Work & Bio

Lawren Harris

Born in 1885
 / Died in 1970

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Biography

Lawren S. Harris
1885 – 1970

“We are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, tis call and answer, its cleansing rhythms. It seems that the top of the continent is a source of spiritual flow that will ever shed clarity into the growing race of America.”
(Lawren S. Harris, 1926)

Lawren Stewart Harris was a leading landscape painter, imbuing his paintings with a spiritual dimension. An inspirer of other artists, he was a key figure in the Group of Seven and gave new vision to representations of the northern Canadian landscape.

Harris spent three years studying in Germany (1904-07), where he became interested in theosophy, a mystical branch of religious philosophy that would inform his later painting. Coming from a wealthy family he was able to devote himself entirely to his art.

At the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto Harris met other artists with similar nationalist concerns. In 1920 Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, Frank Johnston, Franklin Carmichael, A.Y. Jackson, F.H. Varley, and Arthur Lismer formed the Group of Seven. These artists would collectively create a range of new representations of the Canadian landscape, particularly the North. Over the course of his career, Harris’s painting evolved from Impressionist-influenced, decorative landscapes to stark images of the northern landscape to geometric abstractions. He painted in the Algoma region from 1918 to 1924, on the north shore of Lake Superior from 1921 to 1928, in the Rocky Mountains from 1924, and in the Arctic in 1930. For Harris art was to express spiritual values as well as to represent the visible world. North Shore, Lake Superior (1926), an image of a solitary weathered tree stump surrounded by an expanse of dramatically lit sky, effectively evokes the tension between the terrestrial and spiritual.

From 1934 to 1937, Harris lived in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he painted his first abstract works, a direction he would continue for the rest of his life. In 1938 he moved to Sante Fe, New Mexico, and helped found the Transcendental Painting Group, an organization of artists who advocated a spiritual form of abstraction.

Harris settled in Vancouver in 1940, where he continued to paint and involve himself with arts organizations, playing an important role in this milieu until his death.

