A LONG, LOST LAWREN HARRIS HAS BEEN FOUND
October 23, 1885 - January 29, 1970
background painting: Lawren Harris - Shacks
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Through research we now know that Lawren Stewart Harris painted a large oil painting 24" X 36" Autumn Harbour in the fall of 1912. What is remarkable about this discovery is that we now know not just the painter but the location, the circumstances, the date and even the next painting that he finished.
Since he was a teenager, Lawren Stewart Harris had been told that he was going to be an artist. Born on October 23rd 1885 into a wealthy family it was decided that he needed to study art in Europe. Lawren’s uncle, William Kilbourne Stewart would be studying German literature at the University of Berlin thus he could act as chaperone, so in the autumn of 1904 Lawren sailed for Germany. There he was exposed to Gauguin, van Gogh, Cézanne, Seurat, Matisse and a host of other artists. Harris also saw the tenth, eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth exhibition of the Berlin Secession, which exhibited works by modern artists from Germany, France and throughout Europe. French Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, the earlier Barbizon painters and the avant-garde programs throughout Europe were all part of his artistic education.
When he returned to Canada in 1908 he found himself lost in this artistic milieu and for the next four years he spent much of his time on sketching trips: from the Laurentians, to northern Minnesota lumber camps, to Mattawa and Temiscaming along the northern reaches of the Ottawa River and locations in between.
A turning point came for Harris when he attended the 1911 Ontario Society of Artists, when he met Lismer, Jackson and Thomson. When he saw for the first time a striking painting that stood out from all the other works, A.Y. Jackson was potentially the first to venture into the wilderness of northern Canada in 1910 to Sweetsburg, Quebec to paint The Edge of the Maple Wood. This was the painting that had such an impression on them. Harris would comment1 that it was the “freshest, brightest, most vital Canadian note in the exhibition” Thomson claimed that it was the first painting to open his eyes to the possibilities of the Canadian landscape.
Birth Of The Group Of Seven ●
Harris was now ready to find confederates and artistic like minds. He already had a base at the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, the Old Toronto Court House and the friendship of Dr. James M. MacCallum. He was soon to be introduced to a whole new side of the art world, the commercial artist. Harris had dabbled at the fringes but had stayed aloof. Harris had first seen an exhibition of small oil paintings by J. E. H. MacDonald2 in November 1911 at the Arts and Letters Club. When he met MacDonald, he was the head designer at Grip, a commercial art firm that at one time or another employed five of the Group of Seven: J. E. H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, Frank Johnston and Franklin Carmichael.
Tom Thomson was also employed at Grip but died in 1917 before the Group of Seven was formed. Only A.Y. Jackson and Harris were never employed by Grip. Harris would comment that “I was more affected by these sketches (MacDonald’s) than by any paintings I had seen in Europe.”
Very shortly after meeting, MacDonald and Harris began sketching together. One of Harris’s works from this period is an oil on canvas 23"x24" The Gas Works, 1911-12 that he would later deny painting. This was another experiment in style for Harris as the work takes on an Impressionist tone like Claude Monet’s London, Houses of Parliament. MacDonald painted the same scene an oil on canvas 28"x40" Tracks and Traffic but with a more realistic tone. For Harris 1912 would be an experiment in colours and styles3, Harris was now searching for a Canadian theme and character4. Dr. MacCallum5 invited Harris and MacDonald to spend the next summer at his cottage on Split Rock Island in the mouth of Go Home Bay off Georgian Bay6,7.
Harris’s 1912 trip was with J.E.H. MacDonald when they went to Mattawa and Temiscaming along the northern reaches of the Ottawa River into what was described as an ‘eerie wilderness8’. On the return leg of this trip it appears that he took Dr. MacCallum up on his offer and made arrangements with his wife to meet at Dr. MacCallum’s cottage on Go Home Bay.
Broad Brush Strokes ●
Harris developed a style of broad brush strokes that can be seen everywhere in his rough works. A brush stroke that appears to fill in large space with an almost casual effort. This was not the refined blended stroke of his studio canvases but a bold invigorating stroke that placed paint to canvas as if that was the only place that it was meant to be. A brush stroke that echoed Harris’s style in trees, shores, buildings, rocks, skies, whether the scene was urban or wilderness, these broad brush strokes can be seen everywhere. Two excellent examples are Toronto, Old Houses and In the Ward - Toronto.
