Lismer was born in Sheffield, England, and studied at the Academie Royale in Antwerp, Belgium. In 1911, Lismer immigrated to Canada and settled in Toronto, Ontario where he worked at the commercial design company, Grip Limited (1911-1912). There, he met J.E.H. MacDonald, Tom Thomson and Frank Carmichael, eventually forming the iconic Group of Seven. Trips to Georgian Bay and Algonquin Park in Ontario and his visits to the Eastern and Western provinces of Canada were foundational in inspiring his artistic expression. Lismer worked in oil, watercolour, gouache, charcoal, pencil, ink, etching and linoleum engraving and is best known for his landscapes and painted figure studies. Lismer was influential as a teacher and in children’s art education. From 1916 to 1919, Lismer headed the Victoria School of Art and Design in Halifax where he was instrumental in growing the reputation of the notable art school. He was Vice-Principal of the Ontario College Art, Toronto (1919-1927); educational supervisor at the Art Gallery of Ontario (1927-1936); and Principal of the school of the MMFA (1940-1967). His work as an art educator took him to France, England, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and throughout the United States.
Always a passionate advocate for the arts, Lismer wrote several articles about the Canadian art scene and established one of North America’s most successful children’s art programs, The Montreal Children’s Art Centre at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He received an honourary doctorate from Dalhousie University in 1941 and from McGill University in 1963 an was the recipient of an RCA medal before his death in Montreal. He exhibited at the RCA between 1912-1961 and at the AAM/MMFA between 1941-1968. A retrospective exhibition was held the year of his death at the NGC. His work is represented in all major Canadian collections including those of the AGO,CWM, EAG, GM, MCMC, MMFA, NGC and WAG.