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Historic Art | Lawren Harris R.C.A.

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Birches c.1916

Technique: oil on board

Dimensions: 13.5 x 10.5 in

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Provenance: ex. Private Collection, Calgary

In the Spring of 1916 Lawren Harris and Dr. James MacCallum visited Tom Thomson in Algonquin Park. From 1912 to Thomson’s death in 1917 many members of the future Group of Seven visited the park; they were sometimes referred to as the ‘Algonquin School’ of painting before their official formation in 1920.

Thomson’s work in Algonquin heavily influenced Harris as well as other group members. Birches is painted on a vertical board, which was unusual for Harris, landscape artists tend to paint in landscape formats to reflect their subject, but Thomson regularly painted vertically. Also the limited palette and use of colour as tone, a signature of Thomson’s, is present in Birches. The use of purple, deep blue, and white to represent the neutral tones of the tree trunks as well as the blue, green, and pink to represent the various tones of the forest floor.

Birches, along with other Algonquin Park works by Harris are highly decorative. The trees and the segments of colour Harris uses to represent them create a distinct and bright pattern. This work is a great example from Harris’s formative years and the highly stylized Impressionistic work he was doing between 1914 and 1916. Similar works include Algonquin Park, c. 1916 (The McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinberg) and Birches, Algonquin Park, c. 1916 (Private Collection).

About the Artist

Lawren Harris met the other artists who were to form the Group of Seven through the Arts and Letters Club. He had been a founding member of the Club and had a background very different to the other members of the Group. Harris was born in Brantford, Ontario and was an heir to the Massey-Harris fortunes, which supplied him with an independent income. A wealthy, conservative and religious upbringing in Toronto provided him with many privileged experiences. His education included St. Andrew's College at the University of Toronto. At age nineteen, he travelled to Europe to study art in Germany for three years. In 1908, he toured through the near East with a writer and had the illustrations he made there published in "Harper's Bazaar."

Harris was an enthusiast and organizer. The idea of the Studio Building, where all Group members could work, originated with Harris, who paid three quarters of the cost, while Dr. McCallum contributed the rest. After his discharge from the army, where he taught musketry at Camp Borden, Harris persuaded the Algoma Central Railway to lend him a boxcar and so began the first trips to Algoma. Harris invited artist friends - all expenses paid - and outfitted the boxcar as a studio on wheels with bunks, tables, chairs, a stove, shelves, a canoe and a 3-wheel jigger for short runs up and down the tracks. The last Algoma trip was in 1921. At this time, Harris and Jackson travelled to the North Shore of Lake Superior. Harris became widely known for paintings of this area. Here, the starkness and bareness of the landscape corresponded with the direction in which his paintings were moving.

Lawren Harris was convinced that art must express spiritual values as well as portraying the visible world. To him, the role of the artist and the function of art was to reveal the divine forces in nature. He gradually moved toward greater abstraction and thus more complete expression of his philosophical views. Harris was doing much more than trying to paint the northland as he saw it. His goal was to incorporate his spiritual feeling for the landscape into his work. After 1924, he no longer dated or signed his works because he did not want them to be tied to a specific artist or place. While Lawren Harris continued to explore new ideas, he also continued to be a driving force behind the Group of Seven.


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