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 Robert Harris  (1849 - 1919)

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Lived/Active: Quebec/Ontario / Canada      Known for: portrait and mural painting, illustration, drawing, teaching

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Ad Code: 3
Robert Harris
from Auction House Records.
INTERIOR WITH ELIZABETH PUTNAM
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Robert Harris CMG, RCA, OSA (1849-1919)

Robert Harris was an important Canadian painter, muralist (1) illustrator (2), draftsman, educator and leader in the national art community.  He was considered one of the most renowned portrait painters in Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (3).  He was also President of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts* and Vice-President of the Ontario Society of Artists*.  Most exhibitions that examine the history of Canadian art include his paintings; most comprehensive Canadian art history books illustrate and discuss his work; and hundreds of his paintings, prints and drawings are in Canadian museums and public buildings.(4)

Harris was born in Ty'n-y-Groes, Conwy, North Wales.  He died in Montreal, Quebec, Canada which had been his home since 1883.  His first home in North America was Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island where he had emigrated with his family in 1856.  He lived there until he moved to Toronto, Ontario in 1879, where he lived before moving to Montreal. (5)

His primary medium was oil on canvas, and his primary subject was commissioned portraits.  More than 300 portraits by him are known to exist in private and public collections.  However, there are also hundreds of other works by him, including several famous genre* masterpieces such as The Chorister (1880), A Meeting of the School Trustees (1885) and Harmony (1886); all are in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. (6)

His other mediums included watercolor, gouache*, pastel, Conte Crayon*, pencil, charcoal, wood engraving* and mixed mediums.  His other subjects included allegory*, religious scenes, figures, interiors, landscapes, historic scenes, rivers, mountains, street scenes, marine scenes and shorelines.  The painting locations are the environs of his home cities as well as from his extensive and frequent travels in Europe, the eastern USA [especially Maine, Massachusetts and New York] and from coast to coast in Canada.  His styles were Realism* and Impressionism*. AskART have some good illustrations of his work. (7)

Harris’s art education was self directed and sporadic.  An integral part of it was his nine trips to Europe, between 1867 and 1911, to visit galleries and museums and to copy old master paintings.  His destinations included England, Scotland, Wales, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands. (8)

His formal art education included studies in Boston (1873 – 1874) at the Lowell Institute* and under Dr. William Rimmer [see AskART] (9); the Slade School of Art*, London (1876 – 1877), under Alphonse Legros [see AskART]; the Heatherly School of Fine Art, London (1877 and 1886); the Royal Colonial Institute, London [library and lectures] (1877); the Atelier Bonnat, Paris (1877 – 1878 and 1881 – 1882) under Leon Bonnat [see AskART]; and the Academie Julian*, Paris (1882) under Jean-Paul Laurens [see AskART] and Alexandre Cabanel [see AskART]. (10)

Harris’s teaching career included the Ontario School of Art*, Toronto (1880 – 1881), where one of his students was George Agnew Reid [see AskART]; and the Art Association of Montreal [now Montreal Museum of Fine Arts] (1883 – 1887). (11)

He was a member of the Ontario Society of Artists* (1879) and its Vice-President (1880); a founding member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts* (1880) and its President (1893 – 1906); and a founding member of the Pen and Pencil Club of Montreal (1890).  He was also a member of the Athenaeum Club of Montreal [a social and debating club] (1883). (12)

In addition to exhibiting with the above artist organizations, Harris exhibited with the Art Association of Montreal [now the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts] from 1880 to 1918; the Toronto Industrial Exhibition [now Canadian National Exhibition] in 1881; the Paris Salon in 1882; and at the Royal Academy* [British] in 1883 and 1910. (13)

His works were also included in the “Colonial and Indian Exhibition”, London, England (1886); “World’s Columbian Exposition”*, Chicago (1893); “Exposition Universelle”, Paris (1900); “Pan-American Exposition”*, Buffalo, New York (1901); “Louisiana Purchase Exposition”*,  St. Louis, Missouri (1904); “Portraits”, Art Gallery of Toronto [now Art Gallery of Ontario] (1927); “A Century of Canadian Art”, Tate Gallery, London, England (1938); “The Development of Painting in Canada, 1665 – 1945”, Art Gallery of Toronto (1945); “Painters of Canada: 1668 – 1948”, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia (1949); “Eleven Artists in Montreal, 1860 – 1960” (14.1), Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1960); “Images for a Canadian Heritage”, Vancouver Art Gallery, B.C. (1966); Three Hundred Years of Canadian Art”, National Gallery of Canada (1967); “The Work of Six Artists” (14.2), Art Gallery of Ontario (1978); “Sympathetic Realism: George A. Reid and the Academic Tradition”, Art Gallery of Ontario (1986); and recently in and “Egos and Icons”, University of Toronto, Art Centre (2004).

The public venues for his posthumous solo and retrospective exhibitions include the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts [memorial] (1919); Confederation Art Gallery and Museum, Charlottetown, PEI [retrospective] (1967); National Gallery of Canada, 1973; and the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff (1986).