Courtesy the National Gallery of Canada

HARRIS, Lawren Stewart

1885-1970

Born in Brantford, Ontario, the son of Thomas Harris and Anne Stewart, he had a happy childhood although he was often sick and was kept in bed. He found his entertainment in drawing and painting and was soon engaged in making Christmas cards for all his family. He and his friend William Davidson (who died at the age of 12) made sketches of many of the homes in their neighbourhood. Lawren Harris was educated at St. Andrew’s College in Toronto, where he was good at sports, full of mischief, illustrated everywhere on his notebooks and drew for the school paper. He then entered freshman year at the University of Toronto where Professor Decury spotted his talent and advised his mother that she should send her son to study art in Europe. Mrs. Harris took the professor’s advice but sent Lawren to Berlin where he was under the watchful eye of his elder brother (who was ten years his senior) who was engaged in post graduate work. About 1903/04 he arrived in Berlin where he spent four subsequent winters in the study of art. His first two years included study in pencil, charcoal and water colours. He took instruction in the studio morn­ings, out-of-doors sketching in the slums of Berlin afternoons, and sketching figures in the studio evenings in water colour and drawing media. His last two years were spent in the study of portraits and figures in oils. Two of his teachers were Mr. Wille and Mr. Schlabitz. Schlabitz accompanied him in the summer on a walking tour of the Austrian Tyrol where Harris did some sketching. They later climbed a mountain at Brizlegg. Harris also studied at Scarbina’s studio in the evenings. He met Mr. Thiem who was the son of an important art collector. Thiem’s scoffing of ortho­doxy shocked and stimulated Harris’ active and exploring mind. While in Europe Harris spent much of his leisure in the company of American students who were studying music and they attended many of the great operas and concerts. After his study in Germany Harris travelled in Palestine and Arabia with Norman Duncan where he did illustrations for Duncan’s Going Down From Jerusalem published by Harper & Brothers in 1909. He then visited lumber camps in Minnesota, U.S.A., where he made illustrations for Harper’s Magazine. Mayfair magazine described his Minnesota experience as follows, “. . . he was sent by Harper’s to depict life in a logging camp in Minnesota. The one he visited was one of the most primitive on the continent. There he witnessed the lumberjacks, on payday, being given doped liquor, robbed of their pay, and piled up like cordwood in the bunkhouses. The impact of his impressions in this backwoods ‘jungle’ after the studio life of Berlin and the ancient philosophy of the East must have been sharp indeed.” By 1910 Harris was back in Toronto where he saw everything with fresh eyes. His work had more vigour and sensitivity to colour and form. His first studio was located over Giles grocery store, north of Bloor and Yonge Streets. He returned to the subject of his youth, houses, but old houses which he sketched in pencil or ink and painted up into beautiful large canvases. His attraction for the poorer areas of town gained him the reputation of socialist painter. His house portraits brought a storm of criticism against him. Many years later Merrill Denison recalled the following, “Sometime around the year 1912 was fired the first gun in the great Canadian art war, a lively and acrimonious, though bloodless conflict, which has raged consistently ever since and which may still be counted on to burst into hearty flames each year . . . . The initial shell-burst occurred at a Toronto picture exhibition. The burst was violently unprecedented, for never had even a pin been dropped before to mar the tranquility of a Toronto picture exhibition. The shellburst took the form of a small portrait in oils of a patent-leather red pressed brick house seen from a neighboring backyard . . . . The public deplored and the two critics raged. The picture was effrontery and in questionable taste, for 1912. If one must paint a house asked the public, why choose an ugly house and why its back? There were others, however, who hailed him as a painter. The red brick house was indubitably ugly, but it was also indubitably Toronto. A painter had arrived who had actually painted a Canadian scene.” Some reproductions of his “house portraits” can be seen in a number of Canadian art books. In Toronto the Arts and Letters Club had been formed only two years be­fore Harris’ return and it was not long before he was an active member. Some of its members were engaged in parallel activities at various centres including Hart House Theatre where Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald prepared the set designs for the Chester Mysteries. Harris and MacDonald became good friends and shared an appreciation of the arts in depth. It was at the Arts and Letters Club that Harris first saw the attractive sketches of MacDonald in 1911. They visited Buffalo together in January of 1913 to see the exhibition of Scandinavian art which had been reviewed in art magazines. This exhibition made a deep impression on both artists. Harris was taken by the work of Harald Sohlberg, particularly his canvas entitled “Mountains; Winter Landscape”. He took sketching trips with MacDonald in 1912 at Mattawa and Timiskaming and in 1913 they went to the