BlogApril 1, 2017

Featured Painting: Lawren Harris, Rock and Hill (Lake Superior Sketch CXXXII) 1922


LAWREN S. HARRIS, C.C., LL.D. (1885-1970) Rock and Hill (Lake Superior Sketch CXXXII) 1922, Oil on Beaverboard 10 ½ x 14 in. (26.7 x 35.6 cm)


Lawren Harris & Canadian Master Sale


As Rock and Hill may depict the same hillock as Morning Sun over Hill, Lake Superior, though here the light is clear, the foreground rocks more assertive and the lighter colours are darkly outlined asserting their sculptural form. The naked trunks reach up to the top of the frame, creating a vertical and horizontal rhythm. Water, is glimpsed centre left where the clouds are painted with Harris’ characteristic stylization.


In March 1923 the Russian artist Leon Bakst saw Harris’ painting First Snow, North Shore of Lake Superior (Vancouver Art Gallery) at the Art Gallery of Toronto and noted the painting “was sculpture rather than painting” which Fred Jacob of the Mail and Empire understood to refer “to the fact that everything in the picture seemed hard as granite.” Indeed the sculptural treatment of the rocks is most striking in Rock and Hill, an evocative and austere depiction of this remarkable landscape.


There is considerable confusion over the dating of Harris’ Lake Superior sketches but one letter that may assist in dating them. On 15 February, 1927 Harris wrote to Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery, in response to an enquiry from Prudence Heward about purchasing a 1925 sketch of Port Coldwell harbour that Harris had exhibited in the May 1926 Group of Seven exhibition. “Will you tell the lady she can have a sketch for $60.00 including frame. This is less than I have been selling the recent sketches for. They are considerably larger than the sketches of two years ago and earlier and in some cases have received as much attention as large canvases.” From this we can deduce that Harris began sketching on larger panels, approximately 12 x 15 inches, in 1925 and that smaller sketches, approximately 10 ½ x 14 inches, like this work, were painted prior to 1925.


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(Fig. 1) Above Lake Superior 1924 Oil on canvas 48 x 60 in. (121.9 x 152.4 cm) Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (1335). Gift of the Reuben and Kate Leonard Canadian Fund, 1929


The Art Gallery of Ontario owns the oil sketch from which Harris painted Above Lake Superior (fig. 1), but Rock and Hill bears a number of similarities to the canvas which was first exhibited at the Ontario Society of Artists exhibition in March 1924. The canvas probable dates from 1924 and not c. 1922 as currently catalogued. Dead trees rise from the foreground that is lower and snow-covered in the canvas. The hillock occupies the centre of the composition, while the waters of Lake Superior are glimpsed right and left. This oil sketch belonged to A.Y. Jackson’s friend Keith McIver, a prospector who lived in the shack behind the Studio Building where Tom Thomson had painted during the last few winters of his life. McIver had an exceptional collection of works by Group members, the result of intimate friendships and a keen understanding of their work.


Charles C. Hill, C.M. Lawren Harris & Canadian Masters, Alan Klinkhoff Gallery, 2017


Charlie Hill began working at the National Gallery of Canada in 1972 and was Curator of Canadian Art from 1980 to 2014. The exhibitions he organized  and publications he wrote include “Canadian Painting in the Thirties” (1975), “To Found a National Gallery. The Royal Canadian Academy of Arts 1880-1913” (1980), “Morrice A Gift to the Nation The G. Blair Laing Collection” (1992) and “The Group of Seven Art for a Nation” (1995). He was co-curator and contributed essays to the catalogues of “Tom Thomson” (2002), “Emily Carr A New Perspective” (2006) and “Artists, Architects, Artisans Canadian Art 1890 - 1918” (2013). He was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 2000, received an Honorary Doctorate from Concordia University in 2007 and the Award of Distinguished Service from the Canadian Museums Association in 2012.  


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