Autumn Harbour echoes with these broad brush strokes on every square inch of this six square feet of canvas. The best side-by-side comparison comes from Harris’s Shacks painted in 1919. The snow banks and the shorelines are a visual quote of each other. The boat shed and the shacks both have the same texture, style and impasto facia from the broad brush strokes that make them up.
Harris Family Snapshot ●
There is a very striking piece of evidence in Joan Murray’s and Robert Fulford’s book “The Beginning of vision: Lawren Harris” on page 51. There is a Harris family snapshot of five people in a skiff against a waterline of trees54. The photograph is guess dated as c. 1910 with only Trixie Phillips (Harris’s first wife) and Lawren Harris being identified. Harris married Trixie Phillips on January 20th, 1910 to become the first Mrs. Lawren Harris. A very surprising detail is that for the exception of the unknown figure at the back of the skiff, the other two figures in the front of the skiff are most likely Dr. James M. MacCallum and J.E.H. MacDonald. I have included photographs from that time period of Lawren Harris, Dr. MacCallum and J.E.H. MacDonald for comparisons.
There is one well documented time when Harris, MacCallum and MacDonald could have been in a rowboat together and that was when Harris and MacDonald returned from the Laurentians for a visit to MacCallum’s cottage on Split Rock Island in Go Home Bay in the summer of 1912. What was not known was the presence of Trixie Phillips in this snapshot. Her family had always assumed that she never left Toronto for any trips into the wilderness of Ontario. Except that the Harris’s were a newly married couple and there is a train station in Bala, with direct connections to Toronto. A letter of invitation, a rented houseboat and a summer away from it all, would all that would be necessary for a well-to-do young man and wife to take a vacation.
What is even more surprising is that there is direct corroboration in an oil sketch done by J.E.H. MacDonald: Houseboat at Split Rock Island, Georgian Bay. This a small oil sketch 6in x 8in painted in the summer of 1912. The inscription on the reverse of the painting certifies by Thoreau MacDonald, the artist's son, that the houseboat was owned by Dr. MacCallum and that the figure depicted on the shore is Thoreau, who was born in 1901. The corroboration comes from that fact that an eleven year old boy would not have travelled up to Split Rock Island in the summer of 1912 on his own. It is doubtful that even J.E.H. MacDonald’s wife would have travelled alone with her son to this island.
There is no known record of her having been to the island before, a trip which would take a train, a car, a ferry and a boat to get there. This trip would only have been undertaken if someone was guiding them. It would have been Dr. MacCallum who would have taken his family, MacDonald’s family and Harris’s wife Trixie all together.
The next surprising detail is the tree line. This is not a Toronto tree line nor is it a northern Ontario tree line. This is a tree line that is very reminiscent of central Ontario around Go Home Bay and this tree line matches almost exactly to the tree line in Autumn Harbour.
All of this evidence verifies that Autumn Harbour was painted by Lawren Harris. All of the physical characteristics of Autumn Harbour are consistent with known Lawren Harris works except one, in that Autumn Harbour is a large 24 x 36" canvas that would have had to be painted on site. Lawren Harris is not known to have painted such a large canvas on site, especially if he was in the wilderness. The principle difference in this case was that Harris was staying at Go Home Bay for and extended period of time with his wife. They were there for two months, almost as if they were living there. Small oil sketches were painted by Harris when he was travelling but in Toronto he was known to paint large canvases on site and this situation would have been very similar.
He was experimenting with a number of different styles at this time and was also known to paint similar sized canvases on site but in an urban location. It is however possible that a couple of events could have occurred that made such a possibility. In 1912 Lawren Harris was on vacation in Go Home Bay where by historical accounts he was uninspired to execute any works, then an unusual event occurred. A large sailboat, an estimated 50 foot sloop sailed into Go Home Bay anchoring nearby. The Welland Canal had only been open for a few years at this time giving access to the inner Great Lakes and the appearance of such a craft on Georgian Bay would have been a visual treat but to have one enter Go Home Bay and anchor would have been an unusual event. Reason to inspire an artist into action.
