Lawren Stewart Harris (1885 - 1970)

One of the pivotal figures in the development of landscape painting in Canada 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

Throughout his career as an artist Lawren held fast to his dedication to the native Canadian outlook, he first stated in the catalogue of the 1920 Group of Seven exhibition "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."

Lawren Harris was one of the major leaders of Canadian art for many decades. His life spanned eighty-five years and in that time his philosophy constantly moved him to explore new approaches towards his existence, and his art.

His was the main driving force that brought together and joined the varying talents and temperaments which formed the Group of Seven. He was also the founder of the now famous Canadian Group of Painters which succeeded the Group of Seven in 1933.

Throughout a long lifetime of searching his work passed through five major periods; ranging from the impressionistic Toronto "House" paintings of the early 1900's, through richly pigmented landscapes of Algoma, dramatically designed compositions of the North Shore of Lake Superior, the blue and white mystical compositions of the Arctic and Rockies to his last phase of total abstraction.

Harris's canvases from his voyage in 1930 to the Arctic on the government supply ship "Beothic" were largely symbolic or complex pictorial designs.

He was influenced by the Russian Kandinsky's CONCERNING THE SPIRITUAL IN ART and he subsequently incorporated symbolic color into facets of his work. The yellows and blues held a mystical significance; yellow for intelligence and blue for conveying spiritual illumination.