BORN: Brantford, Ontario • 23 October 1885
DIED: Vancouver, British Columbia • 29 January 1970
Canada was at best a fuzzy idea before a gaggle of Toronto painters came together in 1920 and called themselves the Group of Seven. In politics, art, and culture, mainstream tastes were almost always borrowed from Britain, Europe, and the United States. In attitude and outlook, the dominion was profoundly colonial.
Lawren Harris, the heir to a family fortune made in the Canadian farm machinery business, hoped to change this attitude. He was deeply troubled by Canada’s cultural dependence when he returned from four years of studying art abroad in 1908.
As he became reacquainted with the arts community in Toronto, he met other painters who were also frus¬ trated with the general conservatism of bourgeois Canada. Inspired by a young commercial artist, Tom Thomson, Harris and others turned increasingly to northern Ontario as the subject of their work.
In 1913 Harris joined forces with local doctor and art patron James MacCallum to found the Studio Building, a three-storey workspace in the city where like-minded artists could meet and paint. As the artists were increasingly drawn to the north, Harris provided the means for them to spend sustained periods in the wilderness, where they discovered a national spirit.
The studio and the trips north developed their collective identity, and they vowed to make a bold public statement with their work.The Group of Seven burst onto the art scene in 1920. Thomson had died tragically in 1917, but Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, and F.H. Varley mounted a joint exhibition in Toronto.
Their ambitious goal was made clear in the group’s first exhibition catalogue: “An Art must grow and flower in the land before the country will be a real home for its people.” Their paintings—passionate, vivid depictions of the northern Ontario landscape—were an immediate sensation.
The group positioned its members as rebels by declaring war on the mainstream aesthetic, which valued traditional European masters and nineteenth-century naturalism, but they were not outsiders for long. Harris, especially, had moneyed connections in the Toronto philan¬ thropic community, and the group began to sell a lot of paintings in the 1920s.
The time was right, it seemed, for a distinctively Canadian approach to visual art. Harris, who alone among the group could open doors and pay the most pressing bills, was the defacto leader. He was also the creator of some of its most memorable works.
His paintings have been described as unfeelingly cold, but stripped of detail, at once brilliantly lit but suggesting a powerful gloom, they have become enduring national symbols.Harris spent much of the 1930s painting and teaching in the United States.
He returned to Canada in 1940, moved to Vancouver, and almost alone among the Group of Seven began turning to more abstract projects. Nature remained his inspiration, and his towering reputation in the Canadian art community gave nascent Canadian abstractionism an impor¬ tant endorsement.
Harris’ real place in history was at the heart of the group, however, and as early as 1930 its nationalist project could be dubbed a success. Its bold, modernist canvases had dragged Canadian painting into the twentieth century. And by passionately representing the Canadianness of the nation’s north, the group offered stirring visual evidence of a viable Canadian culture.
It seems more than a little imprecise to untangle one indi¬ vidual from the Group of Seven and judge him particularly influential. In its approach, and its impact, the group was a collective exercise. “In a sense the Group re-invented Canada,” one observer suggested. Lawren Harris, more than any other, had invented the group.