Hurdy Gurdy, 1913 ●
Potentially the most remarkable piece of evidence is a small oil sketch done by Harris, with a guestimate date of 1913: Hurdy Gurdy. In all probability this work was done in November 1912 when Harris returned from Go Home Bay and is most likely to have been the first work done by him after painting Autumn Harbour. The remarkable evidence is the consistent colour palette between the two works: lime green, orange, pastel whites, rustic browns, the use of purple and even turquoise highlights. To account for this similarity it is quite possible that when Harris and MacDonald planned their trip to Mattawa and Temiscaming that they visited their local art supply store in Toronto before departing, as it would have been very unlikely that such supplies would be available on the trip. Harris would have painted Autumn Harbour from those supplies, then closing his paint box he did not open it again until he was ready to do another work back in Toronto. This time it was a studio work based upon some sketches, with the logical process to use the paints already in his paint box. Subsequently, Autumn Harbour was painted in September 1912 and Hurdy Gurdy sketch was painted approximately 60 days later in November 1912.
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New National Gallery ●
1912 would be a pivotal year for Harris and all of the seven. There had been many sketching trips into northern Ontario and Quebec and some had even lived there. Tom Thomson had grown up near Owen Sound, Franklin Carmichael had grown up in Orillia, Harris had spent many summers at the family cottage on Kempenfeldt Bay on Lake Simcoe but he had never painted a large Canadian wilderness landscape on site before 1912. Harris had done a few oil sketches on board but no canvases. By 1912 only MacDonald and Jackson had ever done any Canadian wilderness painting. Harris had painted The Drive9,10, a 35¼”x54¼” oil on canvas in his studio from sketches that he did in 1909 and the influence of MacDonald’s 1911 painting By the River, Early Spring but he still had not taken brushes, oil and canvas into the wilds of Northern Ontario. Another studio work that came from his 1909 sketches was a 31½”x48" oil on canvas A Load of Fence Posts painted in 1911. This work hints at a wilderness vista but that adventure was to happen later in 1912 for him and many of the seven. The first to hit the road was Tom Thomson who set out for Algonquin Park in May of 1912. The Drive was finished in time to be shown in the March 9-30, 1912 OSA exhibit and was bought by the National Art Gallery in November 1912. This was one of their first paintings purchased, for the new National Gallery which had opened in the recently constructed Victoria Memorial Museum in 1912.
It was Alexander Young (A.Y.) Jackson11 (1882-1974) who later acknowledged that without Harris there would not have been a Group of Seven.
Not Signing His Work ●
The first real Harris trait is that this work is unsigned. Why does an artist sign or not sign their work? The signature usually states that the work is finished and that the author is taking responsibility for it so that they will get recognition, respect of their peers and potentially clients. It is very doubtful that an artist would not sign their work out of forgetfulness. An artist does not sign their work for a reason. Potentially they have been requested not to sign a ‘commercial’ work.
Lawren Harris was notorious for not signing his work, his reason being was that he wanted his work to be judged by its merits and not because there was a recognizable signature in the corner. One work that has been clearly signed after the fact is Algonquin Park c. 1917, a 14 x 10.625" oil on paperboard that is signed in pencil. Another was Return from Church, 1919 that was also signed in pencil. This work is in the National Art Gallery in Ottawa and it has been extensively cleaned leaving the pencil signature untouched.
When I contacted Stewart Sheppard, Lawren Harris’s grandson, he informed me that Harris had signed only around 10% of his work. Most of the later ‘proxy’ signatures were by Harris’s second wife Betsy. The National Art Gallery has several Harris works that were donated in 1960 (10 years before Harris’s death). This was the time frame of Betsy’s ‘proxy’ signatures, the family excuse was that Harris was too feeble to sign them on his own thus she was only assisting his intentions and the National Art Gallery has potentially several of these. Prior to 1911 he signed his work with just31 his initials L S H and then he switched to LAWREN HARRIS in 1911 on The Gas Works which is unique because it was signed twice by Harris in both his L S H style and his new LAWREN HARRIS style32. It was because of this simple block letter style that ‘proxy’ signatures were possible. Research has shown that Harris stopped signing his works personally around the mid 1920's.
