Painters Eleven dates from 1953 when a group of artists - Jack Bush, Oscar Cahén, Hortense Gordon, Thomas Hodgson, Alexandra Luke, J.W.G. Macdonald, Ray Mead, Kazuo Nakamura, William Ronald, Harold Town and Walter Yarwood - banded together with the purpose of exhibiting abstract art in Toronto. Although by the late 1940s the Automatistes in Montréal and the abstract expressionists in New York had developed a new artistic vocabulary, Toronto in 1950 was still dominated by the Group of Seven. The first public exhibition of abstract artists in Ontario was organized by Luke in 1952 and included 9 of the future members of Painters Eleven.

The group came together in the fall of 1953 as a result of the "Abstracts at Home" exhibition organized by Ronald at the Robert Simpson department store. Assembling for publicity photographs, the 7 artists represented decided to meet again at Luke's studio to discuss their common interests in abstraction. With the addition of 4 more artists to the group, Town proposed the name Painters Eleven. Bush undertook to approach his dealer about an exhibition, and the members agreed to finance group exhibitions. In February 1954 the first exhibition of Painters Eleven opened at the Roberts Gallery, drawing large crowds but no sales. Annual exhibitions were held at the Roberts Gallery in 1955 and 1956 and the Park Gallery in 1957 and 1958. A high point came in 1956, when Painters Eleven gained international recognition as guest exhibitors with the American Abstract Artists in New York. Exhibitions organized by regional galleries and the National Gallery of Canada circulated through Canada, 1957-61.

Painters Eleven held no single vision of the nature of abstraction. Although Macdonald had explored abstraction as early as 1934, the majority of the group (many a generation younger) became aware of it more than 10 years later, some of them through his teaching. Their sources were varied: Mead trained in England, Cahén in Europe, and Luke, Gordon, Macdonald and Ronald travelled to the US to study with Hans Hofmann. Though the New York school provided an important example for the group, they developed their own personal painterly vocabulary and expressive forms.

Initially critical response in Toronto ranged from bewilderment to hostility, but gradually, reviews became more favourable. Robert Fulford gave important press support, and international critics such as Sir Herbert Read (Britain) and Clement Greenberg (US) praised their work. The 1958 Park Gallery exhibition was the last annual group show: Cahén died tragically in 1956; in 1957 Mead moved to Montréal and Ronald resigned from the group. In 1960 Painters Eleven voted to disband. Their goals had been achieved, commercial and public galleries exhibited their work, and they had become recognized leaders in the local art scene. The National Gallery, the AGO and the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, hold important collections of their work.

See also Painting: Modern Movements.