BlogMarch 30, 2017

FEATURED PAINTING: Lawren Harris, Return from Church, 1919



LAWREN S. HARRIS, C.C., LL.D. (1885-1970) Return from Church, 1919 Oil on Beaverboard 10 ½ x 13 ¾ in. (26.7 x 34.9 cm)

Inscriptions: verso: u.l., in graphite, 10 ½ x 13 ¼;

 u.r., in ink, by Bess Harris, Return from Church / Lawren / Harris;

u.r., in ink, by artist, RETURN FROM CHURCH / Lawren / Harris;

c. in red ink, 53;

c.l., in ink, property Bess Harris / Sept 1958 / Bess Harris Collection;

c.l., in ballpoint, C14;

l.l., typed on printed label of McCready Galleries, Toronto


artist, Vancouver;
Bess Harris, Vancouver;
S.C. Torno, Toronto, by 1969;
McCready Galleries Inc., Toronto;
Private Collection, Montreal, by 1978


Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario, Lawren S. Harris: Urban Scenes and Wilderness Landscapes 1906-1930, January 14 - February 26, 1978, cat. no. 83

Jeremy Adamson, Lawren S. Harris: Urban Scenes and Wilderness Landscapes 1906-1930 (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1978) reproduced p.103 fig. 6;
David Silcox, The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson (Toronto: Firefly Books, 2003) reproduced p. 54;
Paul Duval, Lawren Harris: Where the Universe Sings (Toronto: Cerebrus Press, 2011) reproduced p. 118


The first subjects Lawren Harris painted following his return from Germany in 1908 were street scenes in the older areas of Toronto. Harris explained that in his painting of Georgian houses, A Row of Houses, Wellington Street of 1910, “the endeavor was to depict the clear, hard sunlight of a Canadian noon in winter. An attempt was also made to suggest the spirit of old York.” But old York was in a constant process of transition as the descendants of early settlers had abandoned the area for more salubrious districts further north and immigrants and light industry moved in, becoming new residents of an often hastily built shack town. The human drama of urban change is revealed in the peeling plaster, isolated figures and touches of colour in Harris’ paintings of the downtown Ward and later of Earlscourt and Gerrard Street East.

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(Fig. 1) Return from Church 1919 Oil on canvas 40 x 48 in. (101.8 x 122.3 cm) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (5006). Gift of the artist, Vancouver, 1960

In 1919, Harris painted one of his finest city paintings, Return from Church, (fig. 1) which he specifically selected for donation to the National Gallery of Canada. Dated 1919, the canvas was first exhibited with the Ontario Society of Artists in March 1919 as Sunday Morning and described by M.O. Hammond in The Globe as “a procession of churchgoers on Sunday Morning.” Unlike the figures in many other city paintings, the figures are dressed in their Sunday best and form a procession across the middle ground while two women enter from the foreground centre left. The large house in the background and the two trees define the space and assert the horizontality of the composition, reinforced by the horizontal brush strokes in the banks of snow.

The oil sketch for this major canvas provides a wealth of information on the artist’s working process. While the principal elements are already there, the house, the arrangement of figures and two leafless trees, the palette has been considerably altered. In the sketch bright yellow blinds and green shutters complement the lively mauve steps to the houses. Harris has included more of the house to the left and the fence separating them is the same green as the shutters. The figures all wear brown or black coats whereas in the canvas he creates a rhythm of quiet brown, red, black and green figures, accentuating the top hat on the man to the left, eliminating the yellow shutters and muting the bright palette of the plaster cladding and shutters. However Harris reinforces the rough texture of the broad brushstrokes seen in the sketch to enliven the surface of the canvas.

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(Fig. 2) Houses, Chestnut Street 1919 Oil on canvas 32 x 36 in (81.7 x 97.2 cm). The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa. Gift of Joan F. Pelly, Edward D. Fraser, John C. Fraser, Charles L. Fraser, 1985

Houses, Chestnut Street
(fig. 2) of 1919, now at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa was exhibited as In the Ward I in the same Ontario Society of Artists exhibition as Return from Church. Yet the two paintings differ considerably. They share the same horizontality with the space marked by the two trees and facades, but the former, devoid of human presence, is even more texturally brushed, the wet paint approximating more closely the peeling white plaster on the façade. The green trim and yellow blinds in the sketch for Return from Church are reinterpreted here on a wet autumn, not winter, day.

This sketch was one of those specially kept by Bess Harris, to be eventually donated or bequeathed to a public institution. However in the 1960s she needed money to fund the publication of her book on Lawren Harris that was published by Macmillan of Canada in 1969. She sold this sketch as well as the study for the 1924 canvas, Maligne Lake, Jasper Park and Pic Island.

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