Roadster and Cow c.1960s
This image of a couple in a convertible stopped by a cow in the middle of the road is unique among Maud Lewis’s work. It shows a contemporary scene, which is relatively rare amongst her paintings, but more importantly it gives an insight into her process. That Lewis drew from media sources for some of her work had been informed supposition until Jeffrey Spalding (1951–2019), a former director of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, noted the similarity of this piece to the cover of an issue of Maclean’s magazine. In the illustration by Oscar Cahén (1916–1956), a well-dressed couple in a convertible on a country road are stopped short by a large cow. Cahén was a member of the Toronto abstract art group Painters Eleven, but he was also one of Canada’s leading illustrators. As Spalding wrote, “Cahén’s Maclean’s cover illustration of April 14, 1956, was the evident inspiration for a key work by Maud Lewis. We know of two versions, there are likely more.” With this painting we can clearly see how Lewis used popular imagery as source material.
It is not known where Lewis saw this illustration: she may have encountered it in a doctor’s waiting room, or perhaps it was brought to her by a neighbour. The subject may even have been a special request, as this theme is not one that she returned to repeatedly as with other subjects. That she used the work of other artists for source material should not be surprising. She was not alone, of course, in being influenced by popular images from magazines and advertising. These sources were also important for other artists in the Maritimes, such as Mary Pratt (1935–2018), who credited illustrated magazines with providing her with her first sense of what drawing and painting could be.
Lewis took inspiration where she found it, translating what she saw into her own distinctive style. She was isolated, indeed, but she was not cut off entirely from the modern world. In her version of the scene she has added distinctive touches familiar from her work: a red-roofed white church, flowers lining the road, and red and ochre buildings.
Roadster and Cow is one of the only instances where the source for one of Lewis’s images is known. As with so many of her images, its eventual owners added their own interpretations. In The Illuminated Life of Maud Lewis, the other version of this painting is identified as depicting the original owner’s son.