Lawren Stewart Harris was born on October 23, 1885 in Brantford, Ontario. The son of Thomas Morgan Harris and Anna Stewart, Harris was an heir to the Massey-Harris fortune. The wealth and status of the family afforded Harris a privileged youth, which allowed him to focus on his painting career. He attended Central Technical School and St. Andrew's College. From age 19 (1904 to 1908) he studied in Berlin. He was interested in philosophy and Eastern thought. Later, he became involved in Theosophy and joined the Toronto Lodge of the International Theosophical Society. Lawren went on to marry Beatrice (Trixie) Phillips on January 20, 1910, and together had three children (Lawren P. Harris, Margaret Anne Harris, Howard K. Harris) born in the first decade of their marriage. Soon after meeting and becoming friends with J. E. H. MacDonald in 1911, they together formed the famous Group of Seven. He financed the construction of a studio building in Toronto with friend Dr. James MacCallum. The Studio provided artists with cheap or free space where they worked.
In 1918 and 1919, Harris financed boxcar trips for the artists of the Group of Seven to the Algoma region, travelling along the Algoma Central Railway and painting in areas such as the Montreal River and Agawa Canyon. In the fall of 1921, Harris ventured beyond Algoma to Lake Superior's North Shore, where he would return annually for the next seven years. While his Algoma and urban paintings of the late 1910s and early 1920s were characterized by rich, bright colours and decorative composition motifs, the discovery of Lake Superior subject material catalyzed a transition to a more austere, simplified style, with limited palettes - often jewel colours with a range of neutral tones. In 1924, a sketching trip with A.Y. Jackson to Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies marked the beginning of Harris' mountain subjects, which he continued to explore with annual sketching trips until 1929, exploring areas around Banff National Park, Yoho National Park and Mount Robson Provincial Park. In 1930, Harris went on his last extended sketching trip, travelling to the Arctic aboard the supply ship SS. Beothic for two months, during which time he completed over 50 sketches. The resulting Arctic canvases that he developed from the oil panels marked the end of his landscape period, and from 1935 on, Harris enthusiastically embraced abstract painting. After the disbanding of the Group of Seven in 1933, Harris and the other surviving members including A. J. Casson, Arthur Lismer, A. Y. Jackson, and Franklin Carmichael, were instrumental in forming its successor, the larger national group, the Canadian Group of Painters.
On January 20, 1910, Harris married Beatrice (Trixie) Phillips. The couple had three children. Harris later fell in love with Bess Housser, the wife of his school-time friend, F.B. Housser. Harris and Bess fell in love, but saw no way forward. For the two to divorce their spouses and marry would cause an outrage.
Harris eventually left his wife of 24 years, Trixie, and his three children, and married Bess Housser in 1934. He was threatened with charges of bigamy by Trixie’s family because of his actions. Later that year he and Bess left their home and moved to the United States. Then in 1940 they moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, where Harris entered his abstract phase. Bess died in 1969.
Harris died in Vancouver in 1970, at the age of 84, as a well-known artist. He was buried on the grounds of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, where his work is now held.
In 2016 a film about Harris's life, Where the Universe Sings, was produced by TV Ontario. It was created by filmmaker Peter Raymont and directed by Nancy Lang.
In 1981, South Shore, Buffington Island was sold for $240,000, a record price for a Canadian painting. On May 29, 2001, Harris's Baffin Island painting was sold for a record of $2.2 million (record up to that time). Before the auction, experts predicted the painting done by one of the original Group of Seven would top $1 million, but no one expected it to fetch more than twice that amount. The painting, which has always been in private hands, depicts icy white mountains with a dramatic blue sky. In 2005, Harris's painting, Algoma Hill, was sold at a Sotheby's auction for $1.38 million. It had been stored in a backroom closet of a Toronto hospital for years and was almost forgotten about until cleaning staff found it.
On May 23, 2007, Pine Tree and Red House, Winter, City Painting II by Harris came up for auction by Heffel Gallery in Vancouver, BC. The painting was a stunning canvas from 1924 that was estimated to sell between $800,000 and $1,200,000. The painting sold for a record-breaking $2,875,000 (premium included). On November 24, 2008, Harris's Nerke, Greenland painting sold at a Toronto auction for $2 million (four times the pre-sale estimate).
On November 26, 2009, Harris's oil sketch, The Old Stump, sold for a record $3.51 million at an auction in Toronto. To date, it is the second-highest amount ever paid at an art auction in Canada and the most ever paid for a Group of Seven painting. In May 2010, Harris's painting, Bylot Island I, sold for $2.8 million at a Heffel Gallery auction in Vancouver. On November 26, 2015 his painting Mountain and Glacier was auctioned for $3.9 million at a Heffel Fine Art Auction House auction in Toronto, breaking the previous record for the sale of one of Harris's works. Another piece, Winter Landscape, sold for a hammer price of $3.1 million in the same auction. On November 23, 2016, Mountain Forms sold for $11.2 million.