There has been much debate over what Harris painted on site vs in the studio. Some authorities claim that he never painted any major works on site33, just quick drawings and oil sketches. Yet there are several examples where Harris took his easel, brushes and paints on site to do a large canvas. The Eaton Manufacturing Building painted in 1911 and the oil on canvas 23"x24" The Gas Works, 1911-12 that he painted on site while MacDonald painted the same scene an oil on canvas 28"x40" Tracks and Traffic. Toronto, Old Houses 16.125 x 16.125" from 1912, Old Houses, Chestnut Street and later Vacant House, In the Ward are all excellent candidates for on site canvases.
Colour Palette Shift ●
From the time that Harris got back to Canada his colour palette shifted from sombre studio tonal34 compositions to vibrant on site explosions of colour35. These explosions of colour can be seen from his 1908 sketching trip into the Laurentians in a small oil sketch Laurentians, Near St. Jovite to his Algonquin Park adventures in Algonquin Park painted in 1917 and Trees, Algonquin Park painted the year before in 1916. No European influence over tones, no tonal effects, no “Segantini stitch” brush strokes, no abstractions, just simple copies of the scene that works perfectly in depth and shading. Harris’s raw talent at work.
A striking comparison can be found in Harris’s Laurentians, Near St. Jovite36 painted in 1908. This is a 6" X 8½” oil sketch done on his first sketching trip. A detailed examination of the tree lines on both canvases shows similar brushstrokes in the treatment of the trees and bare trunks. The sky in both canvases is also similar in its horizontal stroke construction. It should also be noted that this sketch does not have a signature.
Another aspect of this canvas that is striking similar is the aggressive juxtaposing of thick strokes of complementary hues37. Laurentians, Near St. Jovite and Autumn Harbour are both departures from tonal paintings that he was experimenting with at the time and a shift towards a brighter more realistic interpretation of the scene38.
Unique Layered Composition Style ●
How do you recognize Lawren Harris’s brush stroke techniques? All of the previously mentioned techniques have been used by several other artists, including all of the Group of Seven, so what makes Harris’s techniques stand out? The first point needs to be, what style is Harris using? Harris experimented with several different European painting styles plus the training that he received from his German instructors. This first point becomes clearer when you can tell if he is copying some painters style or not. Harris did five types of works: watercolours and drawings, oil sketches, rough works, style experiments and polished studio works. The watercolours and drawings are a different medium. His oil sketches, rough works and polished studio works have the most consistent techniques. His style experiments in French Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, the earlier Barbizon painters plus the avant-garde styles as well as copying the style of an individual painter suppress his own techniques. Two excellent examples from this period are tonal pieces: The Gas Works and The Drive.
Thus there are many times that several of his signature traits such as: underpainting, thick brush strokes, impasto, Segantini stitch and even purple are not used. Two other style experiments that Harris did were Hurdy Gurdy and Laurentian Landscape. However when looking at his oil sketches, rough works and polished studio works a unique layered composition style of painting from the foreground to the background emerges. While some features are hard to recognize or absent in his style experiments such as the use of impasto or a Segantini stitch his unique layered composition style of painting from the foreground to the background is almost always there in these works. The most telling evidence of this trait is shown when he has to paint around a previously painted object or has to fill in some background detail of a building or the sky after he has already painted some foreground object over that space.
Harris developed this style50 as a student in Europe and it has become one of his signature traits. Autumn Harbour, Old Houses Chestnut Street and Shacks highlight this unique style and the problems that it creates. An outstanding feature of this style would give him a regular problem of needing to interpaint51 background elements such as the sky between branches, smoke or structures that he had painted first. This method of construction was not limited just to Harris’s rough compositions but his refined studio works suffered from this malady as well. A close examination of Old Houses, Wellington Street shows this problem52. The trees in the foreground were painted before the front facia of the building, the roof and the sky. By the time he got to the roof, his edges of the trees were becoming fuzzier and by the time he got to all those bare branches, he appears to have given up and just painted smeared blobs of brown to indicate unfallen dead leaves rather than fill in all those tiny little gaps with sky. The same type of construction can be seen throughout Harris’s work. In his finished studio work like Autumn - Kempenfelt Bay - Lake Simcoe and his rough work In the Ward, Toronto are especially revealing to this foreground to background layering construction.
