Lawren Harris by Lilias Torrance Newton, 1938
Lawren Harris, who came from a wealthy family that co-owned a company, studied in Berlin and spent a year and a half travelling and working as magazine illustrator before settling in Toronto in 1908. For Harris, images illuminated by the crisp winter light portrayed a distinctly Canadian scene, warm and cheerful despite the snow and the ice-blue sky. He had already began to dream about a distinctly Canadian art that would express, in his words, “the character, the power and clarity and rugged elemental beauty of our own land”.
In 1911, Harris met J.E.H. MacDonald, whose exhibition of landscape paintings a the Arts and Letters Club impressed him profoundly. The two became friends, and in 1913, they saw an exhibition of modern Scandinavian paintings in Buffalo, New York, that convinced them on their mission. According to Harris, “Here was an art, bold, vigorous and uncompromising, embodying direct experience of the great North”. By 1914, however, the impetus of these like-minded artists, whose numbers had grown and now included Tom Thomson, was cut short by the First World War. Following the war, Harris led sketching trips to the Algoma region of northern Ontario, and in 1920, he was central in the organization of the first Group of Seven exhibition a the Art Gallery of Toronto. Thereafter, although the artists continued to exhibit as a group until 1932, they tended to go their separate ways. The spiritually minded Harris, influenced by his reading of Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art and by his interest in theosophy, sought a landscape that would better express his religious beliefs. After a number of excursions to, and a great many famous paintings inspired by, the austere grandeur of the north shore of Lake Superior, Harris explored the Rockies in 1924. There, he found “a power and a majesty and a wealth of experience at nature’s summit”.
Since 1910, Harris had been painting pictures of the houses in a community in Toronto known as “the Ward”, a neighbourhood that was home to many immigrants at the turn of the century. The buildings in these works present a flat friezelike pattern across the middle ground of the painting and are animated by the organic irregularity of the trees, which cast their shadows on the façades.
In the 1920s, for Harris, a simplification and distillation of nature’s forms evoked an ascent to spiritual awareness that would later find its most complete expression in the purified realm of abstraction.
Harris exhibited with the Group of Seven form 1920 to 1932.
Source: Anne Newlands, Canadian Art from its beginnings to 2000, Firefly books, 2000