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Biography & Autobiography Artists, Architects, Photographers

Michael Snow

Lives and Works

by (author) James King

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Oct 2019
Artists, Architects, Photographers, Mixed Media, Canadian
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    Oct 2019
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    Oct 2019
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An all-encompassing view of the life and work of one of Canada’s greatest living artists

Michael Snow is rightly recognized as one of the greatest Canadian artists. In a productive, lengthy career, he has, in a wide variety of genres and media, asked (and often answered) some of the most vexing and important questions in the history of art. During his lifetime, the notion of what constitutes a work of art has undergone many changes, and his work has consistently been at the forefront of that discussion.

Michael Snow: Lives and Works examines all aspects of the artist’s work and provides a guide to understanding its subtleties and complexities. The book also charts the life of Snow: his early years as a student and artist in Toronto, his stay in New York City, his turbulent marriage to Joyce Wieland, his reputation as a lady’s man, and his adventures in movie making and improvised music.

In many ways, Snow is the visual artist as intellectual: his images are vibrant and compelling, but so are the ideas behind them. Ultimately, his work is about perception. What do we really see when we look at a work of art? What is the act of looking all about? What exactly is a work of art?

Michael Snow: Lives and Works is a personal and intimate portrait of an artist who has helped shaped the face of Canadian art in our time.

About the author

James King is the author of four previous novels: Faking (1999), Blue Moon (2000), Transformations (2003), and Pure Inventions (2006). He is also the author of eight works of biography, the subjects of which include William Blake, Margaret Laurence, Jack McClelland, and Farley Mowat. His biography of Herbert Read, The Last Modern, was nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award. James King lives in Hamilton, Ontario, and teaches at McMaster University in the Department of English.

James King's profile page

Excerpt: Michael Snow: Lives and Works (by (author) James King)

Chapter One: Origins

In Michael Snow’s ancestry, the two solitudes of Canada are resolutely conjoined. His father, Gerald Bradley Snow, was of Anglo-Saxon lineage, his mother, Marie-Antoinette, was Quebecois.

Gerald Bradley Snow (1892–1964), later an engineer and a veteran of the First World War (he served in France as a lieutenant in the 48th Highlanders), attended high school at St. Andrew’s in Aurora and then studied at the University of Toronto. More reserved than his classmates, Bradley (the name he used commonly) excelled in school. His son inherited what could be called his artistic side from his mother and his deep understanding of technological complexities and processes from his father. He had an excellent understanding of how things work, of how things fit together.

Bradley Snow was the son of A.J. Russell Snow (1857–1937) and his wife, Katie Beaty (1880–1940). A.J., who was born in Hull (now Gatineau), Quebec, became a lawyer who argued many cases before the Privy Council, served on several royal commissions, and was “Registrar of Alien Enemies” during the Great War.

The father of A.J. Russell Snow was John Allen Snow (1823–78), who was the son of John Snow (1793–c.1823) and Barbara Allen (b. 1799). Barbara was born in Woburn, Massachusetts, and moved to Canada when she was a year old. The move to Canada was initiated by Philomen Wright, a cousin of the Allens. Having acquired the rights to a large parcel of land on the area of the Ottawa River now known as Gatineau, he developed a small colony there. In 1816, when Barbara was seventeen years old, Philomen sent his son Ruggles to England to acquire cattle and engage workmen. There, he hired John Snow, a wheelwright from Chittlehampton, Devon. John and Barbara married on January 4, 1820.

Their son John Allen Snow was educated at St. Lawrence Academy in Potsdam, New York, and trained as a surveyor after he returned to Canada. He married Emma Catherine Bradley in 1850. Three years earlier, he became deputy provincial surveyor and mapped portions of, among other places, Muskoka. He was later sent by John A. Macdonald to survey the land that was under dispute in Manitoba during the Riel Rebellion.