According to the Canadian Heritage Information Network* and individual museum websites, there are Robert Harris works in the permanent collections of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (Kingston, Ontario), Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (B.C.), Art Gallery of Hamilton (Ontario), Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (Halifax), Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto), Beaverbrook Art Gallery (Fredericton, New Brunswick), Joliette Art Museum (Quebec), Mackenzie Art Gallery (Regina, Saskatchewan), McCord Museum of Canadian History (Montreal), McMichael Canadian Art Collection (Kleinburg, Ontario), Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art (Quebec), Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Quebec), New Brunswick Museum (Saint John), Ottawa Art Gallery [Firestone Collection of Canadian Art*] (Ontario), Owens Art Gallery (Sackville, N.B.), Quebec Museum of Fine Arts (Quebec City), Robert McLaughlin Gallery (Oshawa, Ontario), Winnipeg Art Gallery (Manitoba) and the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa), which has 23 of his works.

In the United States there are works in the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut (portrait of Donald Alexander Smith, Lord Strathcona) and at the Adams National Historical Park, Quincy, Massachusetts (portrait of Edward Boylston). (15)

The Confederation Centre Art Gallery & Museum (Charlottetown, P.E.I.), has by far the largest collection of Robert Harris works and memorabilia. According to the Canadian Heritage Information Network* their collection numbers over 6000 Robert Harris items. It includes oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, letters, sketch books and books. It was originally housed in the Robert Harris Memorial Gallery and Public Library of Charlottetown which was funded by Harris’s widow Bessie Putman Harris and built in 1928. The original gallery was demolished in 1958 and the collection transferred to the new museum in 1965. (16)

Among his numerous honors and awards is appointment as a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (CMG) in 1902; it was one of the highest honors in the British Empire. (17)

He also won gold medals at the “World’s Columbian Exposition”*, Chicago (1893) and the “Pan-American Exposition”*, Buffalo, New York (1901); and a silver medal at the “Louisiana Purchase Exposition”*, St. Louis, Missouri (1904) as well as a “gold medal of honour” there for “distinguished services in art”. (18)

 
Footnotes:

(1) See A National Soul: Canadian Mural Painting, 1860s – 1930s (2002), by Marylin Jean McKay (AskART book references) for a discussion and illustration of the mural works he did for St. Peter’s Anglican Cathedral, Charlottetown, PEI in 1898.

(2) Most sources mention that he occasionally worked as an illustrator.  Three specific examples of his work in this medium are: his drawings for the Toronto Globe in 1880 reporting on the Donnelly mass murder; an illustration for Canada, Picturesque and Descriptive, Volume 2, Toronto, 1882; and the book A Semi-Detached House, and Other Stories (1900) by J. Try-Davies; published by J. Lovell, Montreal (164 pgs).  Source: Island Painter: The Life of Robert Harris, 1849 – 1919 (1983), by Moncrieff Williamson (see AskART book references).

(3) Quote: “When Robert Harris arrived in Canada in 1879 after two years in Paris, he soon became the leading portrait painter of his generation.” Source: Landmarks of Canadian Art (1978), by Peter Mellen (see AskART book references).

(4) An example of his stature is that in 1883 Harris was given what was considered at the time to be the most important official commission ever awarded by the federal government of Canada.  The large painting (61” X 141”) was to depict the 33 delegates to the Quebec Conference in 1864 [to settle the terms of Canada’s confederation in 1867];  the government would pay him $4000.00 for it.  Unveiled in 1884 it is referred to as The Fathers of Confederation and is considered to be one of the most famous Canadian paintings and certainly Harris’s most famous work.  It hung in the centre block of the Canadian Parliament Buildings (Ottawa) until the building and painting were destroyed by fire in 1916.  Sources: Pages 92 and 93, Three Hundred Years of Canadian Art (1967), by R.H. Hubbard and J.R. Ostiguy; and Page 125, Island Painter: The Life of Robert Harris, 1849 – 1919 (1983), by Moncrieff Williamson (see AskART book references).

(5.1) Source: A Dictionary of Canadian Artists (1974), by Colin S. MacDonald (see AskART book references).

(5.2) He was in Europe studying and traveling from 1881 to 1883, before moving to Montreal.

(6) Sources: The National Gallery of Canada: Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture, Volume III (1960), by R.H. Hubbard; Landmarks of Canadian Art (1978), by Peter Mellen; and Island Painter: The Life of Robert Harris, 1849 – 1919 (1983), by Moncrieff Williamson (see AskART book references).  Note: By 1890 Harris was getting between $500.00 and $1,000.00 for a single portrait. Source: Ibid.

(7.1) Sources: AskART Images; museum illustrations and descriptions of mediums in the Canadian Heritage Information Network* data base; Island Painter: The Life of Robert Harris, 1849 – 1919 (1983), by Moncrieff Williamson; and Canadian Impressionism (1990), by Paul Duval (see AskART book references).