Laurentians. Harris met other artists at the Arts and Letters Club. Many of them like MacDonald were working for the Grip Engraving Company as commercial artists. In their ranks were F.H. Johnston, Tom Thomson, Tom Maclean, William Broadhead, Franklin Carmichael, F.H. Varley and Arthur Lismer. Earlier Harris had seen a painting, at the Ontario Society of Artists’ Annual exhibit, entitled “Edge of The Maple Wood”. He decided he would like to own it and through MacDonald was able to locate the artist, A.Y. Jackson who had his base in Montreal. Harris did not meet Jackson at that time but at Berlin, Ontario. In 1914 Harris and Dr. James MacCallum conceived the idea of building a studio building which could accommodate Canadian artists of ability who could devote their full attentions to painting, free from the pressures of commercialism. The building would have studios with high ceilings, lots of light and space – conducive in atmosphere for good painting. Many Canadian artists were drifting south to the United States and it was Harris’ and MacCallum’s hope that such a plan would prevent the loss of all of Canada’s most talented painters. Harris was well off through his connection with Massey-Harris (his grandfather was a founder of the firm) and so was Dr. MacCallum. They realized their plan and the Studio Building was erected on Severn Street in Toronto. They also guaranteed the artists enough to cover their expenses for a year. The artists had only to pay a very small rent. The first to occupy the new building included J.E.H. MacDonald, Tom Thomson, J.W. Beatty, A.Y. Jackson, Curtis Williamson, Arthur Heming, Lawren Harris and later, after A.Y. Jackson enlisted in the army, and Tom Thomson who was sharing a studio with him, moved to the construction shack at the rear of the building, Marion Long moved into their studio. Harris had the shack fixed up so that Thomson could live and work in it and it was there that Franklin Carmichael and Arthur Lismer occasionally worked on their canvases alongside Thomson. During the first year of the Studio Building’s existence Harris and Jackson wrote letters to the press about the National Gallery’s neglect of original Canadian art. Of this experience Jackson wrote, “By the end of the year there was a definite advance. Lismer had painted the ‘Guide’s Home’, a lively impressionistic canvas. Thomson had broken away from his careful transcripts of nature. With his knowledge of design he had found a new sense of freedom in the portrayal of his country . . . Harris and I had written letters to the press decrying the National Gallery for their neglect of Canadian art. Sir Edmund Walker, who was chairman of the trustees, instead of being annoyed came round to the Studio Building to find out what we were grousing about. When Harris told him about our ambitious ideas, he said that was what he wanted to see, too, and at the end of the year the National Gallery bought several of our canvases and became our staunch supporters.” On the 28th July, 1914 the First World War broke out and it soon led to the disbursement of most of the occupants of the Studio Building. Harris joined up and was sent to Camp Borden as a musketry instructor. Jackson and Varley went to France with the Canadian army. But Harris’ health brought an end to his military service and he returned to Toronto. Later he went sketching with J.E.H. MacDonald at Minden, Ontario, about 30 miles below Algonquin Park. After the war many artists found their way back to Toronto and most of the Studio group returned there with the exception of one – Tom Thomson who had been drowned in Canoe Lake, July of 1917. Harris’ brother had been killed in the war, an extremely sad blow to him and his mother. Lawren’s father died when he was young and the three of them had a close and happy companion­ship. In 1918 Lawren Harris arranged for a sketching party to travel in a boxcar which he had fitted with bunks and a stove. The boxcar was hooked to a passenger or freight train of the Algoma Central Railway which ran north for two hundred miles from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst, Ontario. When they had reached a promising location the boxcar was left on a siding. The month was September and the country in Jackson’s words was a ‘blaze of colour’. They made many sketches and Harris produced some notable canvases as a result of these trips. A well known one is North Shore, Lake Superior now in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada (the sketch for this work is in the collection of Charles S. Band of Toronto). Boxcar trips were made to Algoma in 1918, 1919, and 1920. In the year 1920 they decided to hold an exhibition at the Art Museum of Toronto (Art Gallery of Ontario). A catalogue was prepared and Lawren Harris wrote the text which included the following: “The group of seven artists whose pictures are here exhibited have for several years held a like vision concerning art in Canada. They are all imbued with the idea that an art must grow and flower in the land before the country will be a real home for its people . . . .” Further on he stated, “The artists here represented make no pretence of being the only ones in Canada doing significant work. But they do most emphatically hold that their work is significant and of real value to the country . . . .” Those exhibiting included Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, Frank Carmichael, Frank H. Johnston and