TRINITY COLLEGE ARCHIVES
Robert Harris: How Travel Influenced the Life of an Artist
Robert Harris was one of Canada’s most renowned portrait painters during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Harris spent his seventh birthday aboard the Isabel from Wales, where he was born, arriving in Charlottetown, P.E.I., as an immigrant. Harris’s life and works were influenced by his immigration to Canada, but also by his numerous travels around the world. Robert Harris’s handwritten receipt, dated January 25 1881, gives us a glimpse into his life not only as an artist, but also as a traveler, and how these two seamlessly connected throughout his career.
A Post-Confederation Artist
J. Russell Harper in Painting in Canada: A History describes post-confederation artists as: “a restless crew, always on the move, searching out new sketching grounds wherever expediency or fancy took them.” Harris was no exception; his early artistic works allowed him to travel and gain an extensive education, which in return earned him profound commissions as a portrait painter. His multiple trips to Europe, first as student, and later as a professional, greatly influenced his career as an artist.  The lessons he learned in Italy influenced his critique of his personal artworks, and his years in Paris influenced his teaching style at the Art Association of Montreal.
The City of Toronto
Handwritten receipt signed by Robert Harris, dated January 25 1881. Courtesy of Trinity College Archives.
Harris’s first institutional commission shows that his time in Toronto was important to his career as an artist. As the receipt indicates, the commissioned portrait was of Reverend George Whitaker, first provost of Trinity College. The portrait receipt was made out to Trinity College Office of the Bursar for $600.00, and still hangs today in Trinity College.
Harris was warmly welcomed in Toronto, and was surprised that he was known as an artist through the few works he had exhibited publicly at this point. The receipt outlining his portrait for Trinity College is significant because this was his first institutional commission, and largest canvas he had ever completed. Harris was aware of the significance of this opportunity because this commission allowed him to travel abroad, yet this time he was no longer a young art student; he was now a renowned portrait painter.
Where it all led: Robert Harris’s Fathers of Confederation Commission
Harris learned of the most important commission of his artistic career while he was abroad in Paris. When Harris was awarded the Fathers of Confederation commission it was noted from the Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald that: “so far as the painting itself is concerned he [Sir John] quite agreed with the Hon. Gentleman [Mr. Laurier], that they would have in Mr. Harris an artist who had already obtained a celebrity in Europe and who, if he were spared, would add honour to Canada.”
As Canada is preparing to celebrate its 150th birthday, we will look back and remember the Fathers of Confederation and the 1867 Quebec Conferences that brought Canada together. Just as it is important to remember these moments, it is also important to remember the people behind the scenes, and the ones who painted them.
Karley Staskus is currently enrolled in the Master of Museum Studies Program at the University of Toronto. She was born in Sudbury, Ontario, where she graduated from Laurentian University with an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree with a double major in Rhetoric and Media Studies and History. Karley hopes that her time in Toronto will have as much as a positive impact on her life and career as seen in the story of Robert Harris.
Harris’s handwritten receipt, dated January 25, 1881, gives us a glimpse into his life not only as an artist, but also as a traveler, and how these two seamlessly connected throughout his career.