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Arthur Lismer was born 27 June 1885 in Sheffield, England. He was apprenticed to a photo-engraving company at the age of thirteen, and started evening classes at the Sheffield School of Arts at the same time. In 1905 he moved to Antwerp to continue his education at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts.
In 1911 Lismer immigrated to Toronto, where he was employed first at the commercial art firm Grip Limited, and later at Rous & Mann. It was during this period that he met fellow artists J.E.H. MacDonald, F.H. Johnston, Franklin Carmichael and Tom Thomson.
Lismer moved with his wife, Esther, and young daughter, Marjorie, to Nova Scotia in 1916, where for three years he served as principal of the Victoria School of Art and Design in Halifax. During this period he sketched and painted images of naval activity in and around Halifax Harbour, and in June 1918 was commissioned by the Canadian War Records, for which he produced a series of sixteen lithographs. He also created a number of drawings chronicling the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion, which were published in the Canadian Courier newspaper and in The drama of a city: the story of stricken Halifax (1918).
In 1919 Lismer was commissioned by the Dalhousie Centenary Committee to produce a series of sketches to illustrate the committee’s centennial commemoration publication, One hundred years of Dalhousie, 1818–1918 (1920), some of which were also reproduced in a promotional booklet published to advance the university’s 1920 "Millions Campaign” appeal.
Before the end of 1919 Lismer returned to Toronto to take up the post of vice-principal of the Ontario College of Art, and several years later became a charter member of the Group of Seven. In 1927 he was appointed supervisor of art education at the Art Gallery of Toronto and emerged as a leading figure in art education in Canada. From 1940–1967 he taught at the Art Association of Montreal.
Arthur Lismer died on 23 March 1969.