When Harris was trained in Europe he was only allowed to sketch or work in watercolours for the first two years. What he was now doing was to apply this Teutonic watercolour instruction to his oil painting. A habit that was difficult for him to shake. With watercolours the subject is painted from the foreground to the background with very little if any overlapping and the colour white is only found by creating voids on the parchment surface. Harris was finishing his works by painting in his finish colours from the foreground to the background leaving the sky to last and painting in this surface in between previously painted features.
Autumn Harbour has the exact same style of construction. The foreshore is an obvious over paint, as well as the water where it can be seen that the edges do not meet or in some cases overlap. The canoe in the centre of the scene is an especially troubling feature as the over paint leaves gaps all along both sides. The mast and the rigging of the sloop were painted before the tree line was completed forcing a tortured insertion of green and yellow foliage in between these features. The sky can also be seen to have been painted after the tree line, the mast and the rigging as again the artist has to painstakingly insert small sections of sky between these features. The sky can also be seen to not meet the tree line leaving gaps revealing the grey under paint.
At this stage in his career Harris did very little invention but choose to paint the image in much the same way that he saw it53. From that assessment, if it was Harris who painted Autumn Harbour, then the scene depicted would be a faithful reproduction of what existed. There are five prominent features shown in Autumn Harbour: a small bay or inlet, a canoe, boatshed, sloop and background tree line. The first three features could be anywhere but the sloop and the tree line can be analysed to their origins. The sloop is in the neighbourhood of 45 to 60 feet long. This is a large boat that in 1912 would be extremely difficult to transport overland. A sloop of this size would also have been constructed professionally in a boatyard that had access to salt water and not built on an isolated landlocked fresh water lake. Go Home Bay has access to Georgian Bay, Lake Huron and through the Welland Canal to salt water.
Another Harris signature trait was underpainting40 to highlight individual brush strokes. After he has sketched out the scene he would fill in sections with a contrasting underpaint that he would allow edges and gaps to show through the finished surface. Sometimes this was a simple technique he used to highlight the shape and depth of an object. A very good example can be seen in his abstract depiction of a forest sunset in the oil sketch Near Sand Lake, Algoma. Here Harris has used an orange/brown underpaint giving the clouds, trees and rocks an almost fiery glow from the setting sun. He achieves a more sculptured effect in Shacks where he has used a soft brown underpaint to bring out the depth and form of the snow drifts and banks. Also a very similar brown underpaint gives the sky more character. In Old Houses, Chestnut Street Harris uses shades of soft brown underpaint to give the sidewalk and facia of the buildings an enhanced detail to their craggyness.
The same underpainting methods are also used in Autumn Harbour in the shorelines, water, buildings and tree line. Soft browns and patches of blue and black are used under the fore shoreline to give them definition and detail. The inlet water has been underpainted with a soft grey that has been allowed to show through the over paint to give the water a depth and reflection. The canoe, boatshed and sloop have all been underpainted to enhance their definition. The back shoreline and tree line have also been underpainted in soft brown and grey to give the same distance and definition effect.
Thickly Painted Impasto Technique ●
Harris also developed a style of thickly painted41 brush strokes that gave the appearance of texture to the object being represented. It is believed that he acquired this impasto42 technique from van Gogh43 and other European artists. Red House with Yellow Sleigh, and Houses - St. Patrick Street, are excellent examples of his impasto technique that is so common to his rough painting as to being a signature trait, especially the rough sketches and canvases painted from 1908 to 1920.
Autumn Harbour also exhibits the same impasto technique in the shorelines, buildings, water, boats and trees. The technique is especially noticeable when viewing his work from a side angle. The ridges, textures and direction of each brush stroke stand out in the details of the paint.
