ALC BCSFA CGP FCA G7 OSA RPS TPG
1885 - 1970
oil on board, circa 1919 - 1920
on verso inscribed indistinctly "For Doris with our love / M + J"
10 5/8 x 13 5/8 in 27 x 34.6 cm
Estimate: $600,000 - $800,000
A gift from the Artist to Mrs. Elton Johnson (née Chanty Mitchell)
By descent to her daughter Penny Jolliffe
Sold sale of Important Canadian Art, Sotheby's, November 10, 1981, lot 105
An Important Private Estate, Toronto
Sold sale of Fine Canadian Art, Heffel Fine Art Auction House, November 21, 2011, lot 142
Paul Duval, Lawren Harris: Where the Universe Sings, 2010, reproduced page 106, and a similar 1912 oil on canvas entitled The Corner Store, collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, reproduced page 59
For Lawren Harris, the communication and representation of the beauty of the world was a pathway to experiencing, and sharing, a higher truth. While this is widely recognized and appreciated in his depictions of Canadian lakes, forests and mountains, his work in the cities and towns of Ontario was perhaps even more directly connected to this mission, a pursuit of appreciating the everyday magnificence that surrounds us all.
Harris’s artistic career was one of constant exploration, benefiting his audience and collectors with a diverse range of works to celebrate and enjoy. Paintings of Toronto’s urban scenes, usually depicting St. John’s Ward (such as this painting) and the ramshackle outskirts of town, represent one of his most important and unique phases. In the first Group of Seven show, in 1920, five of the 11 canvases he exhibited were urban subjects, demonstrating their importance. This work comes from that time period, when Harris would spend a few weeks a year sketching in Algoma, but the majority of his time working out of the Studio Building in Rosedale, often exploring the urban setting for his sketches. Though the two subjects may seem diametrically opposed, Harris’s approach to them was the same – to stir an appreciation of the country in all of its diverse manifestations.
The closest we have to an artistic manifesto for these urban works is a 1913 Maclean’s article written by a “Dewar Montague,” which, given the content of the article, can safely be assumed to be a pen name used by Harris himself. His pencil drawings illustrate the piece, and the narrative is an exploration of an anonymous artist character revealing his motivation and practice to a naive observer. The views expressed are in alignment with the sentiments found in Harris’s later writing about the mission of the Group of Seven, and are thus invaluable in exploring the motivations behind works such as this one.
Describing a pencil sketch of a scene similar to Corner Store, the article’s writer impresses upon the reader the ability of art to transform the commonplace: “Here is that old fruit shop on the corner of York and Adelaide — why it makes quite a picture. If you had photographed it there wouldn't have been anything to it at all. Just the way the artist has looked at it, the way he has shaded it here and there makes it a picture and somehow brings out the character of the building.” Whether it was the evening light coming through the tangled branches of drowned forests in a beaver swamp, or a pedestrian scene on a crisp spring morning in Toronto’s Ward district, as seen in Corner Store, Harris guides the audience to new perspectives and admirations of the world around us. As “Montague” writes, “Through his pictures we, whose specialities are of a more practical sort, are led to see the inward beauty of the subject.”
The technical aspects of this painting demonstrate Harris’s ambition for and excitement about the subject. It is decidedly modern in approach, a sketch done with both brush and palette knife, with Harris unafraid to let the support show through, and his rapid initial impressions speak for themselves. This is the work of an artist who is experimental and confident, willing to push the boundaries of the painting to ensure that the vivacity of the life that he sought to portray is not drained of its immediacy through overworking. The suggestion of form and the texture of the surface become as integral as the Prussian blue underpainting that delineates the scene. The building’s trim and door are boldly painted with a bright chartreuse, a favourite of Harris’s in his urban works, and they radiate vitality, in counterpoint to the peeling plaster. This is a vibrant sketch that clearly captures what was needed, and no more. The artist’s mastery of distillation and deceptive simplicity is evident in this work, and we can again use the words of “Montague” to synthesize the importance of such genius: “He only uses a few strokes of the pencil and yet, in those few strokes, he has told you more than you or I ever saw in all the times we passed.”
We thank Alec Blair, Director/Lead Researcher, Lawren S. Harris Inventory Project, for contributing the above essay.
1. Dewar Montague [pseud.], “The Classic Commonplace,” Maclean’s Magazine, May 1913, 36.
2. Ibid., 39.
Lawren Harris gave this work to Mrs. Johnson, who was a member of the Heliconian Club. Her husband, Elton Johnson, was a founding member of the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto, and the couple were friends with many artists of the time.
Estimate: $600,000 - $800,000
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