Artwork by Lawren Stewart Harris,  Algoma Sketch XCII (Algoma Autumn)

Lawren Harris
Algoma Sketch XCII (Algoma Autumn)

oil on panel
titled on a label on the reverse; a cross in a circle inscribed on the reverse
10.25 x 13.75 ins ( 26 x 34.9 cms )

Sold for $130,000.00
Sale date: May 28th 2019

D.P.M. Eliot, Dorchester
Private Collection, Toronto (1971)
Private Collection, Calgary
Collector’s Canada Selections from a Toronto Private Collection, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, May 14 – July 10, 1988, no. 61 as Algoma Autumn, illustrated. Also shown at the Musée du Québec, Vancouver Art Gallery and Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon.
The Paintings of Lawren Harris Compiled by Mrs. Gordon Mills July - Dec. 1936, Algoma Sketches, typescript, Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Dennis Reid, Collector’s Canada Selections from a Toronto Private Collection, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 1988, page 3, illustrated page 60 as “Algoma Autumn”
Paul Duval, Lawren Harris Where the Universe Sings, Ontario, 2011, illustrated in colour page 196, text page 408 as “Algoma Autumn”
Algoma is intimately associated with the early history of the Group of Seven. If Georgian Bay and Algonquin Park were the stages for their first shared ventures, Algoma inspired their bold new explorations in the years following World War I. Twenty-five Algoma subjects were included in the first Group of Seven exhibition in May 1920. Such classics as Lawren Harris’ “Island, MacCallum Lake” (Vancouver Art Gallery), J.E.H. MacDonald’s “Falls, Montreal River” (Art Gallery of Ontario), Frank Johnston’s “Fire-Swept, Algoma” (National Gallery of Canada), A.Y. Jackson’s “First Snow, Algoma” (McMichael Canadian Collection) and Arthur Lismer’s “Isles of Spruce” (Hart House, University of Toronto), were all inspired by Algoma’s dramatic landscapes.

Lawren Harris first painted in Algoma in the spring of 1918, when he travelled on the Algoma Central Railway from Sault Sainte Marie with Dr. James MacCallum, Tom Thomson’s patron and fellow sponsor of the construction of the Studio Building in Toronto. He returned there with Dr. MacCallum, J.E.H. MacDonald and A.Y. Jackson that fall. Inviting MacDonald to join them Harris wrote, “I hanker after fall colouring.” For MacDonald the Agawa Canyon was “the original site of the Garden of Eden.”

The resultant sketches and canvases that the artists exhibited at the Art Museum of Toronto in April 1919 were painted around the Agawa Canyon, Hubert and Batchewana and on the Montreal River. That fall Harris, Jackson and MacDonald returned to Algoma with Frank Johnston, painting near the same locations. From Hubert A.Y. Jackson wrote to his cousin, “Here and there is a beaver meadow, but rough stuff. [The beavers] … delight in making the country look like hell. They fell trees over a foot through and leave them lying all over the place, or they take all the bark off round the roots, and leave the tree dead standing up. … The color is disappearing very fast. The reds were gorgeous when we first came, but now it is all orange and yellow.”

A week after the opening of the first Group exhibition in May 1920 Jackson, Harris and MacCallum were joined by Arthur Lismer on a ten-day trip to Mongoose Lake, east of Batchewana. That fall Harris, Jackson, Johnston and MacDonald again painted at Mongoose and nearby Wart Lake. In May 1921 Arthur Lismer joined Harris and Jackson painting on the Agawa River and Montreal Lake and they travelled further north to Sand Lake in the fall. After September 1921, Lake Superior replaced Algoma as the stage for their new ventures.

In his article “Sketching in Algoma” published in “The Canadian Forum” in March 1921, Jackson described the challenges the artists faced painting at Mongoose Lake. “To fall into a formula for interpreting [the north country] is hardly possible. From sunlight in the hardwoods with bleached violet-white tree trunks against a blaze of red and orange, we wander into the denser spruce and pine woods, where the sunlight filters through – gold and silver splashes – playing with startling vividness on a birch trunk or a patch of green moss. Such a subject would change entirely every ten minutes and, unless the first impression was firmly adhered to, the sketch would end in confusion. Turning from these to the subtle differences in a frieze of pine, spruce, and cedar or the slighter graceful forms of the birch woods, one had to change the method of approach in each case; the first demanded fullness and brilliancy of colour, the second depth and warmth, the next subtlety in design and colour; and these extreme differences we found commingled all through…. from Mongoose we went in to twenty-three lakes and there were indications of others which we did not get to. ”

Few of Harris’ Algoma sketches are dated and the locations of his subjects are rarely identified. It is the necessary variety of responses identified by Jackson that complicates the categorization of his paintings as he rapidly developed new approaches to confront and interpret the ever-changing aspects of the land. Rocky cliffs, beaver dams and beaver-drowned swamps, panoramic views across rolling hills and innumerable lakes and dead trees populate Harris’ Algoma sketches. The central character of this glimpse of the north is the vigorously brushed, dancing orange tamarack set just off centre. The shallow foreground is animated by the bright red autumn foliage with stumps and logs flooring the stage. A chorus of dead trunks and firs surround the principal actors allowing glimpses of the cool autumn sky overhead. The clear, blue sky and clouds recall Harris’ autumn sketch (“Algoma Sketch XLVIII” sold Consignor’s May 2016) for the canvas “Island, MacCallum Lake” (Vancouver Art Gallery) first exhibited in May 1921, while the small conical firs are seen in his sketches painted at Sand Lake that fall. At the same time the shallow space and dense foliage depicted here recall Tom Thomson’s many studies of similar subjects in Algonquin Park.

While Harris did exhibit paintings with numerical titles, ninety two is merely an inventory number given by Bess Harris’ friend Doris Huestis Mills (later Speirs). In 1936 Mills inventoried the paintings Lawren Harris had left in Toronto when he moved to Dartmouth, New Hampshire. The oil sketches Harris marked with a cross within a circle, as seen on the back of this painting, were identified by the artist as being of exceptional quality.

We extend our thanks to Charles Hill, Canadian art historian, former Curator of Canadian Art with the National Gallery of Canada and author of “The Group of Seven - Art for a Nation,” for his assistance in researching this artwork and for contributing the preceding essay.

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Lawren Stewart Harris
(1885 - 1970) Group of Seven, Canadian Group of Painters

Lawren Harris was born in Brantford, Ontario and at the age of 19 went to Berlin for academic training. Upon returning to Ontario he met J.E.H. MacDonald who shared his vision of a new and distinctive way of depicting the Canadian landscape. Harris became the driving force behind the Group of Seven. A.Y. Jackson claimed: "Without Harris there would have been no Group of Seven. He provided the stimulus; it was he who encouraged us always to take the bolder course, to find new trails."

By 1918 Lawren Harris had travelled to the Algoma region in the company of MacDonald and Johnston. Harris made his first trip to the North Shore of Lake Superior in 1921. His search for a deeper spiritual meaning eventually took him to the stark landscapes of the far north. By the late 1920s the artist's work strove to capture the spiritual essence of the bold landforms of the Rockies and the Arctic. Throughout the ensuing decade Harris continued to simplify and abstract his landscapes until his subjects became non-representational. Lawren Harris worked as a member of the Transcendental Group of Painters in Santa Fe, New Mexico for two years, returning to Canada in 1940 and settling in Vancouver for the remainder of his lifetime.