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J. Russell Harper

J. Russell Harper was a distinguished art historian, who served as Curator of Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada from 1959 to 1963.

Harper was born at Caledonia, Ontario. He studied at the Ontario College of Art (1938-40), then served with the Royal Canadian Air Force (1941-45). Following the second World War, Harper earned degrees in Art and Archaeology from the University of Toronto (BA 1948; MA 1950). He held positions at the Royal Ontario Museum (1948-52), New Brunswick Museum (1952-56), Lord Beaverbrook Art Collection (1957-59), National Gallery of Canada (1959-63), McCord Museum, McGill University (1965-68) and Concordia University (1965-79). Among numerous honours, he was awarded a Royal Society of Canada Fellowship for Research in Paris (1956), and became a a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (1974), as well as an Officer of the Order of Canada (1974).

Harper is cited as "a determined pioneer in the history of art in Canada." His contribution to the collections and exhibition programs of Canadian institutions, his authoritative publications in the history of Canadian art, and his work as educator and champion of Canadian visual culture mark him as a leader in the new discipline which he helped to create and define. Among his many publications, Painting in Canada: A History (1966; revised edition 1977) was the most ambitious and comprehensive study of Canadian art to date. This landmark title was followed by other seminal works, including Early Painters and Engravers in Canada (1970), Paul Kane's Frontier (1971), and Krieghoff (1979).

During his long and distinguished career, J. Russell Harper assembled a comprehensive library of some 3,000 titles, encompassing visual arts, architecture, archaeology, graphic arts, decorative arts, photography, folklore, literature, history and other subjects related to cultural development. His library reflects his scholarly interests and commitments, and contains many of the ancillary materials he used in research for his own publications. Material types include books, exhibition catalogues, journals and newspapers, as well as printed ephemera. The library is particularly rich in local history of the Maritimes, Québec and Ontario, including publications such as reports of societies, religious orders and archival repositories, early collection guides and catalogues, souvenir albums, programs and prize lists from community events such as agricultural fairs and exhibitions, and early Canadian publications on art instruction and technique. The era of exploration and discovery of Canada is also represented, with numerous classic studies in early editions.

The Library of J. Russell Harper was donated to the National Gallery of Canada in 1992. An item-level finding aid is available.