Janet Mitchell

Canadian [1912-1998]

Alberta Society of Artists, Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour, Royal Canadian Academy of Art

Janet Mitchell was born in Medicine Hat, Alberta, and was adopted as a baby by John and Janet Mitchell, a couple who had recently arrived in Calgary from Glasgow, Scotland. Theirs was a very proper, Presbyterian home in the then working-class neighbourhood of Sunnyside. Janet Sr. was a doting mother, though sadly died when Janet was only 9 years old. Since the family had modest means, the now single father worked nights and slept during the days, so young Janet was afforded more freedom than most girls her age. This situation likely fostered an early sense of independence and self-sufficiency that prevailed throughout the artist’s life. 

John was traditional and pragmatic in his views of the world, so arts and culture were not a part of Janet Mitchell’s life during her earlier years, though she did receive some art instruction in school, by Reginald Llewelyn (Reg) Harvey, who was then a mobile art instructor working in the public school system. Janet Mitchell later recalled fond memories of these years with her father, of taking walks, and watching parades and bands together – scenes that are notable in the artist’s later works.

Janet’s life changed at age 12, when John took another partner (housekeeper Rose), whom he later married. Rose’s harshness toward her new stepdaughter, and belief that girls should not be educated, led to Janet leaving school after the completion of Grade 9, then leaving home at age 14 to take on work as a caregiver and housekeeper for room and board. Janet, who had been a good student, eventually convinced her father to allow her to attend business school, where she learned bookkeeping, shorthand and other business skills. Unfortunately, the scarcity of employment during the great depression necessitated her taking on a series of jobs as a caregiver or chambermaid. 

Fortunately, she was able to move back home after Joan died, and her next stepmother, Maude, proved to be kindly and maternal. It was shortly after John and Maude Mitchell married, that Janet was gifted a box of oil paints for her 21st birthday. Her interest in art progressed gradually, until she was sketching every day to and from work, typically scenes of streets, roads, and alleys. Janet began studying with a painting teacher, Ruby Brown, who had trained at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art (the Tech) with A.C. Leighton. During the depression, the budding artist paid 50¢ per lesson and kept this up for several years until Ruby moved away.

In 1939, John died of cancer, placing not only an emotional burden on Janet but a financial one as well. The young woman had to take on the role of breadwinner for the family – and she would go on to support and care for Maude until her death 28 years later. Janet took additional training at Henderson’s Business College and was hired by the Calgary Income Tax Department in 1940. She quickly advanced in ranks, achieving the position of tax assessor when the opportunity arose during the wartime years. 

For decades, Janet Mitchell lived a dual life: working her office job during the day, and sketching/painting during the nights, weekends, and holidays. She became active within the local art community, joining the Calgary Sketch Club, attending the Coste House, and taking night classes at the Tech with H. G. Glyde and later Buck Kerr, with whom she is said to have developed a “grudging friendship” that lasted until his death. Janet developed a close friendship with the Lindoes, after taking a ceramics/sculpting class from Luke Lindoe. Through this friendship, she met Jim and Marion Nicoll (an admired mentor), who would also become life-long friends.

In 1943, Janet Mitchel won a scholarship to the Banff Summer School, where her instructor was Ontario artist George Pepper. Unlike the other students, Janet was not sketching the Rocky Mountain landscape, but would instead be found sketching shops and back alleys. It was in Banff that she sold her first painting to a local photographer, in exchange for a photograph of her and Maude. 

In 1948, her work was included in the “Calgary Group” exhibition, considered to be one of the first modernist painting exhibitions in Alberta. The artist had her first show that same year at Breithaupt Gallery in Toronto. She would go on to have numerous solo and group exhibitions during her long career. In 1949, Janet purchased her own car, and with it followed numerous sketching and road trips, often to favoured locales that were featured in her watercolours over the years.

Janet Mitchell later described two milestones in her development as an artist. Her first artistic awakening came when she attended an art exhibition, hosted as part of the Calgary Stampede, that included works by Emily Carr and the Group of Seven. Her eyes were opened to the possibility of viewing the world in a bold new way. The second formative experience came with her first trip to New York in 1950, where she was exposed to a broader artistic world through the many museums and galleries, a world she had only seen in photos. 

She had a strong personal response to three artists: Vincent Van Gogh, for his brilliant use of colour and contrast, and Marc Chagall and Paul Klee, for the emotive and dreamlike depictions of their inner visions. These experiences were transformative and freeing for the artist, who was additionally influenced by the automatic drawing techniques with which her friend Marion Nicoll had been experimenting in recent years.

Shortly thereafter, Janet Mitchell was afforded the rare opportunity to spend extended periods of time working on her craft, unfortunately, this was as a result of her frail health. A prolonged convalescence at the Lindoe cabin in 1953 followed a bout of rheumatic fever, and a 1956 bout of tuberculosis confined her to a sanitorium for almost a year. Her emergence was almost immediately followed by a one woman show at Robertson Galleries in Ottawa, with additional contributions of work to shows in Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. 

Janet Mitchell began to exhibit regularly and won numerous awards in the years that followed. In 1960, following additional health issues, Janet was able to attend the Emma Lake workshop, and in 1961 she went back to New York then spent time travelling in Eastern Canada. In 1962, having gained enough confidence and success, she finally gave up her job with the Income Tax Department, and for the first time had the freedom to devote herself to her art.

