WILKINSON, CAROLINE HELENA (Armington) (named at birth Helena), artist and nurse; b. 12 Sept. 1875 in Brampton, Ont., daughter of William Wilkinson, a farmer and agricultural-implement dealer, and Mary Crawford; m. 6 and 8 Sept. 1900 Frank Milton Armington (d. 1941) in Paris; they had no children; d. 25 Oct. 1939 in New York City.
Caroline Wilkinson, known as Carrie, attended public school and high school in Brampton, and about 1890 she began to study art in Toronto with her father’s cousin John Wycliffe Lowes Forster. While a student and briefly a teacher of art in Toronto, she became acquainted with another of Forster’s pupils, Frank Milton Armington. Family pressure and her own practical bent diverted Caroline’s attention briefly from art. She trained as a nurse at the Guelph General Hospital and then practised in New York City and Toronto, earning enough money for her passage to France. In May 1900 she joined Frank’s mother and sister in Paris; Frank had spent the year there studying art.
Following their marriage in a civil ceremony at the British consulate on 6 September and a religious ceremony two days later at the American Church in Paris, the couple returned to Canada. After a brief sojourn in Sault Ste Marie, Ont., in 1901, they settled in Manitoba, where Frank had briefly lived in the 1890s. In Winnipeg the couple made friends within the small community of artists and newspaper people who, like themselves, had been drawn by the prospects of an emerging metropolis and, in particular, the burgeoning commercial-art industry. Frank found employment with the Winnipeg Tribune, taught at Havergal College, and supplemented his income with various commercial-art assignments. He regularly placed newspaper advertisements offering his services as a portrait painter, which put him in direct competition with Winnipeg’s long-established portrait artist, Victor Albert Long. Soon Frank’s studio became a gathering place for artists who sketched there on Wednesday evenings. In 1902, with Hay Strafford Stead* and others, he became a founding member of the Manitoba Society of Artists and he served as its first vice-president. The organization sought to improve professional art instruction locally, establish cultural institutions, hold regular exhibitions, and encourage the development of a uniquely Manitoba art. Caroline took on some private nursing, offered painting lessons in her home, and attended meetings of the Winnipeg branch of the Women’s Art Association of Canada. She kept a lower profile than her husband, did not participate in local shows, and was never mentioned in art reviews. She did join a WAAC-sponsored sketching group which included some of the city’s well-known women artists who, like herself, had benefited from advanced instruction elsewhere.
In 1905 the Armingtons returned to Europe for further instruction. They briefly enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris and later they attended the Académie Julian, in classes separated according to gender. Both began to take an interest in printmaking, primarily etching. A fellow student taught Frank to etch and soon he and Caroline were equally proficient. For Caroline, etching would eventually take precedence over painting. From the outset her prints were meticulously detailed and also picturesque portrayals of European scenery in which architectural panoramas rather than human figures were the focus.
Caroline won a silver medal at the Salon of 1911 for her painting of a peasant absorbed in thought, Vieille Brugeoise. Her Portrait de ma mère (1912) reveals her continued attachment to accurate and solid representation and her adoption of a more high-keyed palette than that which she had previously used. Frank’s work as a painter was also moving in the same direction.
Despite their expatriate status, the Armingtons sent their productions to Canada for exhibition and kept up contacts with friends there. Prints soon became an important source of income and the Armingtons sold not only to private collectors, but also to important public institutions in Europe, the United States, and Canada. In 1910 the National Gallery in Ottawa had purchased a print by Caroline, Le quai vert, Bruges (1908), and in 1911 it acquired two additional items, The Seine and Notre-Dame, Paris (1909) and The Thames and St. Paul’s, London (1911). The couple donated some of their art to museums and public galleries in the United States and Europe, an excellent strategy for stimulating future sales and creating goodwill. It was a practice that they would continue throughout their lives. They were also adept at ensuring coverage of their activities in the media in Canada and abroad. A commission from the Canadian Pacific Railway to provide landscapes, but “nothing with Indians and nothing with snow,” brought them home again in 1911 for three to four months and gave them opportunities for numerous displays of their work across the country.
Caroline’s growing success was evidenced by the inclusion of her art in juried exhibitions, and her achievements caused one journalist to ask in 1913 whether she and her husband were in competition. “Never,” she replied. “We accomplished about the same amount of work each year, and when one of us carries off an honor at an exhibition the other is as proud as if he or she had done so himself or herself.”
