George Harvey (1800-1878) was an English-born artist whose series of “atmospheric landscapes” depicting 1830’s America was widely heralded for its originality and stunning imagery. Cited by the New York Times as “one of our best watercolorists,” Harvey was also critically praised for his floral still lifes, and his miniature views of the city of Boston were a staple of many New England collections. His election at the age of 28 to the membership of New York’s National Academy of Design made him one of the youngest artists to be so honored by the most influential American artistic association of the nineteenth century.
Harvey was born and raised in Tottenham, England, a district of north London whose settlement dates back a thousand years and which during Harvey’s lifetime was a semi-rural, middle-class area. Though the historical record remains silent as to the nature and extent of Harvey’s formal schooling and artistic training, an analysis of the artist’s handwriting strongly suggests that it was a teenage Harvey who painted the still life Flowers, which was accepted for exhibition in 1819 by the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The following year Harvey immigrated to America, barely twenty years of age but still setting out for what was then the largely untamed, forested frontier of Ohio, Michigan, and parts of Canada. Suddenly, as he would later recall, he found himself “in the remote wilds of the New World, hunting and trapping, scribbling poetry and prose, drawing and sketching . . . thus two years passed in the far West.” This period of time spent on the edge of America’s westward expansion would prove to be extremely valuable for Harvey, who would later turn the product of these early artistic efforts into the subject matter of his watercolor landscapes. By 1827 — though possibly as early as 1825 — Harvey had established residence in Brooklyn, New York, working primarily on portrait miniatures, an area that would sustain him financially in the coming years. In 1828, he submitted two picturesque English scene paintings and a floral still life to the National Academy of Design for exhibition, with inscriptions on the paintings describing the English scenes as originating “from a sketch taken in 1819,” and the still life as "a vase of flowers copied from nature." The three paintings were accepted for exhibition by the Academy, which almost immediately afterward elected him to associate membership, an indication that the 28 year old painter had already gained widespread respect among the prestigious group of artists that constituted the institution’s governing body. Though the trajectory of his career moved in the direction of portrait miniatures and landscapes, many critics consider Harvey to be the earliest flower specialist painter in America, with noted Hudson River School artist Charles Lanman stating that “he stands entirely alone as a painter of flowers,” and Peter Falk, editor of the authoritative Who’s Who in American Art, observing that Harvey’s floral work featured “large, beautiful blossoms.” Harvey again participated in the National Academy’s exhibition the following year, but by then he was living and working in Boston, reputedly producing over 400 portrait miniatures over an intense two year period of work. Unyielding in his self-criticism despite the early career accolades, Harvey returned to London in 1831 to further refine his skills, and was back in Boston by 1833. But by 1834 the process of applying himself so assiduously to the painting of miniatures began to negatively impact his health, to the point where he received medical advice to take a respite from this type of arduous work, as well as to exercise and spend time outdoors, preferably outside the city. In response Harvey purchased twenty acres of land along the Hudson River in what is now Hastings-on-Hudson in Westchester County, New York. Employing his innate skill at architecture, he designed and built a rustic cottage he named “Woodbank,” and proceeded to lay out the elaborate grounds, which included gardens, terraces, an arbor, and a beach. (He also gained recognition in national architectural circles for redesigning the home of his friend and neighbor, the famous American writer Washington Irving.) Recalling the circumstances that would prove to be the turning point of his career, Harvey later explained that during this process he began to “notice and study the ever-varying atmospheric effects of this beautiful climate. I undertook to illustrate them with my pencil, and thus, almost accidentally, commenced a set of Atmospherical Landscapes.”
Over the course of the next several years, Harvey executed forty watercolors depicting a variety of North American landscapes from Virginia to Canada, an endeavor that the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art called the “only series of American drawings devoted to geographical regions observed at specific times of day and under specific weather conditions.” The term ‘atmospheric landscapes’ was derived from Harvey’s portrayal of the varying effects on landscapes — in particular the shifting subtleties of color and light — produced by changes in the atmospheric conditions at different times of the day and year. Combining scientific documentation, technological observations, and picturesque effects, Harvey aspired to reach beyond the genre of landscape art and enter the realm of history painting, much like Thomas Cole did in his famous Course of Empire series. But whereas Cole employed the diurnal cycle to pessimistically chart the rise and fall of a nation-state, Harvey’s message was optimistic, evidencing American progress through settlement, cultivation, development, the rise of technology, and the use of natural resources. Moreover, his choice to arrange the series as an episodic progression of a single day from daybreak to midnight coincided with the contemporaneous vogue for dioramas and panoramas. Stylistically, Harvey drew liberally from the traditions of British watercolors and miniatures, while adding innovative flourishes of his own, such as creating heavy wet snowflakes and fog by scraping small abrasions into the paper, a decision which The Magazine ANTIQUES termed “a tour de force of synesthesia.” That same magazine additionally lauded him for his “dazzling stipple technique,” with the Metropolitan Museum’s website further noting that the series represents “the earliest topographical watercolors executed in America using a stipple technique,” predating the closely related technique of Pointillism — used so effectively by French Neo-Impressionists such as Georges Seurat — by nearly half a century.
