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Rita Letendre, 2008.Courtesy of Gallery Gevik

At age 19, the painter Rita Letendre was working as the cashier in a Montreal diner and, when business was slow, she would occupy herself by sketching. One customer was so struck by her drawings, he insisted that she enroll at a school she had never heard of – Montreal’s École des Beaux-Arts – and actually deposited her at its front door. She lasted a year and a half, leaving after an instructor suggested there was no point attending an art show organized by the anti-clerical rebel Paul-Émile Borduas. She went anyway and discovered an art that spoke to her, launching her career as a second-generation member of Borduas’s Automatiste movement and one of Canada’s leading abstractionists.

Ms. Letendre died in Toronto on Saturday from blood cancer. She had marked her 93rd birthday on Nov. 1.

Ms. Letendre with Lode Star in 1970.Harry McLorinan/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Letendre, of

and French-Canadian heritage, grew up in poverty in and around Drummondville, Que. Her father, looking for work, moved the family to Montreal when she was 14, pulling her out of school to look after her younger siblings. In short, she was an unlikely candidate to become a dominant figure in the macho world of abstract painting. She owed her success to an independent and adventurous spirit, making her own way in the art world and remaking her career several times over, eventually emerging as a prominent Toronto muralist.

“Rita Letendre brought a freedom to abstract art that has and will continue to touch people’s hearts,” said Wanda Nanibush, curator of Indigenous art at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the organizer of a 2017 retrospective of the artist’s work. “She was a very rare modernist: an Indigenous woman working in what is often considered to be a white male field and her work was grounded in the metaphorical and spiritual qualities of light, darkness, colour and movement. Her colours vibrate and her paintings move. Everything that she was is on view in her work.”

Ms. Letendre identified as Indigenous on her mother’s side – her maternal grandmother was Abenaki – and recalled being teased at school for that reason.Handout

Ms. Letendre was born on Nov. 1, 1928, in Drummondville to Héliodore Letendre and Marie-Anna Ledoux, the first of their seven children. She identified as Indigenous on her mother’s side – her maternal grandmother was Abenaki – and recalled being teased at school for that reason. In a 2019 interview with the Montreal artist Caroline Monnet, herself part Algonquin, Ms. Letendre remembered her grandmother, who taught her to see beauty everywhere, sheltering her from a storm one summer day and telling her not to be afraid of thunder. She contrasted that reverence for nature with the religious attitudes of the Catholic Letendre family. Nonetheless, her father’s family was also believed to be of mixed ancestry, French-Canadian and Mohawk.

He was a mechanic and, in those tough Depression years, moved the family from town to town seeking work while her mother looked after a growing family. As a preschooler, after she caught her finger in machinery while her mother was busy with the baby, she was sent to live for several years on a farm with her maternal grandparents. Years later, she still recalled the bliss of wandering by herself in the woods and fields although, returning to her parents, she went on to enjoy school where she pursued her love of drawing. Her father eventually moved the family to Montreal in 1942; both he and his wife took factory jobs while Rita stayed home with the younger children, cooking and cleaning.

Rita Letendre. Victoire [Victory], 1961. Oil on canvas.Courtesy of Art Gallery of Ontario / Estate of Rita Letendre

In 1946, she escaped with a boyfriend in a short-lived relationship that produced her son, Jacques, born in February, 1948, and raised by Ms. Letendre’s mother. That September, she made her fateful move to the Beaux-Arts, quickly earning recognition – and scholarship money – at the school. Its conservatism, however, did not suit her. Introduced to the Automatiste circle by her fellow student and partner Ulysse Comtois, and encouraged by Mr. Borduas himself, she plunged into modernism and abstraction.

“Representation suddenly seemed to me like a crutch,” she said in a 1997 interview with the art critic Gaston Roberge. “I had discovered that the soul of a painting was not in the object represented but in the way it transmitted a sort of internalized emotion.” In those early years, that emotion for Ms. Letendre was chiefly rage against the limited and prejudiced world from which she had emerged.

