John Lyman played a key role in the development of modern art in Canada, not only as an artist, but also as a theorist, professor and as the founder in 1939 of the Contemporary Arts Society.
Apart from trips to Canada in 1913 and 1927, Lyman spent the years 1907-31 in Europe. He attended the Académie Julian in Paris, and met the Canadian artist James Wilson Morrice. In 1909, he attended the Académie Matisse. The contacts with both Morrice and Matisse were crucial to John Lyman's art. Their devotion to a pure art of colour, line, and form, an art devoid of all anecdotal details or 'non-artistic' concepts, remained with Lyman throughout his life.
Lyman returned to Montreal permanently in September 1931 and tried to improve the artistic conditions in Canada. From 1936 to 1940, he was an author for the monthly art column in The Montrealer, where he commented on the Canadian art scene, promoted international trends, and offered some of the most intelligent writing on art in Canada. He co-founded the short-lived Atelier and introduced the students to French art. He was opposed to what he felt to be the xenophobic nationalism of Canadian art. To those who feared the taint of foreign art, Lyman replied, “The talk of the Canadian scene has gone sour. The real Canadian scene is in the consciousness of Canadian painters, whatever the object of their thought." The Montrealer, 1 February, 1938.
In 1939 Lyman established the Contemporary Arts Society in Montreal. In 1949, Lyman became an art professor at McGill University in Montréal and, three years later, was appointed director of the Fine Arts Department.