In 1837, Harvey displayed the first nine completed watercolors of his series of atmospheric landscapes at the National Academy of Design’s annual exhibition, and upon departing for Europe the following year, had 22 in tow. While in Paris, he showed the paintings to the American Minister to France, Lewis Cass, who encouraged Harvey to have the series engraved, which Harvey had viewed from the outset as a long-term objective, hoping to convey “to nations on the other side of the Atlantic ideas of scenery that never could have entered into their imaginations,” and also committed to fostering a better sense of understanding between England and America. In addition to Cass, the paintings drew praise from Michael Faraday — the most prominent English scientist of his generation — who at a showing in London came away impressed with their technical and scientific sophistication. Upon his return to America, Harvey drew up plans to have the watercolors published as an eight part series, with each set consisting of five aquatints, together with a descriptive text written by Harvey and edited by Washington Irving. In support of the endeavor, several of America’s leading artists came forward, including Washington Allston, one of the pioneers of the American Romantic Movement of Landscape Painting, who said of the series: “To me it appears that Mr. Harvey has not only been successful in giving the character of our scenery, but remarkably happy in clothing it with an American atmosphere, which he has expressed with equal truth and variety.” The aforementioned Charles Lanman added: “We look upon the above pictures as an invaluable acquisition to the treasury of American art. They prove that the painter must have studied the scenery of our country with the eye of a devoted lover, and at the same time that he possessed the power to delineate with remarkable fidelity, the beauties of nature. A number of these drawings are unquestionably among the finest things of their kind in the country, and though highly finished are executed in a masterly manner, full of the most refined sentiment, and in every particular ‘beautiful exceedingly’. . . . Taken as a whole, they are extremely valuable, and give a better idea of our scenery than any other series of pictures we have yet seen. . . . We cannot but hope that he will meet with the patronage which it deserves. It will be a national work of which the country may well be proud.” Also adding praise were two of the country’s foremost portraitists, Thomas Sully and Samuel F.B. Morse, both of whom painted early American presidents, with Morse, who would go on to be a co-inventor of telegraphic communication and the ‘Morse Code,” becoming a mentor and technical advisor to Harvey. The National Intelligencer newspaper, published in Washington, D.C., from 1800 to 1870, reported that, “It is worth everyone’s while to see this delicious work, and every person who is capable should subscribe for a copy of the engravings,” and the American Repertory of Arts, Sciences, and Manufactures, one of the era’s most respected technical and scientific journals, wrote: “We have had the pleasure of examining many of the beautiful and minutely finished drawings of this series, and can add our feeble testimony in favor of their great merits. The approbative letters of Allston, Morse, and Sully, accompanying the prospectus, however, place the question of their excellence beyond the reach of cavil.” New York’s popular literary magazine, The Knickerbocker, which upon initial viewing of the series commented on the “admirable drawing and coloring of the different scenes depicted,” would later add, “we must indulge in the hope that in this country a work so creditable to the republic and so admirable in itself will find no lack of patrons.”
Returning to London in 1841, Harvey received the support of Queen Victoria, who offered her patronage for the project. During the visit funding was secured for publication of the first set of landscapes, with the engraving done by the British-born artist William J. Bennett, who had been accepted into the National Academy of Design the same year (1838) as Harvey, and who was regarded by many critics as the finest engraver of his day. The initial installment of five prints — hand-colored by Harvey — was formally titled Harvey’s Scenes of the Primitive Forest of America, at the Four Periods of the Year (colloquially known as The Four Seasons), and concentrated on seasonal views, as opposed to the remaining 35 visions primarily evincing the daily cycle. The aquatints told a wilderness story of seasonal pioneer labors set against a backdrop of towering first-growth forests, the pictorial narrative enhanced by Harvey’s and Washington Irving’s text. On his return to New York, Harvey displayed over 90 watercolors at a show on Broadway, which featured — in addition to a selection of the atmospheric landscapes — views rendered of Niagara Falls, New York; Newport, Rhode Island; and various locales along the Hudson River, as well as a number of floral still lifes, reflecting Harvey’s lifelong interest in what he called “the language of flowers.” He also unveiled a number of studies of meterological events, including blizzards, rainbows, and even the Northern Lights. Several sets of The Four Seasons were exhibited in 1842 at the fair held by the American Institute of the City of New York, and the following year Harvey displayed — for the first time — the entire series of atmospheric landscapes at the American Art-Union in New York City. In 1844 Harvey held a major show at the Boston Athenaeum, one of America’s oldest independent libraries (founded in 1807), with over 200 works put on view. But despite the enthusiastic public response, the consensus of critical opinion on his work’s aesthetic and technical virtuosity, and even the support of the Queen of England, Harvey could not overcome the serious transatlantic economic recession of the 1840s, with money panics besetting America in 1843 and England in 1847. Notwithstanding the sale of his Hudson River property in 1846 in an effort to secure financing, ultimately Harvey was unable to obtain the requisite amount of funding necessary to sustain the project.
