Robert Harris (painter)

Robert Harris CMG (September 18, 1849 – February 27, 1919) was a Welsh-born Canadian painter, most noted for his portrait of the Fathers of Confederation.

Robert Harris
Self-portrait by Robert Harris
Self-portrait (1908)
Born(1849-09-18)September 18, 1849
Bryn y Pîn, Caerhun, Wales, UK
DiedFebruary 27, 1919(1919-02-27) (aged 69)
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Known forPainter

Early lifeEdit

Born in Caerhun, Conwy, Wales, he came to Prince Edward Island via Liverpool with his family as a youth. In 1873, he studied art in Boston, in 1877 attended London's Slade School of Art, and later that same year, studied in Paris with Léon Bonnat.[1]

In 1880, he was commissioned to sketch the principal parties in the Donnelley's murder trial for the Toronto Globe.[1] He returned to study in Paris with Bonnat again in 1881. In 1882, he shared a studio with American painter A. B. Reinhardt at Ecouen, 17 miles from Paris.[1] In 1883, he exhibited in the Paris Salon.[2] While abroad, he may have learned of Impressionism, but on his return to Canada, in 1883, he was commissioned by the Dominion Government to paint a record of the 1864 Quebec Conference. The painting was later known by the popular title The Fathers of Confederation.[1] Afterwards, he settled in Montreal, and began painting in an academic style the social and political elite in Toronto and Montreal.


In 1886, his painting of A Meeting of the School Trustees, of a woman teacher converting a gathering of male trustees to her point of view, was the sensation of the 1886 Royal Canadian Academy show. The Fathers of Confederation, early in his career, established his reputation as one of the most distinguished portrait painters in Canada. Between 1889 and 1896, he painted over 55 commissioned portraits superior to other portraits being done at the time.[1]

He was a founding member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts[3] (RCA) and elected president of the RCA in 1893. In 1903, he painted a portrait of the Countess of Minto.

As president of the RCA in 1904, he helped spearhead the organization and installation of the Canadian exhibition at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. At the exposition, he received the Gold Medal of Honor for distinguished service in art.[4]

In the late 1900s, Harris returned to painting in an Impressionist-influenced mode after purchasing the first book in English on the subject, The French Impressionists (1860–1900) by Camille Mauclair. (His copy of the book is in the Confederation Centre Art Gallery).[5] Over the next eight years, he began to incorporate small touches of vibrant colour and the fluid brushwork of the Impressionists, while still maintaining the formal characteristics of academic portraiture.[6]

An important collection of his works is housed at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown, P.E.I.. His painting, A Meeting of the School Trustees, illustrating a confrontation between PEI teacher Kate Henderson and her school's trustees, appeared on a Canadian stamp in 1980 and was dramatized by a Heritage Minutes.

He married Elizabeth (Bessie) Putnam in 1885 but the couple had no children. He was the brother of the architect William Critchlow Harris and took an active interest in the artwork of his cousin Kathleen Morris.[7]

In 1986-1987, the exhibition Robert Harris, 1849-1919, was circulated in Wales by the National Museum of Wales. The first language of the catalogue was Welsh, the second English.

Selected worksEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e Williamson 1967, p. n.p..
  2. ^ Prakash 2015, pp. 643-647.
  3. ^ Records of the Founding of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts. Toronto: Globe Printing Co. 1879–80. p. 16.
  4. ^ Williamson, Moncrieff. "Robert Harris, 1849-1919: An Unconventional Biography". Retrieved September 23, 2020.
  5. ^ Mauclair, Camille (1903). The French Impressionists (1860–1900). Duckworth.
  6. ^ Prakash 2015, p. 643.
  7. ^ Barbara Meadowcroft, Painting Friends: The Beaver Hall Women Painters, 1999


Further readingEdit

  • Moncrieff Williamson, Robert Harris: An Unconventional Biography, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1973.

External linksEdit

Cultural offices
Preceded by
Otto Reinhold Jacobi
President of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts
Succeeded by
George Agnew Reid