creation, the cartoons were celebrated by the artist's peers and by critics. In 1942, however, Brittain's patron, the
Tuberculosis Hospital, cancelled the project and so the intended mural was never realized. The surviving cartoons spent most of the next twenty years in obscurity. One appeared at a retrospective of the artist’s work in 1949, but it then rejoined the others in the vault of the New Brunswick museum where they were forgotten and presumed lost until 1965. Upon their reemergence they were photographed and publicized as a major artistic achievement in Canada
’s national art magazine,
. They have since been discussed at length in several books and theses, including a recent biography of Brittain by Tom Smart.
No conclusive evidence has been discovered to explain the cancellation of the Tuberculosis Hospital mural, but three explanations have been offered: 1) the hospital could not afford to pay Brittain to complete the work, 2) the board of the hospital objected to the content of Brittain’s cartoons and responded by cancelling the project, 3) Brittain’s war service interrupted the project and it was not resumed after his return.
These suggestions are not mutually exclusive and the chronology of events suggests that all three may contain an element of truth. In a letter to friends in February 1942, Brittain reveals that the hospital had not paid him for his work on the mural since October 1941, the month after Dr. Collins had informed the hospital board that Brittain had undertaken the mural project. Two months later, in December 1941, Collins had Brittain pause work on the mural to do more research into its “historical aspects.” In May of 1942, Brittain was evidently still at work on the cartoons when he performed in the “Art in Action” show at the Fredericton Normal School. The proximity of this date to the beginning of his training with the RCAF, in August 1942, lends credence to the claim that war service interrupted the commission. Yet, there seems to have been no payment forthcoming from the hospital for Brittain’s continued work on the mural in the spring and summer of 1942. Saint John Vocational School teacher and artist Ted Campbell recalled organizing an anonymous payment, with donations from himself, Dr. Collins, and others to compensate Brittain for the work he had done. Given the very low fees that Brittain charged, is it reasonable to believe that the Hospital Board cancelled the project for financial reasons alone? If it was simply a matter of money, surely a smaller scale mural or a longer timeline for completion of the project could have been negotiated. Campbell recalled that when Dr. Collins, on behalf of the Hospital Board, informed Brittain that the project was canceled, the Board had very recently approved spending thousands of dollars on refurnishing an apartment for “a matron”: “This galled Miller. [It] hurt Miller more than anything else. It was a terrible blow to him. He never really got over it.”
It is not difficult to imagine why the Hospital Board found Brittain’s designs unpalatable. The unambiguous social critique of the cartoons was unparalleled in New Brunswick art and in Canadian muralism.
There is tenuous evidence indicating how Brittain intended to spatially arrange his cartoons when he realized them as a mural. Recently, photographs of some of Brittain’s smaller, preparatory drawings were discovered in the collection of the
New Brunswick Museum. While these photographs do not show how Brittain intended to incorporate all of his cartoons into his mural, they do prove that they were not to have been realized in the order which they were reproduced in
It is also evident that several of the large cartoons are not complete and some, based on the evidence of the smaller drawings, were either destroyed or never realized as full-size cartoons.
Were the murals to occupy two corridors, as Dr. R. J. Collins, medical director of the hospital, had originally proposed to Brittain in January of 1939?
Would they have been painted on one or both walls of these corridors? Ultimately, without access to more of Brittain’s preparatory work, reading the mural’s intended narrative is fundamentally hypothetical.
Clearly, the cartoons depict the social causes and medical treatment of tuberculosis with concluding scenes showing the amelioration of social problems.
Brittain depicts poverty as a cause of disease in his cartoons. Four of the eleven cartoons show impoverished people, with particular attention paid to poor children. One shows a cross-section of a tiny apartment in a row of buildings that look to have been modelled after
Saint John architecture. Outside the window of the apartment a woman hangs clothes on a line while inside, a family huddles in a corner, their clothes in tatters, showing signs of malnourishment and illness. On the other side of a thin wall, a young man wearing glasses studies at a desk in the cramped space under a staircase. This man represents the impoverished intellectual, whose material circumstances prevent him from realizing his talents and contributing to society. At least, this is the representation that is suggested by the young man’s reappearance in Brittain’s “solution” cartoon.
In the “solution” cartoon, the bespectacled young man wears a suit and a fedora. He is part of a team discussing a plan to transform the slum on the right side of the cartoon into the scene of domestic happiness on the left. In one of the recently discovered photographs of Brittain’s preparatory drawings, the document held by the figure leading the team is labeled “PLAN FOR IMPROVED HOUSING.” Brittain’s depiction of the impoverished figures on the right side of this cartoon makes the sign reading “
SLUM STREET LUNCH” over their heads redundant. Those closest to the “team” of social planners are the most innocent of the slum dwellers, especially the mother carrying her infant who is taking a step in their direction (Brittain cues this reading by using the rounded shoulders of a man behind her to form a halo around her head). Moving right, away from the team we see examples of slum vice: a man drinks straight from a bottle beside a woman whose clothing suggests she may be a prostitute.
Other cartoons also depict forms of social vice – excessive drinking at a cocktail party, exhausted (exploited?) labourers on a construction site, and neglected children on a street outside a billiard hall.
Four cartoons show doctors, nurses, and patients engaged in the treatment of Tuberculosis.
Finally, one cartoon shows many of the characters from other cartoons (the impoverished family, the man with glasses, a doctor, and a labourer) moving into the foreground of the cartoon, looking healthy and happy.
This, presumably, is a depiction of a healthy society.
Miller Brittain: When the Stars Threw Down Their Spears
. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2007.
Kirk Niergarth, "Art and Democracy: New Brunswick Artists and Canadian Culture between the Depression and the Cold War." PhD Dissertation, University of New Brunswick, 2007.
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