F.H. Varley. They were the original members of the Group of Seven. Harris went east in 1921 where he visited Halifax and Newfoundland and later the North Shore of Lake Superior with A.Y. Jackson. At Halifax he found material for his paintings Black Court, Halifax a large canvas 38 x 44 and Minas Houses, Sydney which A.Y. Jackson9 described as A sharp protest that there should be such dismal poverty in a land so bountiful as ours. In 1922 Harris went to the north shore of Lake Superior with A.Y. Jackson; 1923 he returned there with Arthur Lismer; in 1924 with Franklin Carmichael and during these years did many sketches from which he made forceful canvases like Afternoon Sun, North Shore, Lake Superior (NGC), Coun­try North of Lake Superior (AGO), North Shore, Lake Superior (NGC), in which nature’s detail was left out and only the clear lines of cloud formations, sun’s rays, mountains, bare tree trunks and clear horizons were composed in bold design, sym­bolic of the vastness of Canada. In 1925 Harris went to Jasper Park with his family and was accompanied by A.Y. Jackson. The two men took a 15 mile canoe trip to the end of Maligne Lake where they then hiked to the Colin Range using a pack horse to carry their supplies. They climbed to the six thousand foot level where they could see up and down the mountain. Jackson described the range as a kind of cubists’ paradise full of Geometric formations. From the sketches he made on this trip Harris did the large canvas Maligne Lake, Jasper Park which was acquired by the National Gallery of Canada. He visited the North Shore of Lake Superior in 1925 with A.Y. Jackson, F. Carmichael, and A.J. Casson. For the next three years he spent his summers in the Rocky Mountains where he did scores of drawings and sketches. In 1930 he accompanied A.Y. Jackson on the steamer Beothic chartered by the Canadian Government to deliver supplies and relief Mounties to the R.C.M.P. posts in the Arctic. They made sketches at Godhavn, Greenland, Pim Island on the coast of Ellesmere Island, along Lancaster Sound, Lake Harbour, and elsewhere. Harris also carried a movie camera and was able to shoot some interesting sequences during the journey.10 Harris had unshakeable faith in Roman Meal which he ate throughout the journey and soon had others taking it for meals. When the last of their supply had gone he luckily spotted some in the upper shelves of the Hudson’s Bay store at Chesterfield and purchased the entire supply which lasted them on the return journey.11 An exhibition of their Arctic sketches was held at the National Gallery of Canada in 1930 under the auspices of the Department of the Interior. Some of Harris’ sketches included Iceberg and Fog, Smith Sound, Clyde Inlet, Baffin Island, Afternoon, Hudson Strait, Ellesmere Island, Baffin Island North, Eskimo Tent, Pangnirtung, and so on. Also that year Harris was awarded $500 at the Pan-American Exhibition of Contemporary Painting for his canvas North Shore, Lake Superior. During his career he won other prizes but that exhibition was made up of 120 entries including twelve by Canadian artists. About this time Harris built a home in Toronto which he had designed by the Russian women architect Alexandra Biriukova. The design for the home was reproduced in Canadian Homes and Gardens, April, 1931, and was considered to be very modern at that time. Moving to Vancouver in 1942 the Harris’ sold their home to Mr. Harry Davidson, a Toronto land developer who over the years became interested in col­lecting paintings (partly attributed to the atmosphere of the home which had been designed to hang the paintings of Lawren Harris).12 In the early thirties Harris moved toward abstract painting. His Arctic paintings, in many cases, were taken to the very door of abstraction and for him it was only a step further. Later he moved into non-objective painting and has been recently reported working in abstract expressionism.13 During his career he painted a number of portraits and one of the most famous of them is of Dr. Salem Bland which he completed in 1926. A very fine reproduction of this painting can be found in Great Canadian Painting published by the Canadian Centennial Library.14 Other portraits by Harris include those of Dr. John D. Robins (coll. Mrs. John D. Robins, Toronto); Dr. MacDonald (coll. St. Andrew’s College, Toronto); Mr. Eden Smith (architect); Mrs. Leslie Wilson; Bess Harris; Mrs. Holden (coll. Mrs. Murray Speirs, Pickering, Ont.); Thoreau MacDonald (Thornhill, Ontario). He lived in Vancouver where he was active in the arts until his death in 1970. Collectors of his works include: J.C. Fraser (Toronto); Col. R.S. McLaughlin (Oshawa); Mrs. Walter W. Wright (Toronto); Dr. & Mrs. Thomas Ingledow (Vancouver); Spencer Clark (Toronto); Mr. Walter Koerner (Vancouver); Miss Isobel McLaughlin (Toronto); Mr. & Mrs. Leslie Kerr (Vancouver); The Arts & Letters Club (Toronto); A Sidney Dawes (Montreal); National Gallery of Canada; Willistead Art Gallery (Windsor); The Art Gallery of Ontario; The Dominion Galleries (Montreal); The Winnipeg Art Gallery; The Art Gallery of Hamilton; The Vancouver Art Gallery; Hart House, U. of T.; Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, Conn., U.S.A.) and many others.

Colin S. MacDonald

A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 (online only), by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker
National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada