Lawren Harris, LL.D., R.C.A. (1885-1970)

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"We are on the fringe of the great North and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignations and release, its 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 of the National Gallery of Canada.

 

Lawren Stewart Harris (1885-1970) is unique in the history of Canadian art. One of the pivotal figures in the development of landscape painting in this country and a founding member of the Group of Seven, Harris was also a leading abstractionist who believed that colour and form were capable of expressing spiritual truths.

Although he studied in Europe and was solidly based in its painting traditions, Harris felt that the realities of the Canadian landscape required something different—something less academic than the British style and more substantial than that of the French impressionists. Around 1915, he and his colleagues found resolve in the example of Scandinavian artists such as Gustav Fjestad, who combined an awareness of issues of verisimilitude with a strong sense of design.

While the artists who became the Group of Seven are most renowned for their depictions of the landscapes of rural Ontario, they were essentially city dwellers, as is reflected in Harris' early images of Toronto. Red House, Yellow Sleigh, c. 1920, is a fine example of Harris' early treatment of colour and light, and the almost visceral quality of his paint. However, Harris came to believe that the landscape outside the city was more spiritually rewarding and began to work farther afield. Beginning in 1918, he sponsored sketching trips for himself and his colleagues, such as A.Y. Jackson, to the Algoma region of Ontario and, later, to the northern shores of Lake Superior.

The Lake Superior landscape was admirably suited to Harris' purpose; although foreboding physically, it was, by virtue of its isolation, a "pure" and "spiritual" place. In representing it, Harris began to simplify his palette and forms to create images which have an iconic quality. First Snow, North Shore of Lake Superior, 1923, is one of the finest of these works. A stark image, it is animated by an exceptional, revelatory light which pours over the foreground and silhouettes the background hills. The use of a reduced colour palette and the elimination of a place of purchase for the viewer give the image an unworldly quality, a distance and purity which Harris felt were lacking in the urban situation.

Harris' belief in the purity of the northern landscape derived from his lifelong commitment to theosophy and from his readings of Blavatsky, Ouspensky and others. Throughout the late 1920s, Harris' work has less and less direct relation to the human world, culminating in austerely reductive landscapes of the Rocky Mountains and the Arctic. The reductive nature of these works led inevitably to abstraction.

In 1937, Harris moved from Toronto to the United States, becoming involved with the Transcendentalist group in Taos, New Mexico. The abstract paintings he executed there have a coolness and intelligence which is entirely divorced from the romantic connotations of landscape. Their rigour and lucidity are unique in Canadian painting, and had a profound influence on the practice of abstraction in this country.

Harris moved to British Columbia in 1940 and became a leading figure in the Vancouver arts community. He was a strong supporter of younger artists and of the Vancouver Art Gallery, and was instrumental in the gallery's acquisition of its important collection of works by Emily Carr. In his later years, Harris' abstractions became more organic in form but continued to express his belief that painting might provide a window to a spiritual realm.



Source: Thom, Ian. "Lawren Harris," Vancouver Art Gallery Collection. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1994.

 

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Lawren Harris, LL.D., , R.C.A. (1885-1970)

"Algoma Sketch", c. 1922

Oil on panel 10.1/2" x 13.3/4"  (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Lawren Harris, LL.D., , R.C.A. (1885-1970)

"Mountains, Jasper", c. 1924

Oil on panel 10.5/8" x 13.1/2"  (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Lawren Harris, LL.D., , R.C.A. (1885-1970)

"North of Lake Superior"

Oil on panel 10.1/2" x 14"  (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Lawren Harris, LL.D., , R.C.A. (1885-1970)

"Lake Superior - Sketch XCIX", 1922

Oil on panel 10.1/2" x 14"  (SOLD)