Harris in his studio Photo: The Toronto Star

Harris in his studio
Photo: The Toronto Star

Selected Collections
The Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC
The Feckless Collection, Vancouver, BC
The McMichael Gallery, Kleinburg, ON
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, ON
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa ON

Lawren Harris, 1885 - 1970

Lawren Stewart Harris was born on October 23, 1885 in Brantford, Ontario.
His paternal grandfather, Alanson Harris, had made a fortune with a harvesting machine, and so Harris was an heir to the Massey-Harris fortune.

The Harris family was religious as they were rich and his parents were strict baptists, they attended church three times every Sunday and the only reading material permitted was the Bible. Headstrong and mischievous, Lawren occasionally chafed under this discipline.

As a child Harris was often sick. It was believed he had a heart problem, so his mother encouraged drawing, painting and Christmas card making over hockey and roughhousing.

Harris’ father died when Harris was only 9 years old, as a result, his mother indulged Lawren and his brother; they travelled to Europe and bought one of the first cars in Toronto. Harris attended St. Andrew’s College, at the time a brand new private school, and the University of Toronto after that.

In 1904, at age 19, Lawren’s mother sent him off to Berlin where she thought relatives could keep an eye on him, and he could study art.

Harris engaged in private studio classes in Berlin and thrived on the lively art scene there. Like the rest of Europe, Berlin was full of new artistic movements—expressionism, fauvism, symbolism. Harris consumed all these artistic ideas, along with philosophy and Eastern thought. Later, he became involved in Theosophy and joined the Toronto Lodge of the International Theosophical Society. 

Upon returning to Canada, Harris met married Beatrice (Trixie) Phillips on January 20, 1910. Together had three children. Within a year, after meeting and becoming friends with J. E. H. MacDonald, they together formed the famous Group of Seven. 

Harris’ wealth would become instrumental in the development of the Group of Seven. He financed half of the construction of a studio building in Toronto to provide  the artists a cheap or free space to work. Then in 1918 and 1919, Harris financed boxcar trips for the Group of Seven to the Algoma region, on these trips they would paint in areas such as the Montreal River and Agawa Canyon, inventing a style of painting that was free of European influences, a truly Canadian style of painting. 

In the fall of 1921, Harris began venturing further beyond Algoma to Lake Superior's North Shore, where he would return annually for the next seven years, his Lake Superior subject material marked a transition to a more austere, simplified style and a very limited colour palette; blue, white, and brown with a little bit of yellow.

In 1924, Harris made the first of several sketching trips to national parks in British Columbia and Alberta. Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies marked the beginning of Harris' mountain subjects, he also explored areas around Banff National Park, Yoho National Park and Mount Robson Provincial Park. 

In 1930, Harris went on his last extended sketching trip, travelling to the Arctic aboard a supply ship with A.Y. Jackson. The two spent two months on board the SS. Beothic , during which time Harris completed over 50 small oil panel sketches. The Arctic canvases he created from these sketches marked the end of his landscape period, and from 1935 on, Harris embraced abstract painting. 

The Group of Seven disbanded in 1933,  and Harris and the other surviving members were instrumental in forming its successor, the larger national group, the Canadian Group of Painters.

Meanwhile Harris’ personal life was about to change significantly. He fell in love with Bess Housser, the wife of one of his childhood classmates and Group of Seven biographer, Frederick Housser.

Harris continued to live with his wife and three children, but he exchanged intimate letters with Bess, discussions of art, Theosephy and philosophy.

In 1934, Harris left his wife of 24 years, Trixie, and his three children. He and Bess both divorced their spouses in Reno, Nevada and married each other. Trixie’s family threatened Harris with charges of bigamy, since the divorces were not recognised in Ontario.

That November, to avoid possible legal repercussions and the tabloid glare, Harris and Bess fled south, to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. 

Before long, he and Bess relocated again to New Mexico, where he co-founded the Transcendental Painting Group. Their final move was back to Canada, to Vancouver, BC where he’d live the rest of his life.

Harris died in Vancouver in 1970, at the age of 84, as a well-known artist. He was buried on the grounds of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, where the bulk of his work is now held.

Harris has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years due to interest in his work by the American actor, comedian and art lover, Steve Martin as well as record-breaking auction sales.