Alumin Photo

Sylvia Bercovitch Ary (BBHS ’40)

1923, Moscow, Russia – 2015, Montreal, Quebec

Sylvia Ary and her family immigrated to Canada in 1926 from Turkestan. She is the daughter of renowned painter Alexander Bercovitch and Bryna Avrutick and sister of distinguished Harvard scholar Sacvan Bercovitch (BBHS ’50). Shortly after arriving in Montreal, Ary’s parents separated. Her mother worked at a Jewish school managed by one of her brothers and her father was employed with a company responsible for decorating churches and synagogues around Canada. Ary and her mother and brother lived in a spare classroom of the school.

Her father first introduced Ary to painting while he was visiting Montreal, and she was instantly captivated. In 1932 her parents got back together and the family moved to Du Bullion Street. They struggled financially and had to move often when rent could not be made. During her school years they mostly lived on St. Dominique.

When she was 12, she enrolled in an art school, with classes on Saturdays, founded by Norman Bethune for children of poor families.

Ary quickly demonstrated her talent. In 1934 she began drawing classes with Fritz Brandtner and, at 14, came first in a Canada-wide children’s competition (1937). The prize was a week-long trip to Paris to visit the World’s Fair. The family, however, could not afford the travel fare. Her father, understanding the life of an artist, opposed Sylvia’s interest in painting and sought unsuccessfully to dissuade her from pursuing this as an activity.
At BBHS she studied with Anne Savage, who encouraged her to continue her artistic development at the Montreal Fine Arts Museum. There she studied with Edwin Holgate and Will O’Gilvie.

At 17 she married Solomon Ary a polish Jewish immigrant. Sylvia and Solomon Ary had four chiIdren, two girls and two boys and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her large family was a continuous source for her portrait painting. She also produced a large number of portraits of people from aIl walks of life, from unknown models to well-known stage and literary personalities.

Ary experimented with different types of graphic expression and techniques throughout the years including charcoaI, pastel, ink, watercolors and oils. She studied etching at the Montreal Institute of Graphic Arts under Albert Dumouchel, with whom she learned lithography. She would later combine many of these techniques and begin to use acrylics. Ary also tried her hand at sculpture and experimented with a variety of surface materials for her paintings such as paper, canvas, masonite, and plexiglas.

Ary’s paintings are on display across Canada, in Boston, New York, San Francisco, London and Jerusalem. She won many awards including first prize at the 1960 Art Exhibition of Saint Laurent and first prize in 1968 at the Pratt Institute in New York for her miniature etchings in their International Competition.

The Jewish Public Library in Montreal, is among many institutions that have Ary’s work in their collection. In addition to this artwork, the Archives of the JPL hold the research collection of Robert Adams’ work on Ms. Ary’s father, Alexander Bercovitch, as well as recorded interviews with Ms. Ary in their Oral History collection.

Click here to see a selection of her artwork.


Roland Boulanger, “Sylvia Ary, un peintre que le satire anime,” Le Canada, Dec. 1, 1950.
Andrée Le Guillou, “De Moscou à Montréal, Sylvia Ary” illustrated with four reproductions, in Magazin’Art, 4th year, N° 4, Summer 1992
Andrée Le Guillou, “L’Éventail qui masque et démasque,” illustrated with three reproductions,in Magazin’Art, 8th year, N° 4, Summer 1996
Esther Trépanier, Jewish Painters and Modernity: Montreal 1930-1945. Montreal: Centre Saidye Bronfman, 2008
Andrée Le Guillou, “The Art of Sylvia Ary Peintre ” Edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, Goose Lane Publications, 2008
Ary, Sylvia. “Musée Des Beaux-arts Du Canada.” Interview by Charles Hill. Entrevue
Sylvia Ary – A Brief Biography