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HARRIET THAYER DURGIN (1848-?) was a pioneering female artist whose landscapes and still-lifes featuring botanical motifs earned her considerable notoriety during the latter half of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries. Working primarily in watercolors, she is considered to be one of the foremost American exponents of the floral-painting genre during that era.

Born in Wilmington, Massachusetts in 1848, Harriet Thayer Durgin was the daughter of Reverend J.M. Durgin, a Baptist minister and enthusiastic supporter of the anti-slavery movement who served with distinction in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Ms. Durgin received her scholastic education at the New Hampton Institute in New Hampshire, though there is no indication in the biographical record of her ever having received any early formal training in the arts. After completing her studies at the New Hampton Institute she became a schoolteacher, which served as her vocation until 1880, when she departed America to join her sister, Lyle, in Paris (Lyle went on to become a critically-respected painter in her own right, specializing in murals and portraits, including a portrait of the noted artist Henry Sandham). Harriet, who had always dreamt of a career in the arts, and who had drawn and painted since childhood, established a salon with her sister on the Rue de Verneuil, near the Luxembourg Gallery, and selected as her artistic mentors Francois Rivoire (1842-1919) and Delphine Arnould de Cool (1830-1921). Rivoire was a renowned and prolific painter of still-lifes, usually of delicate flowers and plants. His realist paintings were rich in color and depth, bringing out what many observers believed to be the inherent natural beauty of botanical objects. Mme. de Cool was a painter of landscapes and still-lifes, and a writer who published an expert treatise on the subject of Limoges porcelain. Her work was exhibited at the Chicago World Exposition in 1893, and her painting, A Good Cigarette, was included in the 1905 book, Women Painters of the World. As a means of supplementing their formal artistic educations, the Durgin sisters spent their summers sketching in England, Switzerland, and other regions of France, perfecting their craft by executing en plein air landscapes in naturalistic settings; Harriet’s abilities proceeded at a crisp enough pace that her painting of a panel of roses received special attention at the Paris Salon of 1886. Later that same year the sisters returned to Boston together, opening a studio in the fashionable Copley Square section of Boston, an artistic venture which by all known accounts was a commercially viable one. Many exhibitions followed for Harriet, including a solo display at Noyes and Company in Boston (1888); and group shows at the Montreal Art Association (1889), the National Academy of Design (1898), and the Boston Art Club (1889-1898). Two of her more notable works are the watercolors Study of Dog Colors (1891) and House by the Water (creation date uncertain). 

In 1906, Ms. Durgin visited and painted on the island of Bermuda, holding weekly exhibitions of her watercolors at the guest house “Seamount” in Smith’s Parish; these Thursday shows were advertised in the Royal Gazette throughout the entire winter season, until their conclusion in March. Until fairly recently, any and all biographical references indicated that 1906 represented Harriet Durgin’s lone trip to Bermuda, but in 1998 a watercolor of hers, apparently painted on the island ca. 1890, surfaced on the auction market, raising questions about the veracity of the known historical record as it relates to her travels.

In a rare instance of a groundbreaking woman of that era being interviewed for public consumption, Harriet Durgin was asked to share her thoughts on art in general, and the contemporary state of art in America in particular, for the book Occupations for Women: A Book of Practical Suggestions for the Material Advancement, the Mental and Physical Development, and the Moral and Spiritual Uplift of Women (1897), by Francis Elizabeth Willard. “If we read the lives of those who have left their record on the world of art,” Ms. Durgin opined, “we see that they had no need of considering money. They were artists because they were born with the love of art in their very natures . . .” When queried as to why artists in America produce so few seminal works of art (to that point in history), while other nations have museums, galleries, and churches filled with historically significant paintings, she tellingly replied: “We can’t afford to do so. Nobody wants them.” But she was prescient enough to see changes on the horizon: “The awakening is coming, no doubt. A love of art is inherent in humanity, and must develop itself, and if we consider the wonderful difference between the artistic conditions of today and those of a so short a period as twenty years ago, we can comprehend the rapidity of the development. Truly, all may love art, but not all may be artists, and the student who is choosing his life work must consider carefully. There is a whole history behind the expression ‘a struggling artist.’ It expresses a phase of humanity and a condition of society as well . . . Even exceptional merit may be unrecognized by the wisest critics. (But) there is always room for good artists. In affairs of the world’s need, the laws of supply and demand regulate each other. Art does more, for while widening her own influence, (art) increases in the heart of the world all those qualities which tend to its elevation, not only making beautiful things, but increasing the general capacity for enjoying them . . .” Upon being asked how it was that she and her sister succeeded against such great odds, she seemingly spoke for ‘struggling artists’ everywhere, and in all time periods: “Why, we just kept on. We couldn’t be anything but artists, you see.”  

Written February 2016 by Brian Flon, author of "Hell's Kitchen Requiem" (2014), available as an e-book at Amazon, ITunes, and Barnes & Noble.

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