Group Of Seven Style ●
What was to be his style? Evidence of the iconic Lawren Harris style would immerge the next year in 1913 in a large studio canvas Winter Sunrise. The influence of van Gogh was still in evidence through his treatment of the snow as the soft rounded shapes of the snow gives a strong hint of things to come. This was the breakout start of the iconic Lawren Harris Group of Seven style. There would still be years of struggle within his talent. Works that would be indirectly influenced by the European masters. Large scale works that flung paint to canvas, in an almost violent passion as if the paint was to be plastered20 on a wall: Vacant House in the Ward, Building the Ice House, Red House with Yellow Sleigh, Old Houses Chestnut Street, In The Ward - Toronto, In the Ward 1916, Shacks and many more. In contrast a softer more purposeful image comes out in the same period: Hurdy Gurdy, Houses - St. Patrick Street, Autumn - Kempenfelt Bay - Lake Simcoe, January Thaw - Edge of Town, etc. are all works showing a more resolute polished style.
He Would Destroy Works ●
Harris was very critical of his own work. He had the talent and he knew it. This however was both a comfort and a bain to his production. It is known that he would destroy21 works that he considered to be inferior. It has been speculated by several authors that Harris never did a significant painting while he stayed in Go Home Bay in the summer of 1911 and 1912 or he abandoned22 any works that he might have done23. One eye witness24 to this behaviour was Thoreau MacDonald, J.E.H. MacDonald’s son.
One of the few surviving works from his student period25,26 is an 18"x27½” watercolour on mounted cardboard Buildings on the River Spree, Berlin dated 1907 that shows his mastery of colour and depth. This work is also important for it shows his technique of sketching the subject in graphite or charcoal first to establish proportions and perspective. Before his return to Toronto, Harris spent more than two months from November 1907 to February 1908 with Norman Duncan27 preparing fifty-nine illustrations for a series of eight Harper’s Magazine28 articles about the Middle East29. Harris would later comment that these were “the world’s worst illustrations30.” This would explain why so few of these or his student works have survived because he was known to destroy work that he considered inferior.
Autumn Harbour has all the markings of an abandoned Lawren Harris work. It is a very rough construction. The stretcher is a reused manufactured frame from some other art work. The top bar of the stretcher shows several nail scratch marks where the finished work was not hung on a wire or cord but hung on a nail driven into a masonry wall. Several pieces of mortar or concrete were found in the stretcher when it was carefully cleaned. It appears that the canvas fell off this nail several times and on one occasion this nail pierced the canvas causing a small tear. The patina of the wood is very dark with one side edge showing were it has been shortened. The original stretcher dimensions would most likely been 24" x 36 3/8". It seems that the stretcher was cut down to fit a 24" x 36" picture frame.
Even still the canvas does not fit the stretcher squarely. There is more overlap on two sides and the other two just fit. The canvas itself might even have come from some other use as there are several stains on the backside. It might even be a piece of discarded sail cloth. The canvas is attached to the stretcher with carpet tacks.
The overall appearance of the canvas is that of hurried construction as if it was just thrown together at a moments notice. This canvas was not constructed as if it was going to become a family heirloom but just some sort of temporary construction. More the work of a hurried artist who is going to use the painting as a sketch or reference for a later studio work.
Searching For A Canadian Tang ●
In 1964 Harris commented about this period: “...from that time on we knew that we were at the beginning of an all-engrossing adventure. That adventure, as it turned out, was to include the exploration of the whole country for its expressive and creative possibilities in painting.” Harris’s spirit of being a Canadian came out at this time. He would now dedicate his craft to only Canadian themes. In his quest to find those themes he divided his efforts into at least three directions: influences from the European masters, studio works where he tried to restrict European influences and his own raw sketch painting style. Since his return to Canada, Harris would be searching for what he described as a “Canadian tang12.” That something unique in both subject and style that he could make his own.
An excellent example of his raw sketch style comes out in a 6" X 8½" oil sketch Laurentians, Near St. Jovite that he did in his first year back in Canada, 1908. No European influences can be detected, no tonal effects, no overt "Segantini stitch" brush strokes, no abstractions, just a simple unsigned copy of the scene that works perfectly in depth and shading. Harris’s raw talent at work. Upon his return Harris was working on his first known Canadian urban landscape in oil, a 14.5"x16" canvas Top o’ the Hill, Spadina 1909-11. He started it in 1909 and then went back to it two years later. It is painted in sombre notes of brown and gray in broad thick stokes of paint that almost seem to be glued to the canvas. His mastery of light and shadow is expert and the influence of Paul Cézanne’s Post-Impressionism becomes obvious when this work is compared with Cézanne’s The House of the Hanged Man. You can almost imagine Harris hunting out the perfect subject to echo this macabre subject and this might explain why he took two years to complete it. The next year in 1910 Harris executes his first major oil painting, a 25"x30" oil on canvas Old Houses, Wellington Street that is pure iconic Harris style. A mastery of tone, shade and depth that proclaims no European influences and announces to the world that a new painter has arrived.
