American Masters of Painting - Elizabeth Harris

Elizabeth Harris


Elizabeth (Putnam) Harris (1859-1928)

Elizabeth “Bessie" Putnam was born in Chicago on 10 September 1859 to Jane and Captain Lester Putnam. She had three siblings: Hal, Maurice, and Frances. Elizabeth, unfortunately, had known great loss from an early age. Her sister had died at the age of 19 from a virulent form of diphtheria, and her father died of a heart attack when Elizabeth was 16.

In Robert Harris’ biography, by Moncrieff Williamson, titled Robert Harris 1849-1919 An Unconventional Biography, Elizabeth is described as being “medium height, dark-haired, rather boyish-looking, and had inherited a sharp wit from her Irish-Canadian mother” (pg. 108). She was well read, intelligent, and musically talented.

After her father had died, Elizabeth’s mother opened a boarding house in Montreal. In 1883, she had four boarders who she described as “all very nice, gentlemanly fellows. We are quite a happy family. Most of them are musical, so we have a little music now and then” (pg. 102, The Island Painter). One of these men was Robert Harris.

Robert had become quite stricken with Elizabeth, or Bessie as he was prone to call her. There was an instant connection between the two of them, as within two years of meeting each other, they were married on 22 May 1885. Their honeymoon consisted of a tour of England, Ireland, Wales, France, Holland, and Prussia.

Robert painted and sketched several portraits of Bessie, in multiple poses and scenes. She would stand as the model in one of his famous paintings, A Meeting of the School Trustees. A painting that was inspired by a school teacher in Long Creek, Prince Edward Island whom told a story of “‘laying down the law to the school trustees and generally ‘talking them over’” (pg. 117, Robert Harris 1849-1919 An Unconventional Biography).

Although Bessie and Robert had no offspring, they had a beloved dog. A wire-haired terrier named Tough was described as an awful dog that bit and fought everyone, even being “kidnapped and bought back for a dollar ransom, paid personally by Robert to the old woman who had stolen the creature” (pg. 126, The Island Painter) but the Harrises loved him dearly. Another story about Tough comes from the book Robert Harris 1849-1919 An Unconventional Biography by Moncrieff Williamson:

“The Harrises’ fatuous adoration of Tough had now taken the form of providing him with a little suit of clothes - a swallow-tail coat with a handkerchief in the pocket, trousers with suspenders, and a hat with a peaked brim. He walked about Phillips Square on his hind legs… Robert himself took the measurements and cut the paper pattern for the clothes.” (pg. 145)

Tough lived for 16 years, dying on 15 July 1903.

Bessie and Robert travelled extensively throughout Europe, the UK, and Canada during their marriage together.

In 1890, Robert became very ill; he would battle this illness on and off until he died on 27 February 1919, at his home in Montreal. His body was transported to Prince Edward Island and was buried in Saint Peter’s Anglican Cemetery, Charlottetown. Several articles in The Guardian, indicate that Elizabeth remained in Charlottetown after her husband’s death. Elizabeth died on 7 April 1928 and was buried next to her husband in Saint Peter’s Anglican Cemetery.

Upon Elizabeth’s death, the remaining members of the Harris family donated $80,000 ($60,000 in paintings and $20,000 in cash) to the City of Charlottetown with one condition, a public library/museum/art gallery must be built in Merchant’s Square, in memory of Robert Harris. The building was designed by James Harris, Robert’s nephew. It was completed in 1930 and was Charlottetown’s first building dedicated to a public library. According to the Prince Edward Island Public Archives and Records Office, “the library holdings in 1930 included: 7,000 books in Dodd Library, 10,000 volumes in Legislative Library. The new building had room for 13,000 new books.” The building was demolished in 1962 to make room for a memorial to the Fathers of Confederation, which is now the Confederation Centre of Arts.

Other Books in the UPEI Provenance Collection:

Black, Margaret Moyes. Robert Louis Stevenson. Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1898. [Public library book plate: “Bequest of Mrs. Robert Harris”, with Elizabeth Harris’ bookplate underneath. Inscribed inside “Xmas 1905 S. Harris”]

Caffin, Charles H. American Masters of Painting. S.l.: Doubleday, Page, 1902. [Two bookplates: “Ex Libris Elizabeth Harris” with a picture of a home with a woman reading inside, the other being a public library bookplate. Inscribed “Robert Harris Montreal for D.A.P. Watt”.]

Laurie, A. P. The Materials of the Painter’s Craft in Europe and Egypt: from earliest times to the end of the XVIIth century, with some account of their preparation and use. S.l.: T. N. Foulis, 1910. [Public Library book plate: “Bequest of Mrs. Robert Harris”, with Elizabeth Harris’ bookplate underneath. Doodles of flowers. R. Harris signature.]

Phillips, Claude. Sir Joshua Reynolds. London: Seeley, 1894. [Public Library book plate: “Bequest of Mrs. Robert Harris”, with Elizabeth Harris’ bookplate underneath. R. Harris signature, dated June/96, in Montreal.]

Rossetti William Michael. Ruskin: Rossetti: PreRaphaelitism: papers 1854 to 1862. London: George Allen, 1899. [Public Library book plate: “Bequest of Mrs. Robert Harris”, with Elizabeth Harris’ bookplate underneath.]


1881 Census of Canada. Census Place: Charlottetown Royalty, Queens, Prince Edward Island; Roll: C_13163; Page: 61; Family No: 287.

1891 Census of Canada. Census Place: St Laurent Ward, Montréal Centre, Quebec; Roll: T-6408; Family No: 37.

“Construction of New Library is Progressing.” The Charlottetown Guardian. Pg. 1. 7 October 1929. Accessed from Island Newspapers on 31 July 2016.

“Harris-Pickels.” The Charlottetown Guardian. Pg. 3. 17 June 1924. Accessed from Island Newspapers on 31 July 2016.

“Online Exhibits - History of Charlottetown’s Public Library.” Prince Edward Island Public Archives and Records Office. Accessed on 31 July 2016.

“Personal.” The Charlottetown Guardian. Pg. 6. 22 August 1919. Accessed from Island Newspapers on 31 July 2016.

Quebec Marriage Records. Year: 1885. Place: St. George’s Anglican Church (Montreal). Pg 13v. Archives Centre in Montreal.

Williamson, Moncrieff. Island Painter: The Life of Robert Harris (1849-1919). Charlottetown, Canada: Ragweed Press, 1983.

---. Robert Harris 1849-1919. Ottawa, Canada: The National Gallery of Canada, 1973.

---. Robert Harris 1849-1919 An Unconventional Biography. Toronto/Montreal, Canada: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1970.


Portrait of Bessie Harris, 1889, by Robert Harris. Taken from Robert Harris artnet, accessed 2 March 2017.

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