Lawren S. Harris: 1885-1970

Born on October 23, 1885 in Brantford, Ontario, Canada, Lawren Stewart Harris is widely credited for the formation of the well known Canadian collective called the Group of Seven. Harris grew up in a privileged, conservative, and religious family. His family’s wealth enabled him to focus on painting from an early age and from 1904-1908, he studied painting in Berlin, Germany.  He returned to Canada to serve in the army and taught musketry at Camp Borden training facility in Ontario.

Harris married Beatrice (Trixie) Phillips in 1910 with whom he had three children. In 1911, he met and became friends with J.E.H. MacDonald and the pair formed the Group of Seven. In 1913 Harris and MacDonald saw an exhibition of Scandinavian art in Buffalo, New York and under this influence, he started producing landscape oil paintings. Along with Dr. James MacCallum, Harris financed what was known as The Studio Building in downtown Toronto where the artists could work and live. Other artists in the Group of Seven included Arthur Lismer, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, F.H. Varley, and Frank Carmichael.

Between 1918 and 1921, Harris organized the now famous boxcar trips to Algoma, Ontario. The last of these trips took place in 1921, when Harris and A.Y. Jackson went to the North Shore of Lake Superior. It was here that Harris encountered the stark and bare landscape would become the inspiration for his new direction of his work. Harris was passionate about the North Shore and returned annually for the next seven years. It is here that he developed the style he is best known for –  “characterized by rich, decorative colours that were applied thick, in painterly impasto.”

In 1920, the Group of Seven held their first exhibition and in their time,  dominated the Canadian art scene.  A.Y. Jackson claimed: “Without Harris there would have been no Group of Seven. He provided the stimulus; it was he who encouraged us to always take the bolder course, to find new trails.”

In 1924, Harris traveled to the Rocky Mountains and returned annually for the next three years. In 1930, his landscape paintings became simplified as he sailed with A.Y. Jackson aboard a supply ship in the Arctic.

In 1934, Harris divorced his wife and married Bess Housser, whom he had fallen in love with 20 years earlier.  He and Bess moved to New Hampshire where Harris was the artist in residence at Darmouth College. In 1938 they moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he worked with Dr. Emil Bisttram, leader of the Transcendental Group of Painters, which Harris helped found in 1939.  In 1940, the couple moved permanently  to Vancouver, Canada where Harris continued to explore “abstraction inspired by the rhythms of nature.”

Harris was interested in philosophy and eastern thought and was involved in Theosophy.  His “belief in theosophy was intimately linked to his development as a nonobjective artist. Through abstract paintings, many of which use forms from landscape, he sought to portray a binding and healing conception of the universe – to make the sublime visual. His paintings have been criticized as being cold, but in fact they reflect the depth of his spiritual involvement.”

In 1969 Harris was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. He died in Vancouver on January 29, 1970 and is buried in the small cemetery on the McMichael Gallery grounds in Kleinburg, Ontario, where many of his works are held.

To learn more about Lawren Harris, visit the source links below the image gallery.

Sources: McMichael Gallery, Art History Archive, Group of Seven Art, (images), The Canadian Encyclopedia

Canada Day: The Group of Seven

The Group of Seven (from art History Archive)Happy Canada Day all you fellow Canucks and fans of Canada out there!  I thought what better day to post about some of the most well known artists in Canadian history – The Group of Seven.

Most famous for its paintings of the Canadian landscape, The Group of Seven began in Toronto in the 1910s and initially included: Lawren Harris, Arthur Lismer, A.Y. Jackson, J.E.H. MacDonald, Frank Johnston, F.H. Varley, and Frank Carmichael. The paintings of friend Tom Thomson, who died before the Group of Seven was formed, were often included in their exhibitions as well. Emily Carr was also closely associated with the group, but was never officially a member.

The members were all professional artists, who met through friends or work (Grip Ltd design firm). Through conversations, sketching trips, and meetings at local art clubs, they discovered that they shared a  dissatisfaction with the Canadian art scene at the time.

Members of  the group were searching for a new way of painting that would allow them to express what they believed were the unique qualities of Canada.  Influenced by Post Impressionism, the artists rebelled against the limitations of 19th-century naturalism and Impressionism. They shifted emphasis away from imitation towards the expression of their feelings in their paintings, creating bold and vividly-colored canvases.

In 1920, they held their first exhibition as the Group of Seven and during their day, they dominated the Canadian art scene. However, The Group of Seven did not exist for very long. F.H. Varley left to pursue his own interests in 1926. He was replaced by water-colourist, A.J. Casson. In the early 1930s, two other artists, Edwin Holgate and L.L. FitzGerald, joined the Group, bringing its membership to nine.

The Group’s influence was widespread and by the end of 1931, they no longer found it necessary to continue as a group. As well, the death of J.E.H. MacDonald contributed to the dissolution. At their eighth exhibition in December of 1931, they announced that they had disbanded and that a new association of painters would be formed, known as the Canadian Group of Painters.

I remember learning about the Group of Seven in elementary school and making what seemed like an incredibly long trek up to Kleinburg, Ontario to see the works at the McMichael Gallery.  I also remember liking Lawren Harris’s works most of all, though at the time, I didn’t know why.  Today, he is still my favourite of the group.  I love his vivid colours and the spiritual element of the paintings. As well, my tendency to like abstract art, draws me to his work more than the others.

If you’ve never visited the McMichael Gallery, I highly recommend it.  It’s actually a short trip (from Toronto), they exhibit 100% Canadian art, and it is located on 100 beautiful acres of wooded conservation land overlooking the East Humber River Valley. I can’t wait to go back next time I’m in town.

Sources: Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Mount Alliston University  Images: Courtesy of Art History Archive