Clara Isabella Harris (née Perry 1887-1975) by Verna McLean

This is a story about an obscure female artist, Clara Isabella Harris (née Perry, 1887-1975), who was born in King City, Ontario. Although she lived in another era, 1887 - 1975, her story is relevant to today’s women artists. The information is derived from relatives, art curators, collectors, historians, educators, as well as art galleries, museums, newspaper articles, exhibition catalogues, archives, a diary, and correspondence. Her recordings of the Canadian landscape with accompanying documentation provide a historical record, a colour snapshot of what no longer exists and what we’ve lost.

Self-Portrait, oil on canvas, 44 cm x 32 cm, circa 1905
Private collection, photo courtesy of Verna McLean

The excuse cannot be made that Clara remained obscure because she had to struggle emotionally or financially, or that her marriage assumed precedence over her art. Clara’s parents, Richard and Elizabeth Hunter Perry, were progressive. At a time when women’s vocations were limited to teaching, nursing or indulging in respectable women’s pastimes, they fostered their daughter’s artistic pursuits and financed her education. Clara was 31 when she married Frederick W. Harris, a commercial artist. The couple lived at 23 Valleyview Gardens, in Toronto’s west end. Their home seconded as a salon where they worked in their respective studios, hosted art displays, sales and discussions. Fred’s diary reveals a progressive man who supported Clara’s artistic endeavours including trips away from home for extended periods of time:

Aug. 22, 1938 – Letter from Clara at Amherst, sent her a letter, pkg of paints
Oct. 8, 1940 – Niece Mary Thompson took me on a picnic to see Clara in her sketching ground
Jan. 14, 1941 – Clara out sketching in a.m. Made good dinner for her
Jan. 22, 1941 – Preparing stretchers and easel for Clara

The excuse cannot be made that Clara remained obscure because her artistic ability was provincial or inferior. At the age of 19, Clara participated in the Art Institute of Chicago’s (AIC) Nineteenth Annual Exhibition of Water-Colors, Pastels and Miniatures by American Artists, May 7 to June 16, 1907. Fellow exhibitors, Colin Campbell Cooper, Eanger Irving Couse, Charles Warren Eaton and Edward Henry Potthast became heavy-hitters in the art world; the latter exhibited next to Clara in this exhibition.

Listed in Room 30 in the following order:

376. Reflections.
377. A fresh breeze.

378. English shops.
(Art Institute of Chicago’s Nineteenth Annual Exhibition of Water-Colors, Pastels and Miniatures catalogue, 1907: private collection.)

In Cincinnati on April 1, 2013, Antiques Roadshow appraiser David Weiss of Freeman’s Auctioneers in Philadelphia, evaluated a selection of Potthast’s sketches, watercolours and a landscape painting to be in the $41,000 to $63,000 range. By contrast, the value of Clara’s art has not appreciated significantly from the days of her initial exhibitions. In March 1933 at the Sixty-First Annual Exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists, Clara’s painting The Old Mill was priced at $100. In June 1988, her Porrsboro Fog, Ottawa House, Beach painting sold for $80. And in December 2012, Clara’s Cordova Bay Near Victoria, B.C. sold for $395.

The excuse cannot be made that Clara remained obscure because she was not determined, neglected to continuously develop her skills, or limited herself to a single mentor, style or medium. In 1912 Clara returned to AIC, travelling as a single woman. She crossed the Canadian border and travelled by boat to Port Huron, Michigan. Clara attended the Ontario College of Art (OCA) from 1913 to 1915 where she studied under John W. Beatty, an associate professor and a major influence to the Group of Seven painters. She also participated in OCA’s Summer Art School in Port Hope, Ontario directed by Beatty. Her painting entitled Ontario Pioneer Bridge, Near Port Hope dates this in 1933. Clara studied under George Agnew Reid, Manly MacDonald, William Cruikshank and noted portrait painter Archibald Barnes. Her work included landscapes, portraits, sketches, sculpture, woodcarving and linocuts.

Buckhorn Road Between Bobcaygeon and Buckhorn Lake, Ontario, oil on canvas, 35.6 cm x 43.2 cm, October 8, 1937
Private collection, photo courtesy of Verna McLean

The excuse cannot be made that Clara remained obscure because she did not exhibit in Canada, was not prolific, or that she was or became unfashionable. She participated in various art shows including The Sixty-First Annual Exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists, March 1933; The Artists’ Annual Non-Jury Exhibition, Canadian National Exhibition Art Gallery, May 1-15, 1935; and The 71st Annual Spring Exhibition, Ontario Society of Artists, The Art Gallery of Toronto, March 5 - 29, 1943. As at AIC she “kept good artistic company” exhibiting alongside but not limited to A.Y. Jackson, A.J. Casson, Frank Panabaker, Arthur Lismer, Andre Lapine, Winslow Homer and Mary Wrinch. Clara left behind more than 250 known pieces. In October 1987, twelve years after her death, Clara’s work was exhibited at the Kaspar Gallery, alongside that of Emily Carr, Paraskeva Clark, Kathleen Daly, Dorothy Knowles, Kathleen Morris, Mary H. Reid and Anne Savage.

In the end, Clara may have remained obscure because she regarded her artistic ability to be inferior, fostered by attitudes toward gender roles of the time. Clara upheld the belief of friends and colleagues that Fred’s artistic work was better. Although she was well-trained, exhibited internationally and with famous artists, travelled extensively and constantly honed her skills, Clara stood in Fred’s shadow, eclipsed by common belief not fact. Sadly like so many female artists of her time, Clara’s work remained undervalued. But today’s technology is a game changer for artists everywhere. The internet has made it possible for more people in more places to view more artists’ works than was ever possible before. Clara is no exception: finally enjoying her place in the sun. As described by Clara’s grandniece in an email to Verna McLean, March 8, 2013:

“I don’t have a lot of memories of my Great Aunt but I do remember her house and all the paintings in all the bedrooms upstairs - even stacked in the closets. I was very surprised to find a web site just for her paintings.”

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