Artwork by Robert Harris,  The Dead Bird, circa 1890

Robert Harris
The Dead Bird, circa 1890

oil on canvas
signed lower right
16 x 20 ins ( 40.6 x 50.8 cms )

Auction Estimate: $7,000.00$5,000.00 - $7,000.00

Price Realized $6,600.00
Sale date: June 8th 2023

Morris Gallery, Toronto
Acquired by the present Private Collection, November, 1972
“Royal Canadian Academy of Arts”, Art Association of Montreal, Montreal, from 24 April 1890, no. 42 as “The Lark’s Death”
“Royal Canadian Academy of Arts”, Toronto Art Gallery, from 6 March 1891, no. 63
“Canadian Classics”, Morris Gallery, Toronto, 21 October‒4 November 1972
“Collector’s Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; travelling to Musée du Québec, Quebec City; Vancouver Art Gallery; Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, 14 May 1988‒7 May 1989, no. 26 as The Dead Bird, circa 1890
“Art canadien: L’enfant et son univers|Canadian Art: A Child’s World”, Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Montreal, 28 October‒11 November 2017,
no. 14
“Our Children: Reflections of Childhood in Historical Canadian Art”, Varley Art Gallery, Markham, 13 April‒23 June 2019 as “The Dead Bird”, “circa” 1890
“Canadian Classics”, Morris Gallery, Toronto, 21 October‒4 November 1972, reproduced
Dennis Reid, “Collector’s Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Toronto, 1988, no. 26, reproduced page 36
A painter of the social and political elite in Toronto and Montreal, Robert Harris is considered Canada’s most renowned historical portrait artist. Born in Wales in 1849, Harris grew up on his father’s farm before moving to Prince Edward Island in 1856. He developed an interest in art at a young age, often sketching images he saw in magazines. During a trip to Liverpool in 1867, Harris visited the local museum, where he independently learned anatomy and proportion by sketching from plaster casts. Already working as an artist, he decided to pursue formal artistic instruction in 1873 in Boston, London, and Paris. Harris quickly became known as the most important portrait artist in Canada following his commissioned painting The Fathers of Confederation dating to 1883. He painted portraits of more than two hundred major figures of his times, including Sir John A. MacDonald and Lord Aberdeen. Here, the artist has depicted a boy and a girl mourning the loss of a pet bird. Dressed in formal attire, they are likely the children of one of Harris’ Canadian elite clients.

The majority of Harris’ mature career was spent in Montreal. A teacher at the Art Association of Montreal and founding member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1880, he was one of the first advocates for the distinctiveness of Canadian Art. As president of the RCA for thirteen years, Harris took on the mission of promoting young Canadian artists by making sure that they were represented in all the major exhibitions of the time.

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Robert Harris
(1849 - 1919) OSA, PRCA

Born in the Vale of Conway, North Wales, he arrived in Charlottetown, P.E.I. with his parents during 1856. His mother encouraged him in his artistic development. He attended Prince of Wales College and at the age of 14 left school to fill a job in the office of a land developer and surveyor, Henry Cundall. Harris also had musical talents and he played the violin in an orchestra performing at a banquet in honour of the “Fathers of Confederation”. He was to travel throughout Canada almost 20 years later, in search of details for their collective portraits. He visited England and Wales when he was 18 and not yet a a professional painter. He met his cousin Thomas Metcalfe who was an artist and he also visited Brown’s Museum in London. It as probably during this trip to England that he decided to become a full time painter. He returned to Canada in 1868. Although Harris hadn’t taken formal training at this point he was commissioned by the Executive Council of Prince Edward Island, to paint portraits of all the Speakers of the House of Assembly back to the time of the House’s first establishment of responsible government. In 1872 he went to Halifax where he either taught or studied drawing at a museum run by Dr. Honeyman. He moved to Boston in 1873 where he studied anatomy under Dr. Rimmers and painting from life under a Mr. Dewing.

He began to experience trouble with his eyes (which were to trouble him throughout his life). And he was forced to take a rest for six months. He sailed for England in 1876 where he took further study at the Slade Fine Art Course, University College, London, under Alphonse Legros and copied works at the National Gallery. After studying in Paris under Leon Bonnet, he was back at Charlottetown in 1878. He moved to Toronto in 1879 where he opened a studio at Six Leader Street off King Street East. There he spent the next two years or so, doing portraits, exhibiting with the Ontario Society of Artists of which he became Vice President in 1880, and became a founder-member of the Royal Canadian Academy. It was in 1800 too, that Harris was given the assignment by the Toronto ‘Globe’ to sketch the principal parties involved in the mass murder of the Donnelly family. Rapid sketches had been one of Harris’ special developments. During this period Harris did illustrations of his home province (P.E.I.) for the publication ‘Picturesque Canada’. Harris was back in Paris by 1881; in Rome in 1882; Florence and Venice, Italy, 1883 and in England where one of his paintings was chosen for an exhibit in the Royal Academy show.

He returned to Canada in 1883 and at Ottawa was commissioned by the Dominion Government to paint “Fathers of Confederation”. The original commission was to be of the men who attended the Charlottetown Conference (1864) but he was then asked by the Government to change the scene to the Quebec Conference which included ten or so additional delegates. The Quebec Conference had taken place about 40 days after the Charlottetown Conference. Jean M. Auld explained “…The artist travelled over the whole of Canada, making personal studies of those of the statesmen who were still alive, and visiting the relatives of those who were dead.” The Quebec Parliament buildings, were the conference was held, had been burned and additional research had to be done by Harris in the reconstruction of the Quebec Conference chamber. The painting was exhibited at the R.C.A. exhibit of 1884 and the same year handed over to Sir Hector Langevin, Minister of Public Works, at Ottawa and placed in the Parliament Buildings. When the painting was lost in the fire that destroyed the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, Harris was asked by the Government to do another like it but he declined because of his failing eyesight and age.

In Montreal Harris taught classes at the Art Association of Montreal and married Elizabeth Putman in 1885. Harris travelled extensively in Europe afterwards with his wife. He died in Montreal at the age of 70. In 1965 the Harris collection was transferred to the curatorial custody of of Confederation Art Gallery in Charlottetown. A retrospective exhibition was held there in 1967 under the sponsorship of the Centennial Commission, Ottawa.

Source: "A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, Volume II”, compiled by Colin S. MacDonald, Canadian Paperbacks Publishing Ltd, Ottawa, 1979