eight of his most prominent paintings.
Lawren Harris is one of the most influential artists in Canadian history. The co-founder of the legendary Group of Seven had a lifelong love affair with landscape that took him to the far reaches of the country and deep into the soul of the true north.
But who was the man behind the magic paintbrush? Why was he able to see beauty and majesty where others saw a cold and barren land? And how did he transform his paintings from mere ideas to masterpieces?
I’m in great need of losing my littleness, and sharing completely in the life of the universe in water and skies and land and light.- Lawren Harris, 1930
This site explores four elements—LAND, WATER, LIGHT, and SKY—as they appear in Lawren Harris’s most prominent paintings. Scroll to peel back the layers and reveal the sketches, early paintings, and photographs that led to the creation of eight of his most prominent paintings.
Northern landscapes inspired Lawren Harris more than any other subject matter throughout his lifetime. His fascination with the north started in January, 1913, when he took a trip to Buffalo, New York to see an exhibition of modern Scandinavian art. Here, Harris encountered the bold and colourful winter scenes of Harold Solhberg, Gustav Fjaestad, and more. The experience planted a seed within Lawren Harris that would grow into a national artistic movement. When he returned to Toronto, Harris shifted his focus northward, moving away from urban spaces and seeking out creative possibilities and forms of expression that were implicitly Canadian.
Lawren Harris’s art was largely influenced by Canadian bodies of water. In 1918, he organized a trip with select members of the Group of Seven to Algoma, a district in Northeast Ontario. The trip resulted in some of Harris’s earliest landscapes as he sought to capture the colour and vibrancy of the region’s countless lakes and rivers. Compared to the hustle and bustle of capitalist Toronto, Algoma was a breath of fresh air. Harris would eventually travel further north to Lake Superior, the Arctic and west to the Rocky Mountains, finding inspirational and beautiful subjects all along the way.
Light plays a vital role in some of Lawren Harris’s most famous paintings. It pours down from the clouds, reflects off the water, and gleams from snow-capped mountains, making his work feel both material and mystical. Around 1920, Harris joined the International Theosophical Society, which led him to question the origins of the universe, seeking out ecstasy, transcendence, and enlightenment. In theosophy, the white light of Divine Knowledge is an important central concept, and as Harris searched for what he called “a new expression in art,” light became an increasingly dramatic element in his artwork.
Expansive skyscapes are featured in a number of Lawren Harris’s influential paintings. In 1924, he took his family on a trip to Jasper, Alberta, traveling through what is referred to today as Big Sky Country. Here, he discovered the Canadian Rockies with its ruggedly dramatic skylines. Sometimes warm and welcoming, other times cool and distant, Harris’s skies communicate complex human emotions, exploring ideas of divinity, universality, and spiritual transcendence. Harris strived to capture the essence of a moment in his paintings, and this desire is clearly evident in his exploration of the sky.