Lawren Harris | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Lawren Harris

Lawren Stewart Harris, painter (born 23 October 1885 in Brantford, ON; died 29 January 1970 in Vancouver, BC).
Clouds, Lake Superior
Lawren Harris, 1923, oil on canvas (courtesy Winnipeg Art Gallery).
Building the Ice House, Hamilton
Lawren Harris, 1912, oil on board (courtesy NGC).
Maligne Lake, Jasper Park
Lawren Harris, 1924, oil on canvas (courtesy NGC).
Lawren Harris, 1921, oil on canvas (collection of the artist).

Lawren Stewart Harris, painter (born 23 October 1885 in Brantford, ON; died 29 January 1970 in Vancouver, BC). Lawren Harris was the catalyst and leader in the creation of the Group of Seven, founding member and first president of the Canadian Group of Painters, and the painter who influenced Jock Macdonald and through him, other Toronto painters to paint abstractly. Harris had a profound influence on three generations of artists in Canada.

Early Life, Education, and Career

Harris's father was Thomas Morgan Harris, secretary of A. Harris, Son and Co. Ltd, a manufacturer of farm machinery, which in 1891 amalgamated with Massey to form the Massey-Harris Co. Ltd: Lawren Harris was thus a wealthy man by birth. After attending Toronto's St. Andrew’s College, Harris went to the University of Toronto where he was encouraged by his mathematics professor to study art in Berlin. After four years of study (190408), Harris returned to Canada. In 1908 he went on a sketching trip to the Laurentians; in 1909, with J. W. Beatty, he sketched in Haliburton. That fall he went to Lac-Memphrémagog, Québec. At the same time, he drew and painted houses in downtown Toronto. By the winter of 191112, he was sketching with J.E.H. MacDonald and had become friendly with Tom Thomson.

The Group of Seven

In 1913, Harris and MacDonald visited and were inspired by an exhibition of contemporary Scandinavian art at the Albright Art Gallery (now the Albright-Knox) in Buffalo, New York. By the early 1920s, when the Group of Seven was formed, Harris had developed into a magnificent landscape painter, transforming the powerful forms of nature into works of force and elegance such as Above Lake Superior (1924) and Maligne Lake (1924). In these and other paintings, he reduced the shapes of mountains, shoreline, trees, lakes and clouds, always parallel to the picture plane, to their essentials for an austere, monumental effect. He painted for five successive autumns in Algoma and Lake Superior (191722), in the Rockies from 1924 on, and in the Arctic in 1930.

The Late Mystical Works

As artist-in-residence at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, Harris moved progressively through drawing into non-objective art, a now dated term for abstract art. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, he worked with Dr. Emil Bisttram, leader of the Transcendental Painting Group, which Harris also helped found in 1939. His Vancouver work (194070) continued to explore abstraction inspired by the rhythms of nature. Harris's belief in theosophy is intimately linked to his development as a non-objective artist. Through abstract paintings, such as Abstract Painting No. 20 (1942), many of which use forms from landscape, he sought to portray a binding and healing conception of the universe and to make the sublime visual. His paintings have been criticized as being cold, but, in fact, they reflect the depth of his spiritual involvement. His world view makes him unique among Canadian painters, although his philosophy kept him aloof from spontaneously created art a crucial factor in later painters' abstraction. Nevertheless, his landscape paintings, such as Lake and Mountains (192728) and some of his abstractions, are among the icons of Canadian art.


In his own lifetime, Harris was the subject of two retrospectives, in 1948 and 1963. In 1978, the Art Gallery of Ontario held the exhibition Urban Scenes and Wilderness Landscapes, 19061930. In 198283, a national travelling exhibition of his drawings was held. A touring exhibition of Harris’ work, curated by American actor, comedian and writer Steve Martin, opens at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, California, in the fall of 2015. His only other solo exhibition in the United States was at the Americas Society Art Gallery in New York in 2000. The bulk of his work is found in the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario.

In November 2016, Lawren Harris's iconic Mountain Forms (1926) sold at auction in Toronto for a record $11.21 million, the highest price paid for a Canadian artwork to date.

The Group of Seven

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