Island Painter: The Life of Robert Harris (1849-1919)


148 pages
Contains Illustrations
ISBN 0-920304-24-9





Reviewed by James G. Snell

James G. Snell is a history professor at the University of Guelph,
author of In the Shadow of the Law: Divorce in Canada, 1900-1939, and
co-author of The Supreme Court of Canada: History of the Institution.


Island Painter is a rewriting of a biography originally published in 1970: Robert Harris 1849-1919: An Unconventional Biography (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart). In his preface the author states that this new book is “an extension” of the earlier work, using additional research. Unfortunately, Island Painter does not live up to this implicit promise of an even more comprehensive examination of this turn-of-the-century artist.

Robert Harris occupies a modest place in the pantheon of Canadian artists. The 1970 biography described him this way: “A painter of modest distinction, he remained almost blandly Canadian, almost untouched by a contemporary world that knew (significant) art movements” (p.xi). He was, however, influential in Canada and a reflection of the character of Canadian cultural development. He is a subject deserving of examination.

But why a new biography? Much of the material in the two versions is the same. The 1970 edition, however, contains more information and is better written. More paintings and sketches arc reproduced in the first volume, whose bibliography has been dropped in the new edition. In short, it is unclear that the reader is better served by this new biography.


Williamson, Moncrieff, “Island Painter: The Life of Robert Harris (1849-1919),” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 20, 2024,