Katie Beaty was the daughter of James Beaty (1831–99), who had been born at Ashdale Farm in the township of Trafalgar in the county of Halton, Ontario. James’s father, John (d. 1870), had immigrated to Canada from County Cavan in Ireland. James, who married his cousin Fanny Beaty in 1858, served as mayor of Toronto from 1879 to 1880 and was the founder of the newspaper, the Toronto Leader. He published one book, the Quaker-inspired Paying the Pastor: Unscriptural and Traditional(1885).

A.J. Russell and Katie Snow had seven children: Gerald Bradley, Kallie, Beaty, Geoffrey, Enid, Dimple, and Rhoda. When Geoffrey was killed in action at the Battle of the Somme during the Great War, Bradley might have been fundamentally shaken.

Early on, the Beaty side of Michael Snow’s ancestry made a name for itself in journalism and politics. The Snow side also produced a very distinguished attorney. Similar claims hold true for the artist’s mother’s family.

* * *

Marie-Antoinette Françoise Carmen Lévesque (1904–2004) was an outgoing and vibrant woman; a classically trained pianist, she had a passion for the arts. One of four children, she had two brothers, Marcel (1908–79) and Robert (1917–2005), and a younger sister, Pierette (c.1906–19), who died at a convent school (Saint Joseph Academy) in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Along with her talent as a pianist, she was also particularly adept at languages: she taught herself Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian. She was so skilled in Spanish that she was later employed to host a Spanish-language radio program for the Spanish consulate in Toronto. Their father was Elzéar Lévesque (1875–1937), the son of Delphine Tremblay and boat captain Elzéar Lévesque. The younger Elzéar studied at the Séminaire de Chicoutimi and law at Laval University. In 1884 he married Caroline Denechaud (1875–1942), daughter of Macaire Denechaud, a merchant, and Françoise Moreau.

Elzéar was a candidate in the provincial election of 1908 and the federal one of 1911. In 1922 he founded the Compagnie Autobus & Taxis 500. Later, he invested in the Compagnie Hydraulique du Saguenay; throughout his lifetime, he was active in the real estate development of Saint-Ambroise, Saint-Honoré, Chicoutimi, and Jonquière. He was the mayor of Chicoutimi from 1912 to 1922.

Caroline Denechaud was one of sixteen children born to Macaire and Françoise. Marie-Antoinette’s paternal great-grandfather was the Hon. Claude Denechaud, a representative for Quebec City in the province’s legislature. His father, Jacques Denechaud, a surgeon, arrived in Quebec from France in 1752 and was on duty at the hospital when the English won the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

In Chicoutimi, Elzéar and Caroline’s majestic house, a large brick structure on a hill, was surrounded by a low stone wall. Earlier, in 1912, Elzéar had built an island cottage at Lac Clair; when that burned down in 1918, he built a similar one, facing the other way, on the same island. Elzéar was a person who sought out the best. He had a superb wine cellar and assembled a large collection of books related to all things French.

After completing his studies in Toronto, Bradley worked as a surveyor in the Saguenay region of Quebec; his assignment was to prepare a report on the feasibility of building a rail line from Chibougamau to Chicoutimi (about 350 kilometres) — the project was not undertaken. A bit later, around 1924, he became the chief engineer and head of construction of two bridges in Chicoutimi, where he then resided.

He and Marie-Antoinette met at a ball given by Sir William Price, the Quebec-based lumber merchant. The two fell in love and decided to marry. When Marie-Antoinette told her father that she and Bradley intended to marry, Elzéar received communications and in-person visits from the local Catholic hierarchy, which threatened his daughter with excommunication if she married a Protestant. Despite the Church’s warnings, she went to Toronto, and there she and Bradley wed on October 29, 1924, with his family in attendance.

The strong bond between the young couple was possibly triggered because each had lost a sibling. In Marie-Antoinette’s case, her parents had taken her and her sister by train to the school in Massachusetts. When, after three months at the school, her sister was taken ill with the Spanish flu and died suddenly, her parents returned to the States to take their surviving daughter back to Chicoutimi.

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