I grew up in Buffalo almost literally in the shadow of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Its mission throughout the 20th century was “enhancing the understanding and appreciation of contemporary and modern art.” Meanwhile, one of the great 20th century art movements was blooming just across the Niagara River in Ontario. Seymour Knox and his curators never even noticed it. To my knowledge, the Albright-Knox does not own a single painting by any Group of Seven artist.
That ignorance in the United States is changing. Three paintings by the Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris broke pre-sale estimates last Thursday, selling for about $9.5 million. The auction was handled by Heffel Fine Art Auction House’s Toronto location. They noted bidding was global, and credit American comedian Steve Martin for renewed interest in Harris, particularly among his celebrity pals.
Martin has co-curated a retrospective of Harris paintings at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. The show, “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris” will visit Boston and Toronto next year.
There are major collections of Group of Seven painters in Canada’s National Gallery in Ottawa, at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario. A tour of these collections—each of which warrants a day unto itself—will convince you that Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven deserve a place in the art pantheon.
Lawren Harris was not only a member of the group; he was its prime mover. Heir to part of the Massey-Harris fortune, he partly financed the construction of the group’s studio building in Toronto. In 1918 and 1919, he and J. E. H. MacDonald sponsored boxcar trips for their fellows to the Algoma region, which perches like a stovepipe hat atop Lakes Superior and Huron.
“Without Harris there would have been no Group of Seven. He provided the stimulus; it was he who encouraged us to always take the bolder course, to find new trails,” said his fellow A. Y. Jackson.
Harris was the Group of Seven artist who moved the greatest distance in his art, going from stylized realism to pure abstraction in his later years. His simplified paintings of the Great White North are the most well-known. Standing in room filled with them in the National Gallery of Canada, one feels a sense of loneliness and grandeur that could never have been achieved through mere realism.