Just entering the scene as Mr. Borduas published his explosive manifesto the Refus Global, which positioned a free, non-representational art as a powerful retort to the religiosity and paternalism of Duplessis Quebec, Ms. Letendre was not one of the signatories but she was deeply attracted by this call for liberty. She embraced what a critic had dubbed Automatism, in which the artist painted without premeditation, let alone sketching.

She began showing with the Automatistes, experimenting with strong colours and geometric shapes while maintaining soft and irregular lines. In 1955, she participated in a group show at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts but Mr. Borduas, who returned from self-exile in New York for the occasion, disliked her latest work, calling it too geometric and rational. She broke with the Automatistes and began associating with Les Plasticiens, who used more structured approaches to painting. The same year the artist Guido Molinari gave her a solo show in a bar where he organized the exhibitions and then at his own gallery in 1956. Ms. Letendre’s style showed elements of both groups’ influence but remained independent, often using heavy impasto and favouring effects of light and colour rejected by Les Plasticiens, whose work was hard-edged.

Rita Letendre. Daybreak, 1983. Acrylic on canvas.Courtesy of Art Gallery of Ontario / Estate of Rita Letendre

During these years, she and Mr. Comtois lived hand-to-mouth, taking jobs to support themselves, but eventually she began selling work and getting reviews. Recalling that period in a Maclean’s magazine essay in 1975, she said that her artist friends were too busy supporting each other to worry about gender roles, but that critics did say it was hard to believe her bold paintings were the work of a woman or suggested her softer lines were more feminine.

By the early 1960s, she and Mr. Comtois were financially established enough to travel to Europe, where their 15-year relationship fell apart. According to Ms. Letendre, the problem was that she was social and party-going while he was a loner. In Italy, she met the Russian-born Israeli sculptor Kosso Eloul, whom she would marry. After a brief return to Montreal, the couple moved in 1964 to Los Angeles, where he had a commission.

At California State University, Long Beach, Ms. Letendre herself was commissioned to create a large mural and realized that her impasto style would not work at this scale. Instead of relying on the tension created by different thicknesses of paint, she would use light-coloured backgrounds to accentuate the collision of dark masses. So, she developed the flat, hard-edge style that would become her signature for the monumental murals and large canvases of the 1970s that feature vertiginously receding diagonal bands of colour and remain her most famous works.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, she was one of the few women artists awarded public art commissions, first in California and then many in Toronto, such as the Glencairn subway station installation Joy,” said Georgiana Uhlyarik, curator of Canadian Art at the AGO. “Ms. Letendre’s artworks, with their wedges of bright colours colliding into flashes of light, energized Toronto’s streets and interior public spaces with a glorious optimism and confidence that galvanized the city and its residents.”

Ms. Letendre with Phillip Gevik, 2010.Courtesy of Gallery Gevik

At one point there were 12 public art works by Ms. Letendre on view in Toronto, although today many of those large murals have been demolished or are blocked by surrounding buildings. Joy, the 1977 coloured skylight in Glencairn station, was reinstalled in 2014 and still casts its orange glow over the platform. Meanwhile California State University Long Beach has restored the mural she painted there in 1965 and is organizing a show of her work in January.

She and Mr. Eloul settled in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood in a Victorian house stuffed with modern art, where they entertained many friends. Ms. Letendre only left the house after he died in 1995. She leaves her son, Jacques Letendre, and his wife, Monique Laroque.

Ms. Letendre, who had more than 60 solo exhibitions during her lifetime and was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 2005, continued making and showing art into her 90s. When Ms. Monnet asked her in 2019 what it had been like to be an artist in the 1940s in Quebec, she had replied simply “Ça n’existait pas.” There was no such thing. For more than 70 years, Ms. Letendre had made sure that there was such a thing and that it was her.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified California State University, Long Beach. This version has been corrected

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