Artwork by Lawren Stewart Harris,  Lake Superior Sketch no. 3

Lawren Harris
Lake Superior Sketch no. 3

oil on beaverboard
signed, titled and dated c.1926 on a label on the reverse: inscribed “This is an authentic sketch by Lawren Harris made at Lake Superior about 1926. A.J. Casson May 8, 1973” and “4/3” on the reverse
12 x 15 ins ( 30.5 x 38.1 cms )

Auction Estimate: $500,000.00$300,000.00 - $500,000.00

Price Realized $624,000.00
Sale date: December 6th 2023

The Artist, Vancouver
Gwethalyn Graham, Montreal
Frank Benish, Sudbury, circa 1978
Christopher Varley, Toronto
Acquired by the present Private Collection, December 1994
“Annual Group of Seven Dinner featuring works of art by Lawren S. Harris”, York Club, Toronto, 18 February 1998
“Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver Art Gallery; travelling to the Glenbow Museum, Calgary; Art Gallery of Hamilton, 30 October 2015‒25 September 2016 as Barren Land, Lake Superior
“Collectors' Treasures: Annual Loan Exhibition”, Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, 19 October‒2 November 2019, no. 18
[Fred Jacob], ‘Ontario Painters Doing Vital Work’, “Mail and Empire” (Toronto), 17 March 1924
Doris Mills, “The paintings of Lawren Harris compiled by Mrs. Gordon Mills”, July‒December 1936, Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada as “Lake Superior Sketches, Number 3”, with drawing by Hans Jensen
Naomi Jackson Groves, ‘Foreword’, in “A.Y.'s Canada Drawings by A.Y. Jackson”, Toronto/Vancouver, 1968
Ian Thom, et al., “Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver/London, 2015, reproduced page 131, caption page 201, as “Barren Land, Lake Superior”
The exploration of Canada’s many landscapes saw the artist members of the Group of Seven paint on Georgian Bay and in Algonquin Park and Algoma. Following their regular practice, they painted their canvases in their Toronto studios from oil sketches realized in front of the motifs. Lawren Harris first painted on the north shore of Lake Superior in the fall of 1921, when he spent a few days at Rossport with A.Y. Jackson. The two artists would return to the north shore almost every autumn for the next seven years, exploring the region’s many dramatic features.

Harris’ first paintings of the north shore focused on the rocky hills overlooking the lake and around Port Coldwell. But the bare stumps of fire‒devastated trees overlooking Lake Superior were a repeated attraction for Harris and first appeared in his canvas “Above Lake Superior” (Art Gallery of Ontario, acc. 1335), the hit of the 1924 Ontario Society of Artists exhibition.

The oil sketch for that canvas (Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario) is on a panel 10 1⁄2 x 13 3⁄4 inches (26.7 x 35 cm) and was probably painted in 1923. However, in 1925, to better encompass his expanding vision of the lake’s vast spaces, Harris began painting on panels approximately 12 x 15 inches (30.5 x 38.1 cm), the dimensions of this oil sketch.

At the same time Harris painted, he also drew, though the relationship of his drawings to his oil sketches is not always clear. Were drawings done when weather didn’t permit painting? Did the drawing in the Dalhousie Art Gallery precede the oil sketch and was the sketch painted in his studio? These tree stumps are clearly defined in the drawing, though the clouds are more stylized and hover closer to the horizon in the sketch, the centre hump of land is higher and more prominent and the island at the right fills the horizon centre right. Jackson’s drawings were made in front of the motif after painting the oil sketch “to catch what he has termed an ‘alternative line for later decision,” as Naomi Groves has observed, or to note variant colours or changes of light. While Harris’ paintings undoubtedly came out of his response to the light and forms in the landscape before him, they are more intellectual constructs than Jackson’s immediate responses to the particularities of his subjects. The fleeting effects of light were of less interest to Harris.

The artists made numerous oil sketches but only a few were selected to be worked up into a canvas. This oil sketch was developed into a canvas generically titled “Lake Superior” (private collection). The tree stumps remain faithful to the drawing and sketch, but the silhouettes of the foreground forms, the island at the right and the clouds are closer to the drawing. It is more likely the drawing was done after the oil sketch, preparatory to the canvas. The overall tonality of the canvas differs from the small oil but the most dramatic change is in the treatment of light. Shafts of light illuminate the clouds, water and trunks, creating a remarkably different effect from the sketch, an effect characteristic of Harris’ major Lake Superior canvases of the late 1920s.

We extend our thanks to Charles Hill, Canadian art historian, former Curator of Canadian Art at 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. His first two years included study in pencil, charcoal and watercolours. He took instruction in the studio mornings, out-of-doors sketching in the slums of Berlin afternoons, and sketching figures in the studio evenings in watercolour and drawing media. His last two years were spent in the study of portraits and figures in oils. Two of his teachers were Mr. Wille and Mr. Schlabitz. Schlabitz accompanied him in the summer on a walking tour of the Austrian Tyrol where Harris did some sketching. After his study in Germany Harris travelled in Palestine and Arabia with Norman Duncan where he did illustrations. He then visited lumber camps in Minnesota where he made illustrations for Harper’s magazine.

By 1910 Harris was back in Toronto where he saw everything with fresh eyes. His work had more vigour and sensitivity to colour and form. His first studio was located over Giles grocery store, north of Bloor and Yonge Streets. His attraction for the poorer areas of town gained him the reputation of socialist painter. His “house portraits” brought a storm of criticism against him. In Toronto the Arts and Letters Club had been formed only two years before Harris’ return and it was not long before he was an active member. It was at the Arts and Letters Club that Harris first saw the attractive sketches of J.E.H. MacDonald in 1911. Harris and MacDonald became good friends and shared an appreciation of the arts in depth. They visited Buffalo together in January of 1913 to see the exhibition of Scandinavian art which had been reviewed in art magazines. This exhibition made a deep impression on both artists. Harris took sketching trips with MacDonald in 1912 at Mattawa and Timiskaming and in 1913 they went to the Laurentians. Harris met other artists at the Arts and Letters Club. Many of them like MacDonald were working for the Grip Engraving Company as commercial artists.

In 1914 Harris and Dr. James MacCallum conceived the idea of building a studio building which could accommodate Canadian artists of ability who could devote their full attentions to painting, free from the pressures of commercialism. Many Canadian artists were drifting south to the U.S. and it was Harris’ and MacCallum’s hope that such a plan would prevent the loss of all of Canada’s most talented painters. Harris was well off through his connection with Massey-Harris (his grandfather was a founder of the firm) and so was Dr. MacCallum. They realized their plan and the Studio Building was erected on Severn Street in Toronto.

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. In 1920 they held an exhibition at the Art Museum of Toronto (Art Gallery of Ontario). Harris wrote “The group of seven artists whose pictures are here exhibited have for several years held a like vision concerning art in Canada. They are all imbued with the idea that an art must grow and flower in the land before the country will be a real home for its people…” 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.

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