Heading North to Celebrate the Winter Solstice

Here's a painting perfect for today's Winter Solstice- Lawren Harris, Isolation Peak, oil on canvas. (Harris was a Canadian landscape painter active in the earlier years of the 20th century. He's sort of a northern equivalent of the American regionalist painters Charles Burchfield and Grant Wood)

I grew up on the extreme northern border of the U.S. on the shore of Lake Ontario. As kids we imagined that if we so much as put our toe into Lake Ontario we were leaving the country. My mother had gone to school in Toronto and seemed to have warm memories of the experience, so I imagined that across Ontario's waters this place called Canada must be something special. In a way it is. The farther north you go, the lower the sun hangs in the sky. On sunny days the shadows are poignantly long and sharp- just the stuff to excite the painter's eye. 

It's fascinating to compare the above Isolation Peak with the Lawren Harris below, Mt. LeFroy. Both start out with the same basic composition of a triangular peak smack in the middle of the canvas. But then Harris, a master of inventive design, went to work. Snow is one of the bread and butter tools of a northern landscapist because nobody really knows what it's supposed to look like. This frees the painter up to arrange the snow any way they can to heighten the expressiveness of the painting. In Isolation Peak, Harris uses the snow on the otherwise sienna colored mountain to make a shape that's moving in a different direction than the mountain's steep pyramid. If he hadn't the shapes would have been too simple to generate the painting's enviable energy. I also love the contrast of the intense color of the exposed orange rock against the moody toned down blue and green greys of the rest of the canvas. 

Mt. LeFroy below uses a more pattern filled blanket of snow covering the mountain. It looks a bit like the folds of a hanging curtain. Again Harris goes against a too simple idea, throwing in a couple of unexpected shapes breaking the pattern in the snow. 

Harris is an intriguing guy. He can combine the most muscular massive shapes ( I think of a dumbed-down Arnold Schwartzenegger) with the most delicate and lace like pattern. Below are two small oils by Harris that have the look of plein air studies. In both the insistent patterning dominates, but Harris gives you just enough solid, empty areas to let your eye rest.

Lawren Harris is very little known in the U.S. That is our loss as he's usually terrific. Happy Solstice Lawren!


  1. I immediately thought of Grant Wood when I saw the first painting, then art deco. When I saw the second it reminded me a little bit of Rockwell Kent. Lovely,
    -Lisa P.

  2. Thanks for sharing the story of Lawren Harris. He does seem like an intriguing guy. I love the last one of snow-covered forest, reminds me of snowmen in hiding....

  3. Wonderful article on Lawren Harris, I wasn't familiar with his work so I greatly appreciate this.I can see the connection to Rockwell Kent too. Loved the painting at the bottom of the snow covered trees in the foreground.

    Thanks Philip and happy winter solstice to you too.

  4. Lisa and Larry- I can see a big connection between Rockwell Kent and Lawren Harris. Kent when he was doing his wood engravings had a sense of volume and of abstract pattern that is extremely sympathetic to what Harris was up to. I think they are both under rated artists. Probably Kent being a socialist and Harris being Canadian held them back in the past from having a larger audience in the U.S. But I think that's changing.

  5. Barbara- thinking about your "hiding snowmen" comment, there's a wonderful playfulness to Lawren Harris's compositions. In his winter scenes I bet he very much drew on his boyhood experience building snowmen, snowball fights, walks in the snowy woods, etc. Childhood memory always looms large in any authentic creative act I think.

  6. Interesting that you wrote about Lawren Harris since when looking at your paintings I was reminded of Harris' work. I see some real similarities in your use of shapes and composition. It's a shame that all of the Group of Seven (and other fine Canadian painters like my favorite, Clarence Gagnon) are so unknown in the US. Two of my favorite art museum experiences were visits to the National Gallery in Ottawa and The McMichael Collection just north of Toronto. By the way, I'm a fellow IU alum! BA '85 JD '88

  7. Hi Douglas, thanks for the tip on Clarence Gagnon- not an artist I was familiar with. Years ago I was able to visit the McMichael Collection. It was totally impressive both for the art and for the way the museum facility merged with the natural landscape. And how nice to hear from a fellow Hoosier!

  8. Dear Philip, I found your blog by accident and it is very interesting as my husband has been looking at the group of seven recently. You may be interested in his blog,ianbevwarburton. He would be unhappy to have me mention it I guess as he is quite private about his work. All the best.


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