To say the late Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris had a great 2015 would be a great understatement.
His works fetched record amounts at auction, which was largely but not entirely due to comedian and art lover Steve Martin singing his praises in a show he co-curated at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Harris, considered the driving force behind the group, was a beloved Canadian artist before all this, but on the 130th anniversary of his birth, his star burned bright as ever.
Lawren Stewart Harris was born in Brantford, Ont., in 1885, one of two sons. And he would inherit part of a fortune amassed in the farming machinery business. In 1891, his family’s business merged with another farming equipment juggernaut, Hart A. Massey’s company.
Harris would never have to worry about being a starving artist.
Often sickly and confined to bed as a child, he drew and painted to entertain himself. After his father died in 1894, his mother, Anna, moved the boys to Toronto. In his 1993 book on Harris, Light for a Cold Land, Peter Larisey writes that the family remembered her as “buoyant, outgoing and generous” and a strong mother to two “high-spirited” sons. She would have a big impact on Harris.
Harris attended private school and then, briefly, the University of Toronto, where he spent much of his time sketching classmates. Next stop was Berlin, where he studied art for several years. He also travelled Europe and took a trip to the Middle East for Harper’s magazine. These experiences would also influence his life.
Harris married in 1910 and settled in Toronto. He and Beatrice (Trixie) Phillips would have three children together.
The young artist enlisted for military service in the Great War but never saw action. His brother, Howard, did, and was killed on Feb. 22, 1918, while inspecting a German trench. That, plus the death a year earlier of artist and friend Tom Thomson, led to a breakdown.
It did not help that he was also dissatisfied with his art at that time.
He wrote of “troubleous” sleep and “terrified tossings,” according to Larisey’s book, and retreated to a cottage on Lake Simcoe to convalesce.
“Whatever the causes of Harris’s illness,” wrote Larisey, “one thing is for sure: he ended his first decade (back) in Canada in pain, bewilderment and desolation.”
Fresh air and lifelong beliefs in theosophy and mysticism were just the things Harris needed, and gradually he regained his strength.
Always the organizer, he arranged rail trips to northern locales to sketch and paint landscapes. He and his artist friends lived in a modified boxcar that would get dropped in remote areas for days on end.
Harris thrived in that setting. And it was on the shores of Lake Superior that he developed his signature style. In a burned-out landscape, he found stark space and beauty. A prime example is his 1926 work North Shore, Lake Superior.
By early 1920, Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, Frederick Varley, Frank Johnston and Franklin Carmichael were calling themselves the Group of Seven. They would put on eight major exhibitions, the last in 1931. Others would become associate group members, including, posthumously, Thomson.
By all accounts, there would have been no group had Harris not been its unofficial leader. He took great pride in the group’s “nationalistic” art.
Harris travelled further west, and north to the Arctic, before 1930, the end of his major landscape period. In a land bereft of trees, Harris’s iconic paintings of shimmering, snow-capped mountains, glaciers and turquoise waters, beneath dreamy skies of blue and white, pop and glow.
All great art, wrote Harris — and he did a lot of writing over the years — is impersonal. Such were his landscapes, which were not tied to a specific location. He rarely painted people.
Harris fell in love with married artist Bess Larkin Housser and his marriage blew up so spectacularly that in the 1930s, he up and moved to the States, where he and his new love lived in New Hampshire and New Mexico before coming back to Canada upon the beginning of the Second World War. They settled in Vancouver.
Harris rediscovered his nationalism, becoming president of the Federation of Canadian Artists. He greatly influenced Emily Carr.
By then, his paintings had grown more abstract.
In 1948, Harris became the first living Canadian artist to be honoured with a major exhibit by the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Bess Harris died in 1969, and Harris died the following year, at age 84. Their ashes are buried together on the grounds of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., where many of the Group of Seven’s works reside.
“Everything Lawren did was for the country,” Jackson said upon Harris’s death. “He didn’t want anything for himself.”
Sources: Toronto Star archives; Light for a Cold Land: Lawren Harris’s Life and Work, by Peter Larisey; The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, by David P. Silcox.