National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 23, 1974

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Nationalist Aspects of Lawren S. Harris's Aesthetics

by Peter Larisey

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7 


There had been some writing about the need for a Canadian nationalist art before Harris and his generation got underway, but many of these articles embodied attitudes which would be disdained by the future Group of Seven and their supporters. First of all, far from expressing optimism about the future of Canada and her artists, these earlier writers often humbly apologized for Canada's youth, and did not expect her art to be as good as that of other countries. For example, Harriet Ford, reviewing the annual exhibition of the Royal Canadian Academy held in March and April 1894, wrote:

The whole state of fine arts in Canada is in too unformed a condition to admit of the possibility of any marked distinction in Canadian art, of any kind. In fact, we should not want to crystalize our tendencies into any set form. It would when crystalized, surely prove worthless. (1)

Secondly, many of these writers presumed that the representative or typical Canadian landscape image was rural, pastoral, or even picturesque. For example, J. A. Radford regretted that at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 Canada's art exhibition did not include several categories of subjects, among them figures and cattle, even though Canada was "noted for her handsome women and for being a greater cattle producer (for her population) than any other country on earth" (2) Writing a decade later, only months before Harris left Canada to study painting in Berlin, T. G. Marquis insisted: "Canada is essentially an agricultural country, and any picture distinctively Canadian in subject must include the painting of animals." (3)

The Canadian Art Club - the most important early manifestation of a Canadian nationalist art - was committed to painting this pastoral and agricultural vision of Canada. But they also believed that art should be "picturesque." A reviewer of their first exhibition, held in Toronto in the spring of 1908, praised it because most of the subjects were picturesque; and he quoted Homer Watson (1855-1936), President of the Canadian Art Club, to explain the notion: "a house, a waggon, a man, or anything else, is not paintable until it becomes weather-beaten and ready to fall to pieces - until it gets back close to that from which it was evolved." (4) In fact, the same re-viewer felt that it would be "a good thing for art in Canada if for future exhibitions picturesqueness be almost rigidly demanded." (5)

Late in 1908, however, H. Mortimer-Lamb wrote of the North: "No painter has yet experienced the spirit of the great northland; none perhaps has possessed the power of insight which such a task would demand." (6) Mortimer-Lamb's challenging observation might well have been the cue for Harris and his growing circle of friends to attempt, with their aggressive artistic politics, to take over centre stage in the arena of Canadian culture. No group of painters has had a more lasting effect on the way Canadians have been seeing their country. And no one in that nationalist circle was more thoroughgoing in his efforts to articulate this nationalist aesthetic, based to a large extent on the North, that was Lawren S. Harris.

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