Robert Harris, Self-Portrait 1890, watercolour on paper. Gift of the Robert Harris Trust, 1965, CAGH-205.

A Life’s Work

Works by Canadian artist Robert Harris (1849–1919)

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A highly-anticipated new Robert Harris exhibition is opening in two stages this month at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery (CCAG) in Charlottetown. A Life’s Work surveys Harris’ impressive career as a portrait painter in a young country.

Opening June 5, the exhibition features commissioned portraits of local merchant William Weeks, 1880; Sir Hugh Allan, 1885, founder of the Allan Steamship Line; the artist’s niece, Ruth Harris, 1896; and Anna Leonowens, 1905, co-founder of what is now NSCAD University. Also included are portraits of Harris’ siblings and parents, self-portraits, scenes of everyday life—including The Local Stars, 1888 and A Studio Boy’s Private View, 1886—less known but remarkable landscape paintings from several countries, selected drawings, sketchbooks, and memorabilia such as family photographs and letters.

Ranging from youthful works made in Charlottetown, to those created during his international studies and travels, or in his Montreal studio, this selection of works is drawn primarily from the CCAG’s extensive Robert Harris Collection and Archive—the majority of which was transferred to the Centre in 1965 from the Robert Harris Trust.

A Life’s Work is augmented with a few key loans from the National Gallery of Canada and also features several recent acquisitions given by the Estate of Mary Beth Harris, a grand-niece of Robert Harris. The exhibition is supported by the Frederick and Shirley Hyndman Gallery Endowment Fund.

Harris was a keen observer and he created a fascinating record of Charlottetown as he practiced drawing and painting. His detailed map of the city (based on an 1863 map by D.J. Lake) related to his early surveying work and his watercolour views of Charlottetown from 1869–1871 are a charming glimpse into this era. However, Harris was intent on painting people and his early self-directed training was followed by periods of study in Boston, London, and Paris in the 1870s and early 1880s. His goal of being an artist was set by his later teens and by 1880 he was regarded as one of Canada’s leading painters.

Harris had the distinction of being named among the 26 charter members of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts when it was founded in 1880. His growing reputation for portraiture was undoubtedly a contributing factor in the Canadian Government awarding him the 1883 commission to depict the delegates to the Quebec Conference of 1864. Harris’ large, group painting is an iconic image in Canadian history and the commission propelled the artist’s career and solidified his reputation as Canada’s best portrait artist of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Harris’ success has often been attributed to his talent, business acumen, and his ability to connect with people—be it the well-to-do sitters commissioning portraits or the local farmers, fishers, women working in the lobster packing plant, or as a teacher in a one-room school. The range of subjects from everyday life that Harris explored in his works bear this out.

A Life’s Work: Canadian Artist Robert Harris (1849-1919) is planned in two parts. The first will feature many of the early watercolours, drawings of nude models, illustrations, and preliminary sketches for a wide range of portraits and will open in the Sobey Gallery on June 5. The majority of the oil paintings in the exhibition—the portraits, genre, and landscapes—will open in the second-floor gallery on June 26.

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