Higher States: Lawren S. Harris and his North American Contemporaries


Lawren S. Harris, Abstract Sketch in Oil, #41, 1934–1938, oil on Masonite, 55.9 x 45.7 cm. Private Collection. Photo: Alexandra Cousins. © The Family of Lawren S. Harris

Perhaps struck by a midlife crisis or simply by Cupid’s arrow, Group of Seven artist Lawren S. Harris made a dramatic change in the late 1930s. Moving away from his wife and children, and breaking with the conventions of the time, he settled at Dartmouth College in the United States with his newly found soulmate, Bess Housser. From 1936 to 1940, he lived in New Hampshire and New Mexico until the Second World War forced him to return to Canada. Relocating in Vancouver, Harris left everything behind: Toronto, his family, and, as it turned out, painting landscapes.  

Celebrated worldwide for his stylized and monumental scenes of icy landscapes, Harris’ depiction of the northern wilderness has, for many, come to represent Canada and Canadian art, right up to the present day. As a member of the Group of Seven, he helped pioneer a new and distinctly Canadian style of painting, building his own early reputation on a novel pictorial approach to Canada’s vast northern spaces. In 1936, however, he also made the not-so-easy decision to overturn his iconic imagery, and never looked back.

Visitors to the exhibition, Higher States: Lawren Harris and his American Contemporaries, on view at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, will perhaps be surprised not to encounter the paradigmatic landscape painter. Instead, they will discover, or rediscover, Harris the abstract artist.


Lawren S. Harris, The Earth, the Sun and the Moon, 1938–1942, oil on board, 61 x 53.3 cm. Faculty Club Collection, University of Toronto. © Family of Lawren S. Harris

Higher States offers new perspective on the unfamiliar body of works produced by Harris following his arrival in the United States. Organized by guest curators Roald Nasgaard and Gwendolyn Owens, the exhibition is comprised of some seventy paintings. It features works by important Canadian and American contemporaries of Harris’ such as Bertram Brooker, Emily Carr, Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald, Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, Raymond Jonson, Emil Bisttram and Marsden Hartley.

Harris’ profound commitment to “the spiritual in art” and his belief in Theosophy may have also had an influence on his personal and artistic metamorphosis. Although a pragmatist, he became a founding member of the Transcendental Group of Painters in Santa Fe. Immersing themselves in visual modernity, the Group was inspired by Wassily Kandinsky, its works often richly infused with the vocabulary of American Transcendentalists such as poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman.

As Sarah Stanners, Chief Curator at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, told NGC Magazine, If you swoon in front of a snowy mountain scene by Lawren Harris, then it’s time to engage with what made Harris most excited for the last 35 years of his life — that is, abstract art.” 

Lawren S. Harris, White Triangle, c. 1939, oil on canvas, 129.5 x 93.2 cm. Gift of the estate of Bess Harris, and of the three children of Lawren S. Harris, 1973. NGC. © Family of Lawren S. Harris

The National Gallery of Canada (NGC) has contributed to the McMichael exhibition with four oil paintings from its permanent collection. Brazil (1950–1951) by L.L. FitzGerald is on view, along with three works by Harris: Study “Lighthouse, Father Point” (1929), Abstract Sketch (1936) and White Triangle (c. 1939).

“White Triangle is a majestic example of Harris’ inventiveness in response to the North American modernist visual culture that fascinated him,” said Roald Nasgaard in an interview with NGC Magazine. “Here is a complexly layered object composed of Bakelite browns and transparent light-reflecting Plexiglas.”

For Nasgaard, White Triangle seems to hover in space, although it is actually perched on a simplified classical pedestal as if it were a traditional sculpture. The transparent planes and materials echo Constructivist sculptures such as 1927 works by Naum Gabo. “Harris has,” adds Nasgaard, “as in a number of other paintings that include the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s Memorial to an Airman, ingeniously rethought his construction as if it were an abstract public monument.” 

Brazil is another example of abstract paintings incorporating elements of Modernism. Its title results from its display at the São Paolo Biennial in 1961. “LeMoine FitzGerald’s Brazil luminously opens out into the deep space of a prairie sky,” says Nasgaard. “Or, if we prefer a more spiritual reading, it soars off into mystical infinity.” This was a stylistic choice shared by Harris and his Santa Fe colleagues, as well as by Canadian contemporaries such as FitzGerald.

L.L. FitzGerald, Brazil, c. 1950–1951, oil on canvas, 50.8 x 56 cm. Gift from the Douglas M. Duncan Collection, 1970. NGC. © With the permission of Patricia and Earl Green, co-holders of the FitzGerald copyright

Although highly reduced and abstracted on their own terms, Nasgaard believes that Harris’ landscapes of the 1920s “did not come out of the imagination like the later abstract paintings did.” Harris’ landscapes were “serious and brooding,” he adds, “but it wasn’t until Dartmouth College that his works became much more joyful, often lighthearted, even displaying a sense of fun in them.” 

Why this transformation? Perhaps in the same decisive way he moved to the United States, he also opted to send landscape painting into exile and adopt abstraction instead. “Maybe it was part of his personal alignment with Bess?” wonders Nasgaard. “Or perhaps in the early 1930s he also ran into a dry streak?”

There is probably no single or simple answer to these questions. Higher States, Lawren Harris and his American Contemporaries, however, presents a unique opportunity to ponder the mood of Harris’ latter work. It is also a chance to discover the witty and spiritually transcendent side of Harris.

Higher States: Lawren Harris and his American Contemporaries is on view at McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario until September 4, 2017. It will tour to the Glenbow Museum in Calgary following its presentation at McMichael.   

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