This Week in History


Birthday of Artist Robert Harris

For the week of Monday September 18, 2000

On September 17, 1849, Robert Harris was born in The Vale of Conway, North Wales. Little did his parents suspect that he would grow up to be a nationally acclaimed Canadian painter, best known for his Fathers of Confederation painting.

Robert Harris, 1872

Robert Harris, 1872
© LAC / PA-206731 / W.J. Topley

From early childhood, Harris was almost totally preoccupied with drawing. After he came to Canada with his parents in 1856, Harris attended the Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown. He then worked for several years as a surveyor to save money to study art. Between 1867 and 1883, Harris studied in Boston, Rome and Madrid, as well as at the famous Slade School of Fine Arts in London and the Atelier Bonnat in Paris.

Believing that drawing was the essential element to art, Harris settled in Toronto in 1879 and taught his techniques at the Ontario School of Art. He became vice-president of the Ontario Society of Artists (OSA) and also helped found the Royal Canadian Academy (RCA). Harris moved to Montréal where he directed the art school of the Montreal Art Association (MAA) from 1883 to 1887. In 1902, King Edward VII awarded him the Companionship of the Order of St. Michael and St. George for his dedication to the cause of art in Canada.

Harris became well known for his portraits and historical paintings, many exhibited at annual shows of the OSA, RCA and MAA. He even had one painting shown at the Paris Salon! In 1883, he received the most significant commission to be handed to an artist by the federal government: to paint Fathers of Confederation. Completed in 1884, it commemorated the 1864 confederation of the British North American provinces. This painting hung in the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa until 1916, when it was destroyed by fire.

<I>Fathers of Confederation</I>

Fathers of Confederation
© Rogers Communications Inc.

Though offered the contract, Harris refused to paint another version of Fathers of Confederation because he feared the project would adversely affect his health. Nearly blind toward the end of his life, Harris preferred to remain at home with his wife, Elizabeth. He died on February 27, 1919.

In 1945, Robert Harris was designated as a person of national historic significance. His paintings and drawings are found in many public galleries, including the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, the National Gallery of Canada and the Confederation Centre Art Gallery and Museum in Charlottetown, as well as in private collections across the country.

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