The Armingtons had close ties to the colony of American artists, authors, and intellectuals living in Paris. During World War I Caroline put her nursing skills to use once again by volunteering with the American Ambulance Field Service; Frank became an orderly for the same organization. Despite the military conflict, she continued to etch, producing mostly scenes of Paris. After the war, Lord Beaverbrook [Aitken*] selected two of her solidly constructed prints, depicting the No.8 Canadian General Hospital in Saint-Cloud and the British Army and Navy Leave Club in Paris, for purchase by the Canadian War Memorials Fund.
Caroline was also adept at negotiating contracts that had the potential to generate multiple prints. In September 1920 she finished a commission for the Aero Club of America to etch the Wilbur Wright monument (unveiled the previous July) in Le Mans. For this assignment she had left Frank painting ballet dancers in Paris, she told friends, while she ventured out on an etching trip that also produced notable and saleable images of Chartres, Reims, and other picturesque sites.
During the 1920s and 1930s Caroline went on painting and etching, and she received favourable notices in France, the United States, and Canada. Art critic Eugène Hoffmann, writing in Le Journal des Arts in 1923, congratulated her on an enriching and substantial show, her first solo exhibition of paintings, held at the Galeries Simonson in Paris, while the European edition of the New York Herald, which kept up with the activities of Americans in the city, praised her illustrations of solid architectural masses, “faithfully rendered.… In Paris Mrs. Armington has been particularly interested in the river, its bridges and the barges which lie at anchor in their shadow.” The following year she sold numerous etchings to the T. Eaton Company Limited [see Timothy Eaton*]. In 1925 and 1926 works by the Armingtons were sent on tour across the United States and were seen in private galleries and art spaces in New York City, Detroit, Toledo, Ohio, and Des Moines, Iowa. The Toledo Times observed that “the etchings of Mrs. Armington, in the main studies of Paris, are of very high quality, sure in expression and of true feeling.”
Asked in 1928 why she and her husband had remained in Europe, Caroline explained, “We feel we can best represent Canada by staying where we are. Here we are not isolated as far as art is concerned and we can make more progress because of the artistic atmosphere.… If we went back to live we would have to teach, or else paint, portraits, or illustrate. It is very nice for Canada to have pioneers but they do not sell enough to make a living.” The following year the Armingtons held a joint exhibition at the Grange in Toronto which was well received by local reviewers and generated sales.
By 1939 Caroline and Frank Armington, both in their 60s, were unwell. In May Caroline suffered a heart attack during an air-raid alarm. Despite her precarious health, the couple decided to leave Europe. Caroline died three days after their arrival in New York City. Her conventional lifestyle, her prolonged absence from Canada, and her work, sometimes considered old-fashioned when viewed against the modernist paradigm, have made her lesser known in her country of birth than she has been in the United States and France. Research and publications in the late 20th century have revived interest in the Armingtons, in particular Caroline, and have effectively integrated them into an ongoing construction of Canadian art history that is more inclusive and nuanced than past accounts.
Few of Caroline Helena Armington’s paintings are found in public collections, but her etchings are preserved in Canadian, American, British, French, and German institutions. In Canada, the largest collection is held by the Peel Art Gallery in Brampton, Ont., and outside of the country by the National Library of France in Paris.
AO, RG 80-2-0-84, no.24032. Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Arch., Frank and Caroline Armington coll. Eugène Hoffmann, “Petites expositions: exposition Caroline Armington,” Le Journal des arts (Paris), 28 févr. 1923. New York Herald (Paris), 2 Nov. 1913, 25 Feb. 1923. M. A. Perry, “The Armingtons of Paris and Toronto,” Toronto Star Weekly, 31 March 1928. Toledo Times (Toledo, Ohio), 7 Feb. 1926. Janet Braide and Nancy Parke-Taylor, Caroline and Frank Armington: Canadian painter-etchers in Paris ([Brampton], 1990). A. McK. Brockman, Caroline (1875–1939) and Frank (1876–1941) Armington ([Two Mountains], Que., 1985). A dictionary of Canadian artists, comp. C. S. MacDonald et al. (8v., Ottawa, 1967–2006; vol.9 online only); all vols. available online in the “Artists in Canada” database at www.pro.rcip-chin.gc.ca/application/aac-aic/description-about.app?lang=en. R. L. Tovell, A new class of art: the artist’s print in Canadian art, 1877–1920 (Ottawa, 1996). Who’s who in Canada, 1936.