Janet Mitchell’s career spanned six decades, and she remains one of the most important female artists in Alberta’s history. She is beloved for her lively, joyful, and often playful scenes of Calgary streets and Alberta towns. She is most recognized for her full and colourful scenes in which she spontaneously combines figures, animals, buildings, and her distinct calligraphic imagery to create dynamic scenes that test the limits of fantasy and abstraction without abandoning the real world.

Janet Mitchell’s work can be found in numerous private and public collections, with notable works acquired by the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa) and the late Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. She was a member of the Alberta Society of Artists, the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour, and was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy in 1979. 

In 1977, the Glenbow Museum (then the Glenbow Alberta Institute) hosted a major Retrospective and New Works exhibition featuring the artist. In 1985, Janet Mitchell received the 100th Anniversary Highest Honours Award by the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour. In 1988, she was presented an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from the University of Calgary. In 1995, The Muttart Public Art Gallery (Calgary), organized the major touring exhibition “Janet Mitchell Retrospective: A Celebration.”

Literature: Armstrong, P. Janet Mitchell, Life and Art. Winnipeg, MB: Hyperion Press Limited; 1990.

Janet Mitchell photo

A Few Notable Results from Hodgins Art Auctions from Janet Mitchell

Janet Mitchell

THEY ROAM THE STREETS AT WILL; 1978
oil on canvas
30 x 40 in.

Sold for $ 12,075 – November 2009
A record price at auction for Janet Mitchell

Janet Mitchell

LIVELY CITY SCENE
watercolour on paper
20.75 x 29 in.

Sold for $ 6,435 – November 2022

Janet Mitchell

ALL ACTORS; 1968
oil on board
24 x 30 in.

Sold for $ 6,325 – November 2012

Janet Mitchell

JUST ANOTHER ORDINARY DAY; 1992
acrylic on canvas
36 x 40 in.

Sold for $ 6,000 – May 2019

Janet Mitchell

CARNIVAL OF COLOUR
oil on board
22.75 x 31.25 in.

Sold for $ 5,750 – November 2010

Janet Mitchell

BUSTLING CITY; 1972
watercolour on paper
30 x 36 in.

Sold for $ 4,387.50 – November 2021

We are always seeking works by Janet Mitchell to be included in future auctions.

If you are interested in selling with us, or wish to get our opinion of the value of your artworks, please contact us for an appointment to evaluate your artwork for auction.

Alternately, you can easily submit details of your artworks through our Request of Auction Estimates form.

More Extensive Results from our Previous Auctions for Janet Mitchell

720.00
Price Realized: $

Artist: Janet Mitchell

Title: AN AUTUMN DAY

Medium: watercolour on paper

Dimensions: 13.75 x 20.25 in. (34.9 x 51.4)

Notes:

signed lower right

900.00
Estimate:
1,200.00
 - 

LOT: 130

Auction: 2024 June | Hodgins Art Auctions

3,600.00
Price Realized: $

Artist: Janet Mitchell

Title: ALL ACTORS

Date: 1968

Medium: oil on board

Dimensions: 24 x 30 in. (61 x 76.2 cm)

Notes:

signed & dated lower right; titled verso

4,000.00
Estimate:
6,000.00
 - 

LOT: 44

Auction: 2024 June | Hodgins Art Auctions

1,920.00
Price Realized: $

Artist: Janet Mitchell

Title: CELEBRATION

Date: 1981

Medium: watercolour on paper

Dimensions: 21.5 x 29 in. (54.6 x 73.7 cm)

Notes:

signed & dated lower right; titled on the gallery label verso
Provenance: Masters Gallery, Calgary AB

2,000.00
Estimate:
3,000.00
 - 

LOT: 51

Auction: 2024 June | Hodgins Art Auctions

1,320.00
Price Realized: $

Artist: Janet Mitchell

Title: FEEDING THE BIRDS

Date: 1956

Medium: watercolour on paper

Dimensions: 9.5 x 13 in. (24.1 x 33 cm)

Notes:

signed & dated lower right

500.00
Estimate:
700.00
 - 

LOT: 55

Auction: 2024 June | Hodgins Art Auctions

840.00
Price Realized: $

Artist: Janet Mitchell

Title: THE MILK WAGON ARRIVES

Date: 1956

Medium: watercolour on paper

Dimensions: 8 x 13 in. (20.3 x 33 cm)

Notes:

signed & dated lower right

500.00
Estimate:
700.00
 - 

LOT: 56

Auction: 2024 June | Hodgins Art Auctions

2,280.00
Price Realized: $

Artist: Janet Mitchell

Title: A REGAL GROUP

Date: 1956

Medium: mixed media on paper

Dimensions: 11.25 x 15.5 in. (28.6 x 39.4 cm)

Notes:

signed & dated “June 56” lower right
Provenance: Acquired directly from the artist. This work was gifted to the consignor when she was 3 years old, on her brother’s 4th birthday. The family was visiting Janet Mitchell, a family friend, who allowed her to select a painting for herself, so that she would not feel left out.

1,000.00
Estimate:
1,500.00
 - 

LOT: 22

Auction: 2024 June | Hodgins Art Auctions

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