A growing taste for Canadian art? Lawren Harris ‘ripe for appreciation abroad,’ says art expert Ian Dejardin

The thing about Canadian art is that Canadians have largely kept it to themselves — so says British art historian Ian Dejardin.

But there’s definite potential for worldwide appreciation of Canadian art, and tonight could mark one instance where the cat’s out of the bag.

The commanding large-scale canvas Mountain Forms by iconic artist and Group of Seven founder Lawren Harris — a mountain scene from his coveted 1920s creative period — hits the block with Heffel Fine Art Auction House in Toronto.

Tapped with a conservative presale estimate of $3 million to $5 million, the painting is expected to sell for more.

If it crosses the upper threshold of the estimate, it would likely become the most expensive Canadian artwork ever sold at auction, knocking off longtime record-holder Paul Kane’s Scene in the Northwest. Harris works already take up three spots among the top five most valuable Canadian artworks ever sold at auction.

Ian Dejardin

‘It’s about time you could see a Lawren Harris at the Tate or the National Gallery in London,’ says Dulwich Picture Gallery director Ian Dejardin, who takes over as head of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in April. (CBC)

The audience for Canadian art is out there, says Dejardin, pointing to his own experience at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, mounting critically acclaimed exhibitions on Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven as well as Emily Carr — shows that introduced Canadians to many new admirers, inspired lengthy queues, drew raves from attendees and also moved on to other European galleries.

‘Lawren Harris is such a powerful and attractive artist. He is someone who is ripe for appreciation abroad.’
– Ian Dejardin

“People still talk about the ‘Lawren Harris chapel,'” recalls the Dulwich director, describing how one gallery space was transformed into an introspective chamber of dark blue walls bearing Harris’ Arctic landscapes and icebergs during the Painting Canada show in 2011.

A more recent example of how Canadians are seeping into the international art consciousness? A Carr piece turned up alongside iconic artist Marcel Duchamp’s artwork in an issue of the Tate gallery’s influential art magazine.

“That’s an extraordinary thing to see. And no one would have thought of that before we had that exhibition here,” Dejardin says, referencing the 2014 Dulwich exhibit From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia.

Harris, recently celebrated in the high-profile Steve Martin-curated solo exhibition in the U.S. and Canada, “is such a powerful and attractive artist. He is someone who is ripe for appreciation abroad, particularly in the States, where they have the comparison with someone like Georgia O’Keeffe” — an “international superstar” whose work recently packed crowds into the Tate Modern, according to Dejardin.

“Lawren Harris deserves to be seen in the same breath, I think, as that,” he says, adding: “Tom Thomson could be the next global, van Gogh-like superstar if Canada puts its weight behind him.”

Lawren Harris, Emily Carr, Tom Thomson

Some of Canada’s most iconic artists, like Harris, left, Emily Carr and Tom Thomson, are ripe for for greater appreciation abroad, says Ian Dejardin. ‘Tom Thomson could be the next global, van Gogh-like superstar if Canada puts its weight behind him.’ (Canadian Press)

Though auctions are “notoriously difficult to call” and the global art marketplace “a curious planet to live on,” Dejardin, slated to take over as the new executive director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in April, feels more international awareness of and interest in buying Canadian art would be a healthy development.

“The day when people start bidding internationally for Canadian art will be a good day, I think, generally for the appreciation of Canadian art in the world. It deserves it,” he says.

“It’s about time you could see a Lawren Harris at the Tate or the National Gallery in London. They buy Scandinavian art, for instance — why not Canadian?”

The top 5 most valuable Canadian artworks ever sold at auction

1. Paul Kane, Scene in the Northwest – Portrait of John Henry Lefroy

Sold in 2002 for $5,062,000 (all prices including sales premium)

Paul Kane

Art lover and media baron Ken Thomson bought Scene in the Northwest at a Sotheby’s Canada sale in 2002, eventually donating it to the Art Gallery of Ontario. (Courtesy: The Thomson Collection/Art Gallery of Ontario)

2. Lawren Harris, Mountain and Glacier

Sold in 2015 for $4,602,000

Lawren Harris Mountain and Glacier

Heffel set a new record for a Lawren Harris work with Mountain and Glacier, sold at an auction last November. (Heffel Fine Art Auction House)

3. Jeff Wall, Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986)

Sold in 2012 for $3,666,400


Jeff Wall’s colossal photograph Dead Troops Talk was a record-setter at Christie’s in New York in 2012: highest price ever paid at auction for a Canadian photograph. (Christie’s)

4. Lawren Harris, Winter Landscape

Sold in 2015 for $3,658,000

Heffel Fall Auction 20151126

The November 2015 Heffel auction that saw the boffo sale of Mountain and Glacier (2nd on the list) was a great one for Harris works. Winter Landscape also crossed the block that night. (Heffel Fine Art Auction House/Canadian Press)

5. Lawren Harris, The Old Stump

Sold in 2009 for $3,510,000


The Old Stump, an oil sketch Harris made for one of his masterpieces (North Shore, Lake Superior, which hangs in the National Gallery of Canada), sold at a Toronto Heffel auction in 2009. (Heffel Fine Art Auction House)