The story of Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis (1903 – 1970) is a poignant one. She lived most of her life in abject poverty in a tiny cottage in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia. She made do with what little she had and nourished her painting talent by turning her house into a canvas, covering nearly every surface available with her whimsical paintings.
For more than three decades, the self-taught artist eked out a living by creating vivid oil paintings of colorful pastoral scenes which she sold for a few dollars each.
Today, Maude Lewis is celebrated as one of Canada’s most beloved folk artists.
Maude was known to be a shy, quiet woman with a delightful smile. Her paintings were infused with her sweet sense of country peacefulness and people took notice. Both locals and passers-by would purchase her joyful paintings and in time, Maude gained notoriety through newspaper and magazine articles.
Maude was born in 1903 with multiple birth defects – hunched over, small, and almost no chin – she ultimately developed rheumatoid arthritis, which disfigured her even more.
Despite this, Maud seemed to be a happy soul who enjoyed her childhood spent with her parents and brother. Maud took up painting when her mother had her paint Christmas cards to sell for extra cash.
In 1935 Maud’s father died and in 1937, her mother passed away as well. As was typical at the time, her brother inherited the family home. Maude took matters into her own hands and answered an ad for a live-in housekeeper for a bachelor named Everett Lewis. He was an occasional fish peddler who lived in the now-famous one-room cottage in Marshalltown. In 1938, Maude was hired, moved in, and shortly thereafter, they were married.
But life was not always ideal in the little cottage. Everet was known to be miserly and he often confiscated and squirreled away what little money Maude made through selling her paintings. There was no plumbing or electricity in their home and the couple got by on very little. Still, there was love in the tiny house and Everett was happy to let Maude create her cheerful, colorful art all over the cottage surfaces.
What is known about the dwelling: Everett purchased it in 1926 and had it moved from its original location by a team of oxen to a small plot of roadside land. The couple lived here for decades and Maude’s colorful murals on the cottage beckoned many a traveler on the road to stop and buy her handmade cards and paintings.
Sadly, at the age of 67, Maude fell ill with pneumonia and died in a nearby hospital. She was buried in a child-sized coffin and laid to rest in a pauper’s grave.
Tragically, only a few years later in 1979, her husband Everett was killed by a burglar during an attempted robbery of the couple’s beloved house
After their deaths, the little cottage began to deteriorate. Fortunately, a group of concerned citizens in the area started the “Maud Lewis Painted House Society” with the goal to save this meaningful landmark.
Their efforts paid off and in 1984, the house was sold to the Province of Nova Scotia and turned over to the care of Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
In 1996, conservation and restoration work began on the house. Today, the restored house is on permanent display in Halifax at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Along with the actual cottage, the gallery features a permanent collection of Lewis’s art.
Here is a photo of the home’s interior before it was restored:
How wonderful it is that Maud’s house and her paintings that covered her home, were preserved. Kudos to those dedicated and persistent folks who made it happen!
In the corner by the window is where Maude sat to do her paintings.
You can feel her spirit there still.
A replica of the Maud Lewis House was built in 1999 by fan and retired fisherman Murray Ross. It is located a few kilometers north of Marshalltown (where the actual cottage was located) but it is a dead-ringer for the real one, inside and out.
What a fitting tribute to a genuine Canadian treasure.