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Ruth Harris

Robert Harris
Ruth Harris, 1896
Oil on canvas
79.2 x 51.0 cm

Robert Harris was the leading portrait painter in Canada at the turn of the century. Though born in Wales, he was brought to Prince Edward Island as a youth, and worked in Montreal from 1883. He was President of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts from 1893 to 1906.

The career of a portrait painter, with all the compromises demanded by the expectations of the sitters or persons commissioning the work, was not an easy one, though potentially lucrative. Certainly in Harris's oeuvre there is a range in quality, undoubtedly due to his interest or otherwise in the sitter, restrictions of time, or the requirement to paint posthumous portraits from photographs. Some of the most sympathetic subjects in Harris's oeuvre are his own family, including this charming portrait of his niece, Ruth Harris (1893-1984). On the back of the canvas he has inscribed "Portrait of Ruth M.L. Harris (daughter of Rev. E. Harris M.A.) painted from life in St. James Rectory Mahone, N.S. by Robert Harris P.R.C.A. August 1896."

The figure, wearing a muted white dress with two pale blue ribbons in her hair, is placed in a neutral space in the centre of the canvas. Above her the artist has inscribed her name and age. Harris greatly admired the quiet tones, simplicity, and paint handling of Rembrandt, Franz Hals and Velasquez and during his travels abroad he repeatedly studied their work. In New York in April 1896, he wrote, "much struck by Manet's boy with sword. The wonderfully fine qualities of the tones & admirable simplicity of the drawing & modelling." Manet was also a great admirer of the Dutch and Spanish 17th-century painters, and, if less decisive than Manet, Harris paints with a similar broad effect