Tonal Paintings ●
Harris now found himself lost within his own talent. He had mastered the craft but what was his own true style and what subject would inspire this style13? One of these styles has been described as tonal painting14, where the subject is rendered in hues of the same basic colour. The next year Harris experimented with a tonal style in industrial subjects15. He painted The Eaton Manufacturing Building in 191116 and later The Gas Works which he painted on site17 during a location trip with MacDonald. The Eaton Manufacturing Building is the only know time that Harris combined this with another European style of impressionistic facture18. Another tonal composition is The Drive, a 35¼”x54¼” oil on canvas painted in his studio in 1912 from sketches that he did in 1909. Later Harris regarded the period before the formation of the Group of Seven as a decorative period saying that the time from 1913 - 1918 was only a preliminary stage19.
In September 1912 Harris was 26 years old and would turn 27 in October. He had proven himself as an accomplished and professional painter and he now began to test his oil painting talents within the medium. Dennis Reid, Assistant Curator of the National Gallery of Canada stated in 1970 about this period. “Both Harris and MacDonald explored new approaches to handling of colour and overall design in these canvases. Harris in particular was experimenting with new methods of paint handling, and Jackson pointed out the interest of the other painters in these efforts, referring to the technique affectionately as “Tomato Soup.”
Use Of The Colour Purple ●
In 1912 Harris began to use the colour purple extensively48. It has been speculated that he probably developed this from his European training but an exact source is not known, however purple became a frequently used colour around 1912. One of Harris’s first successes was Winter Morning49 painted in 1914 that shows a screen of purple trees across the canvas. Two other examples painted in this period are Vacant House, In the Ward and Trees, Algonquin Park.
The colour purple can be seen very clearly throughout Autumn Harbour. There is a surprising amount of purple in the tree line, back shore, Sloop, boat shed, reflections on the water and even in random features in the fore ground shoreline. This is not a randomly applied colour but a deliberate use by the artist for effect.
Segantini Stitch ●
Harris developed a brush stroke style called the “Segantini stitch44.” He would apply several different colours45 to his pallet and then draw his brush46 through these paints to produce a brush stroke with many colours. Amongst the Group of Seven this style was nicknamed ‘Tomato Soup47.’ Laurentians, Near St. Jovite and January Thaw - Edge of Town are excellent examples of this technique.
It is hard to classify this technique as unique to anyone artist because of the potential for the accidental mixing of differently applied colours where the paint has not dried. But still there are brush strokes in Autumn Harbour that show deeply imbedded different colours that would be hard to duplicate by simple accident. These type of brush strokes are especially evident in the tree line foliage. Greens, yellows, blues and purples are all seen mixed within a single brush stroke as if separate colours were present on the brush as it was applied to the canvas.
Go Home Bay ●
The tree line along the far shore is very significant because it shows a mixed deciduous and coniferous forest with most of the deciduous trees bare. This type of forest structure is very typical along a geographically exact forest line that runs through central Canada from Quebec to the foothills of Alberta. There are some breaks in this forest line due to human encroachment but in 1912 this forest line was intact through central Ontario. The lower edge of that forest line would have been as far south Orillia and extending north the just south of Sudbury. The tree lines south of Orillia and North of Sudbury are very different. Go Home Bay is right in the centre of this forest line.
In support of this forest analysis there are several photographs that support this conclusion. A Go Home Bay postcard, a photo from the Go Home Bay archives and a current photo that is used as the cover page photo for GoHomeBay.com, all show the same tree line structure found in Autumn Harbour. As a reference, two Toronto images show a typical tree line structure in the 1920's. While one is obviously a planted boulevard, the photo of the Humber River in Toronto appears quite natural.