(7.2) He travelled to British Columbia (Canada’s western-most province) in 1909. Source: Island Painter: The Life of Robert Harris, 1849 – 1919 (1983), by Moncrieff Williamson (see AskART book references).

(8) Sources: A Dictionary of Canadian Artists (1974), by Colin S. MacDonald; and A Concise History of Canadian Painting (1973), by Dennis Reid (see AskART book references).

(9) A few sources include a “Mr. Dewing” as an additional teacher in Boston, but do not attach a first name.  The name Dewing could be a reference to Thomas Wilmer Dewing [see AskART] who lived in Boston at the time and who was also studying under William Rimmer in the early 1870s.  However, there is no reference in Thomas Dewing’s biography to him teaching at that time; and as he was two years younger than Harris and in about the same place in his career it’s more likely that they were fellow students.  Also, in Island Painter: The Life of Robert Harris, 1849 – 1919 (1983), by Moncrieff Williamson, a Boston friend of Harris’s named “Dewing” is mentioned several times; unfortunately again no first name is used. However, reference is made to Dewing studying in Paris in 1877, which does agree with Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s biography.

(10) Sources: Island Painter: The Life of Robert Harris, 1849 – 1919 (1983), by Moncrieff Williamson; and The Collector's Dictionary of Canadian Artists at Auction (2001), by Anthony R. Westbridge and Diana L. Bodnar (see AskART book references).

(11) Sources: The Collector's Dictionary of Canadian Artists at Auction (2001), by Anthony R. Westbridge and Diana L. Bodnar; and A Concise History of Canadian Painting (1973), by Dennis Reid (see AskART book references).

(12.1) Sources: Passionate Spirits: A History of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, 1880 – 1980 (1980), by Rebecca Sisler; and Art Gallery of Ontario – The Canadian Collection (1970), by Helen Pepall Bradfield (see AskART book references).

(12.2) He only missed one exhibition with the RCA between 1880 and 1918 – in 1917.  Source: Royal Canadian Academy of Arts: Exhibitions and Members, 1880 – 1979 (1981), by Evelyn de R. McMann (see AskART book references).

(13) Sources for all exhibitions: The National Gallery of Canada: Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture, Volume III (1960), by R.H. Hubbard; Art Gallery of Ontario – The Canadian Collection (1970), by Helen Pepall Bradfield; Three Hundred Years of Canadian Art (1967), by R.H. Hubbard and J.R. Ostiguy; A Dictionary of Canadian Artists (1974), by Colin S. MacDonald; The Collector's Dictionary of Canadian Artists at Auction (2001), by Anthony R. Westbridge and Diana L. Bodnar; Island Painter: The Life of Robert Harris, 1849 – 1919 (1983) by Moncrieff Williamson (see all previous in AskART book references); and the Art Gallery of Ontario (catalogue summaries online).

(14.1) The other artists were Cornelius Krieghoff, Antoine Plamondon, Ozias Leduc, William Brymer, J.W. Morrice, Maurice Cullen, Arthur Lismer, Goodridge Roberts, Paul-Emile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle [see all in AskART]. Source: the Art Gallery of Ontario (catalogue summaries online).

(14.2) The other artists were Alex Colville, Lynn Donoghue, John Gould, John MacGregor, and Tony Urquhart [see all in AskART].  The touring exhibition, which was shown in 7 other museums across the country, was an examination of the creative process.  It included only one dead artist – Robert Harris.  Source: Art and Architecture in Canada (1991), by Loren R. Lerner and Mary F. Williamson (see AskART book references).

(15) Source: Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS)*.

(16.1) Source: Confederation Centre Art Gallery & Museum.

(16.2) When Robert Harris died he left an estate valued at $150,000.00, a very large sum in 1919; especially when considering it was largely accumulated by painting portraits.  Source: Canadian Impressionism (1990) by Paul Duval (see AskART book references).

(17.1) Source: The National Gallery of Canada: Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture, Volume III (1960), by R.H. Hubbard (see AskART book references).

(17.2) The CMG would have been conferred by the King, at the time, mostly on officials in colonial affairs, foreign-service officers and diplomats, and others who have performed important duties in the British Empire or who had given distinguished service in the Dominions [like Canada] and Colonies. The Order still exists in Britain however, since 1967 the Order of Canada would most likely be given to similar deserving Canadians. Sources: The Royal Household – http://www.royal.gov.uk/MonarchUK/Honours/OrderofStMichaelandStGeorge.aspx; and The Great War Project – http://www.canadiangreatwarproject.com/writing/medals.asp.

(18) Sources: Island Painter: The Life of Robert Harris, 1849 – 1919 (1983), by Moncrieff Williamson; and Passionate Spirits: A History of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, 1880 – 1980 (1980), by Rebecca Sisler (see AskART book references).

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see AskART.com Glossary http://www.askart.com/AskART/lists/Art_Definition.aspx.

Prepared and contributed by M.D. Silverbrooke.

 

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at registrar@AskART.com.
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