Mary Ella Dignam

Other Names: Mary Ella Dignam (née Williams)

As the first president of the Women’s Art Association of Canada, Mary Ella Dignam is a painter, teacher, and art organizer who is remembered as a major supporter of women in the art world.

Mary Ella Dignam (née Williams) began her art studies at the Western School of Art and Design in London, Ontario, and then attended the New York Art Students League (NYSAL), likely in the late 1870s. In 1880, she returned to Ontario and married John Sifton Dignam of London; they would have three children. Her husband was supportive of her artistic endeavours; after the birth of her first child in 1880, in an action very uncommon for the time, Mary Ella Dignam left her family in London and went to Europe, studying art in Paris, Holland, and Italy (a sister-in-law would keep house and help care for her daughter in her absence). During her time in Europe, Dignam organized art gallery tours for young women, both supporting herself and sending money back to her family.

In 1886 Dignam was back in Canada and the family moved to Toronto, Ontario. There, she taught at Rolleston House. In addition, she organized the first art studios at Moulton College, McMaster University, and both taught and was director there. Dignam began teaching at the Associated Artist’s School of Art and Design in 1886. She became its president in 1889, after having run the school since 1887 when the school founder fell ill; its art classes combined with those of Moulton College the following year. Dignam’s life drawing classes were among the first to provide female students the opportunity to draw from nude models instead of classical sculptures.

In 1890, Mary Ella Dignam formally founded the Women’s Art Club, the club developing from a small group established a few years earlier. In 1892 the organization was incorporated under its new name, the Women’s Art Association of Canada (WAAC). The WAAC was the first national organization of its kind, gaining city branches and members over the next few years. Dignam served as president of the WAAC until 1913 and was also an advisory president before returning to the position for the WAAC’s 50th anniversary in 1936.

Mary Ella Dignam was a supporter of her fellow women artists. The WAAC organized travelling shows through which women could supplement their incomes by selling “crafts,” such as works of needlepoint, embroidery, hand-made lace, and hand-painted china – deemed “acceptable” due to their domestic associations. Dignam effectively transformed these “crafts” to “trades,” creating an avenue for women – namely those unmarried or widowed – to achieve financial independence while maintaining their positions in “respectable” society.

An extension of this was Dignam’s arrangement of the production of the Cabot Commemorative State Dinner Service in the late 1890s. The service included Royal Doulton china from England, 16-dozen (192) pieces of plain white dinnerware in all. Dignam selected a team of 16 Canadian women artists (11 were WAAC members) to paint the china with Canadian plants, flowers, animals, and historical locations. It was gifted to Lady Aberdeen, the wife the Governor General of Canada and the patron of the WAAC. With the positive public reception of the dinner set, the Toronto WAAC began to integrate works of rug-making, weaving, wood-carving, leatherwork, metalwork, bookbinding, pottery, and other handicrafts into their annual exhibitions, and interest in such art forms grew among other WAAC branches and clubs as well.

Dignam served as President of the International Society Women of Painters and Sculptors. She was also one of the founding members of the Women’s International Art Club (WIAC) which provided women with art education at its locations in Philadelphia, Paris, Melbourne, and London, England. In 1900, Dignam was among the coordinators of the club’s first exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London, England, with a total of 235 works, all by women artists, showcased.   

In her earlier work, Mary Ella Dignam was influenced by the Dutch style of the late 1800s, and later by Impressionism. She is known for her flower studies, portraits, and landscapes. Among her exhibitions were those at the National Academy of Design in New York (after 1882), the Colonial Exhibition in London, England (1886), and the Chicago Exhibition (1893). Her work also appeared at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition many times in the late 1890s and at the Art Association of Montreal between 1886 and 1931. Despite exhibiting her work numerous times with the Ontario Society of Artists (between 1883 and 1913), and the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts (between 1883 and 1924) Dignam was not offered membership to either association.

Mary Ella Dignam wrote extensively on art and art methods and was a member of the Authors’ Society of Canada. She was a devoted campaigner for women’s rights and wrote regarding the discrimination and inequalities encountered by women in the arts.

Mary Ella Dignam passed away in 1938 in Toronto, Ontario.

Biography by Maria Ruth Napigkit and Luvneet K. Rana



Artist Biographies: British and Irish Artists of the 20th Century. “Women’s International Art Club.”

Bonellie, Janet. “Mrs. Dignam’s Pursuit.” The Beaver Vol. 80, Issue 3 (June/July 2000).

Broadhurst, Maura Lesley. “Strategic Spaces: Towards a Genealogy of Women Artists’ Groups in Canada.” MA thesis, Concordia University, 1997.

“Mary Dignam.” Art Gallery of Ontario files.

“Mary Ella Williams Dignam.” Museum London files.

 “Mrs. Dignam, Toronto Art Leader, Dies.” The Globe and Mail, September 7, 1938.

National Council of Women of Canada.  Women of Canada: Their Life and Work. Toronto: National Council of Women of Canada, 1900.

Skelly, Julia, “Mary Ella Dignam”. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article published January 4, 2016; Last Edited January 6, 2016.

Thompson, Allison. “A Worthy Place in the Art of Our Country: The Women’s Art Association of Canada 1887-1987.” MA thesis, Carleton University, 1989.
Online via Proquest <>.

See also: Caroline Farncomb; Emily Mary Gunn Fried; Clémence van den Broeck

Timeline Entries:
Canada: Mary Ella Dignam Establishes the Women’s Art Club (Toronto)
Canada: The Women’s Art Club becomes the Women’s Art Association of Canada
World: Mary Ella Dignam Organizes an International Exhibition of Women’s Art


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