Lawren Harris

Yellow Birches, Algoma 1919,

oil on board
10.5 x 14 in


Certified by Thoreau MacDonald, 1968

McCready Galleries Inc. Toronto
R.A. Laidlaw, Toronto
Fraser Bros. auction, 1986
Masters Gallery, Calgary
Private collection, Vancouver

The Algoma trips that Group of Seven members took each autumn between 1918 and 1920 are arguably the most important inspirational sketching trips that brought about the Group’s official formation. Harris, Johnston, MacDonald, Jackson, and Lismer inspired each other to push their creative boundaries further, and we see the members of the Group of Seven moving beyond their earlier impressionistic styles towards what we consider a unique and distinct Canadian school on landscape painting. Harris was the instrumental organizer of these trips, after he visited Algoma in the spring of 1918. He was able to convince the Algoma Central Railway to lend them a boxcar, which was sidelined from the tracks at convenient sketching locations. The boxcar was used as lodgings and studio and was complete with bunks, tables and chairs, a stove, and painting materials. There was also a canoe and a handcar for short distance travel. The boxcar was bright red and numbered 10557 on the side in big black lettering. Over the doorway were mounted sprays of evergreen and the motto: Ars Longa Vita Brevis (meaning Art is Long, Life is Brief). It has been recorded that at the end of long days sketching, they would all come back to the boxcar and compare the day’s work over dinner. Harris and MacDonald went every trip, and various other group members attended select times. They went in the fall of 1918, 1919 and 1920.

For Harris in particular, we see him focusing on brilliant, bold and bright colours in a more stylized manner than his earlier paintings of snow-laden trees and urban architecture. It is sometimes possible to recognize distinctive geographic features in these Algoma paintings, such as J.E.H. MacDonald’s Agawa Canyon. This is particularly the case when a sketch is of a larger vista. However, the Group artists were not always concerned with grand views and also preferred to sketch the subtle and more intimate aspects of the beautiful autumnal landscape, such as a cluster of vibrantly coloured trees, or upclose reflections on the lakes and rivers. This is the case for Harris’ Algoma sketch, where the focus is a group of exceptionally bright autumnal foliage. Harris’ work at Algoma is also quite distinct. In particular the stylized way within which Harris depicts the multi-coloured trees of the changing season. Harris was less likely to note the exact location on the back of his sketches than MacDonald or Johnston seemed to have been. However, we know that they travelled to the Montreal River, Agawa River and Canyon and the Batchawana River.

Yellow Birches, Algoma 1919 was previously in the R.A. Laidlaw collection. Laidlaw was a connoisseur and patron of the arts in Canada. He gifted many of his works to the McMichael Collection of Canadian Art. A selection of his gifted works was included in the international travelling exhibition Painting in Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.
Robert Laidlaw was a director at the McMichael, as well as Upper Canada College, the Royal Ontario Museum and a founding director at the National Ballet of Canada. The family’s wealth was amassed through R Laidlaw Lumber Co., and they further support the arts in Canada through the Laidlaw Foundation.