Robert Harris

"As for the likeness alone, that's easy, but all other parts are ever so much more difficult to get." – 1871

A famous portrait artist and painter, Robert Harris is best known for his work The Fathers of Confederation.

The third of nine children, Robert Harris spent his early years on his father's farm before his family immigrated to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, in 1856. He was determined to be an artist from a very young age, and he went to Boston to study painting in 1873. He financed his studies by painting portraits and by working as a surveyor and cartographer in Charlottetown. A few years later, he left for Europe to study with Alphonse Legros at the Slade School of Art in London, and with Léon Bonnat at the Atelier Bonnat in Paris, where he learned to paint landscapes in the French impressionist style. He then travelled throughout Europe and the United States perfecting his art. When he returned to Canada, he settled in Montreal and produced illustrations for publications in Boston, Halifax, Montreal, and Toronto.

In 1883, Harris was selected to produce a painting illustrating the conference at Quebec in 1864, Meeting of the Delegates of British North America to Settle the Terms of Confederation. The resulting canvas, which became very famous, was destroyed during the fire that devastated the Parliament buildings in Ottawa in 1916; the cartoon (no. 26955) is in the Gallery's collection. This work made him the most important portrait artist in Canada. He painted portraits of more than 200 major figures of his times, including Sir John A. MacDonald and Lord Aberdeen.

Drawing on his childhood memories, Harris drew inspiration from his meeting with Kate Anderson, a rural schoolteacher in Long Creek, Prince Edward Island, in August 1885 to portray the young woman's confrontation with the men sitting on the school board. The painting is A Meeting of the School Trustees.

Robert Harris spent much of his life in Montreal, where he taught at the Art Association of Montreal. He was a founding member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (RCA) in 1880, then the Pen and Pencil Club in 1890. Elected president of the RCA in 1893, he held the position for 13 years and took on the mission of promoting young Canadian artists by making sure that they were represented in all the major exhibitions of the time.

Photography: Edmond Dyonnet Collection, National Gallery of Canada Archives