Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson first painted on Lake Superior in October 1921. They took the Algoma Central Railway from Sand Lake, Algoma north to Franz, where they caught the Canadian Pacific train travelling west to Rossport and Schreiber. Harris would return to paint and draw on the north shore of Lake Superior almost every October until 1928. His Lake Superior canvases range from depictions of the rocks, hills and bays and interior lakes to dramatic visions of the light over the vast body of water.
To better express his expanding vision of the landscape, in 1925 Harris began to paint on beaverboard panels that were approximately 12 x 15 inches (30.5 x 37.6 cm) rather than his earlier supports that measured approximately 10 1⁄2 x 13 1⁄2 inches (26.3 x 34.4 cm).
Harris frequently reinterpreted similar subjects, exploring in each work variant compositions in new pictorial languages. In May 1926 he presented a painting titled “Northern Lake” in the Group of Seven exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto. “Northern Lake” was worked up from a 12 x 15 inch oil sketch of 1925 now in the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (accession 1969.17.1). “Northern Lake” was one of the five Harris paintings included in the Canadian section of the Sesqui-Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia in the summer of 1926 (no. 1564, reproduced in the Philadelphia catalogue) where it was awarded a gold medal.
Jeremy Adamson, organizer of the major Harris retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1978, has argued that the medal was awarded to Harris’ canvas “Ontario Hill Town” (University College, Toronto), not “Northern Lake”, though two reviews of the Annual Exhibition of Canadian Art at the National Gallery in Ottawa in January 1927, where “Northern Lake” was subsequently exhibited hors catalogue, confirm that “Northern Lake” was indeed the gold prize winner.
“Quiet Lake” is a similar composition to “Northern Lake” though clearly an evolution from the earlier canvas. The title “Quiet Lake”, a very a‒ characteristic title, was given to this painting when it was catalogued by Doris Mills, a friend of Harris’ wife Bess, in 1936. Mills listed it among a group of canvases she identified as Northern Paintings, of which this was number 12, not among Harris’ Lake Superior paintings.
However, the site is identified in a related sketch titled by the artist “Above Coldwell Bay, North Shore, Lake Superior” (sold Sotheby Parke Bernet (Canada), Toronto, 5 November 1979, lot 156). The lake depicted here was first painted by Harris prior to 1925, as there is an oil sketch of this same lake on a smaller panel (sold Sotheby’s Canada, Toronto, 3 December 1997, lot 155). However “Quiet Lake” was worked up from a panel of 1925 measuring 12 x 15 inches and titled by the artist “Northern Lake, Ontario, October”.
In both “Quiet Lake” and “Northern Lake” the point of view is determined by the foreground ‘ledge’. The lake opens up in the middle distance and is framed by the curves of the surrounding hills. In “Northern Lake” the hills rise left and right with the cold blue light of the sky glowing in the centre distance, reflecting on the water and casting shadows on the still lake. As Bertram Brooker wrote, the painting is “sombre, but none the less restful. In that sketch the distant rise upper left is painted in contrasting striations as on the hill upper right, whereas in the canvas “Quiet Lake” the yellow covers the entire slope.
There are similarities and differences between “Northern Lake” and “Quiet Lake”. In “Quiet Lake” Harris heightened the tonal contrasts, painting the autumn grasses and foliage in a bright, mustard palette. The silhouettes of the reflections in the quiet lake create an abstract pattern, as solid as the foreground rock, and are surrounded by the pale green trees lower right and dark green trees centre left. In contrast to “Northern Lake”, the hills are less symmetrical and the interplay of the dominant forms creates a less restful and more dynamic image. The eye follows the dominant yellow from lower right to upper left while the left shore juts into the open centre linking to the dark hill upper right.
To date it has been impossible to identify “Quiet Lake” with any canvas Harris exhibited in the 1920s. It clearly developed out of and postdates “Northern Lake” of 1926.
We extend our thanks to Charles Hill, Canadian art historian, former Curator of Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada and author of “The Group of Seven‒Art for a Nation”, for his assistance in researching this artwork and for contributing the preceding essay.