Lawren Harris - One of Canada's Great Painters

Posted by Jhan Dudley on

Lawren Stewart Harris was born in Brantford, Ontario, in 1885. His family was wealthy, having developed a successful farm machinery business. In 1891 the family business merged with the Massey firm to create the  iconic Massey-Harris company. The young Lawren Harris was basically free of money worries for the rest of his life.

The Early Years

Harris took up  painting  at an early age and studied in Germany from 1904 to 1907. In 1911 he met J. E. H. MacDonald, whose  landscape paintings impressed him profoundly, and they became friends. In 1913 they saw an exhibition of modern Scandinavian paintings in Buffalo, New York that convinced them of their mission.  “Here was an art bold, vigorous and uncompromising, embodying direct experience of the great North.” (Newlands, 2000)

Subsequently, Harris spent a year-and-a-half traveling, then worked briefly as a magazine illustrator in Toronto. It was then that he began painting post-impressionist street scenes of the older and poorer areas of the city. In fact, he continued to paint similar scenes well into the 1920's.

Spiritual Influences

The spiritually-minded Harris, influenced by his reading of Kandinsky’s 'Concerning the Spiritual in Art', and by his interest in theosophy, sought to create a style that would better express his spiritual beliefs. Impressed by the spirit of the 'North' in the Scandinavian paintings he had seen, Harris turned his attention to the rugged northern Ontario landscape. He traveled to the Algoma area north of Sault Ste. Marie in 1918. Curiously, he used a railway boxcar as his living quarters. Obligingly, the Algoma Central Railway moved it from one spectacular location to another over that summer. The following summer, the painters who would become the Group of Seven also painted scenes along the same rail line.

In 1921 Harris discovered the north shore of Lake Superior on a trip with A. Y. Jackson. In this simple, pared-down landscape, Harris “quickly realized he had found his perfect painting country.” (Murray, 2003)

Exploring Canada

Harris explored the Rockies in 1924 and returned to hike and to paint in the mountains for the following four summers. Having studied both transcendental literature and theosophy, the north shore of Lake Superior and the Rockies suited his striving to combine both the natural world and the spiritual in his paintings.

In 1934, at age 49, Lawren Harris re-invented himself as a painter, and turned to abstract painting as a means of grappling with the spiritual ideas he was trying to capture on canvas. He moved to New Hampshire for a few years, and then to New Mexico, before settling in 1940 in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was here that he became a leading figure in that city’s art community.
Lawren Harris will forever be associated with the Group of Seven, a seminal group formed in 1920 that rebelled against the colonialist ideas of art that had been imported into Canada from Britain and Europe. The Group of Seven advocated a home-grown “Canadian” style of art. A. Y. Jackson said that without Harris, there would be no 'Group of Seven'. “He provided the stimulus; it was he who encouraged us always to take the bolder course, to find new trails.” (quoted in Murray, 2003)

The Later Years

Before the Group of Seven, Harris was a founding member of the Canadian Group of Painters. He was also a founder of the Federation of Canadian Artists and of the Transcendentalist Painting Group in the United States. He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1969. Harris died in Vancouver a year later, at age 85.

Check out the art of Sam Siegel and see if you can find some of Lawren Harris' influences in Sam's art.

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