J. Russell Harper | The Canadian Encyclopedia


J. Russell Harper

J. Russell Harper, art historian (b at Caledonia, Ont 13 Apr 1914; d at Cornwall, Ont 17 Nov 1983).

J. Russell Harper

J. Russell Harper, art historian (b at Caledonia, Ont 13 Apr 1914; d at Cornwall, Ont 17 Nov 1983). Harper studied at the Ontario College of Art from 1938-40, served with the RCAF as radar mechanic from 1941-45 in Canada and in England (visiting museums and galleries constantly) and received a BA (1948) and MA (1950) in Art and Archaeology from the University of Toronto. During the 1950s he was on the staff of the Royal Ontario Museum and the New Brunswick Museum, also engaging in archaeological work and research on social history for Ontario and New Brunswick. In 1959 he prepared a report on the potential for restoration of Louisbourg fortress for the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (now known as ABORIGINAL AFFAIRS AND NORTHERN DEVELOPMENT). He was appointed Curator of Canadian art, National Gallery of Canada (1959-63); chief curator, McCord Museum, McGill U (1965-68); professor of art history, Concordia U (1965-79) and member of the advisory board, Journal of Canadian Art History (1974-83). His honours include D Litt, U of Guelph 1972; fellow, Royal Society of Canada 1974; Officer, Order of Canada 1974; Doctor of Fine Arts, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design 1982.

A determined pioneer in the history of art in Canada, he constantly stressed its need for careful, detailed knowledge of artists, their works, and their cultural setting as a means of full understanding of Canadian traditions. He produced essential aids in his Historical Directory of New Brunswick Newspapers and Periodicals (1961) and Early Painters and Engravers in Canada (1970). Painting in Canada: A History (1966) was the first comprehensive study in its field and the first important art book entirely produced in Canada; a revised edition appeared in 1977. His bent for inquiry and his sensitivity to creative expression combined in Paul Kane's Frontier (1971), which studied Kane's biography and writings in relation to the sketches and paintings documenting his travels. The same skills made his Krieghoff (1979) a definitive study.

In his later years Harper had 2 chief interests. One was the development of the first graduate program in Canadian art history. The other was the study of FOLK ART in Canada: the result was a seminal touring exhibition in 1973 for the National Gallery and A People's Art (1974).