Miller Brittain was born on November 12, 1912 in Saint John. Brittain studied art with Elizabeth Russell Holt in Saint John and Harry Wickey in New York City. In 1932, he returned to Saint John, where he worked at clerical and construction jobs and opened an art studio on the waterfront. During this period, he captured realistic scenes of everyday life in the city which incorporated social commentary. Brittain served with the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II and served two years as a war artist.
Brittain was a founding member of the Federation of Canadian Artists in 1941. After the war, his paintings took on a more surreal aspect, taking as their subject biblical topics, abstract figures, nudes and flowers. Brittain had married Connie Starr in 1951; he was devastated by her death from cancer seven years later and was treated several times for alcoholism in his later life.
Brittain is considered one of Canada’s most prolific painters. His work broke from contemporary style at the time of the Group of Seven when landscapes of the country dominated Canada’s art scene. Brittain focused on working class life in his hometown of Saint John with his signature style in social-realism.
The National Film Board of Canada produced a film based on his life in 1981. The film was awarded Best Overall Entry at the Atlantic Film Festival in 1982.
Brittain’s work is held in private collections and a number of art galleries in Canada including the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian War Museum and retrospectives of his work have appeared in various Canadian galleries including the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and the National Gallery of Canada.
In January 1949, his first major exhibit at the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John. The exhibition was so popular he went on to do a series of solo shows in New York. In 1968, Brittain was awarded the Canadian Centennial Medal for his contribution to Canadian art.
In 1968, he died tragically of a stroke at the age of 55 after years of struggling with alcoholism. Brittain was an icon of the Saint John arts community and presence is still felt in the city’s arts scene today. The popular Britt’s Pub, named for the artist, is on the ground floor of his studio at 42 Princess St. boasting much of his work.