Though by 1847 the apparent failure on Harvey’s part to publish his atmospheric landscapes had led him to “sadly ponder over my trials and difficulties,” renewed hope for the dissemination of the paintings — albeit in different form — arrived via an invitation from John Barlow, secretary of the Royal Institution of Great Britain (an organization devoted to expanding scientific knowledge to the general public), to deliver a series of eight lectures on “The Scenery, the Resources, and the Progress of the United States, north of Virginia.” This unexpected offer gave Harvey the opportunity for which he had been longing, to put his watercolors and his text to good use. The lectures were to be illustrated by a conversion of his watercolor images to handpainted glass slides projected to 16 by 18 feet by the use of a “magic lantern” device, newly perfected by a multi-lens system that allowed pictures to be dissolved and changed more rapidly and further revolutionized by the oxy-hydrogen limelight invented by the Scottish engineer Thomas Drummond (hence the name “Drummond Lamp”). For his part, Harvey’s place at the lectern was enhanced by his having attended numerous lectures at the Polytechnic Institute of London (a pioneer in technical education) during previous visits. Harvey’s lectures proved so successful that he repeated them at the London Institution (another educational center promoting the popular diffusion of knowledge), with the demand remaining strong enough for him to take the lectures on tour to cities like Coventry, Lynn, Birmingham, and Cambridge. By 1850 Harvey had established his own hall in London, named Harvey’s Royal Gallery of Illustration. Here he presented nightly lectures with slides for the cost of a shilling, exhibiting most of the original atmospheric watercolors along with many of his oil paintings, and offering The Four Seasons for sale. Returning to the United States in 1851 because of what he cited as health problems, Harvey modified his lectures for an American audience, adding in scenes that stressed American history, including slides of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower landing at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, in 1620. Subsequent to advertising his show in the Boston Transcript newspaper in March 1851 and the New York Evening Post the following month, Harvey leased his show to the young Albert Bierstadt (who would go on to become one of the foremost members of the Hudson River and Rocky Mountain Schools of Landscape Painting), with Bierstadt presenting “Harvey’s Dissolving Views of American Scenery” to audiences in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island. Sometime between 1857 and 1866, Harvey sold the atmospheric landscapes to John Eliot Howard, the son of Luke Howard, the British chemist and meteorologist whose classification of clouds played a significant role in Harvey’s acquired knowledge of atmospheric conditions. John Eliot Howard would eventually disperse the series in England, where most of the paintings would remain until Broadway and Co. Galleries of New York City purchased a large number of them in 1940 for exhibition and sale in the U.S., essentially re-awakening the art world to their existence.
Over time, Harvey’s watercolor landscapes have come to be viewed as an important forbear of the Luminism movement of mid-nineteenth century American art. The idea that Luminism was a distinct movement was first put forward in 1954 by John I.H. Baur, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, with the movement’s dominant characteristic being the ascendancy of light as the focal point of the painting, irrespective of the setting (sky, sea, land) or mood. Based upon the transcendentalist and spiritualist movements of the first half of the nineteenth century, the Luminist concept of light was viewed as an idea about God rather than a natural phenomenon to be represented realistically. Thus, when Luminists painted light, they were not simply copying the light they saw in the physical world; rather, they painted light as a symbol of the spiritual plane. Pure pictorial representation was balanced by an obligation on the part of the artist to represent the landscape in ways that effectively conveyed Christian truths. This idealization of the natural world by Luminist artists led to the dominance of a conceptual response over a perceptual one. Since what the artists thought and felt about nature took precedence over what the artists actually saw, the landscape was depicted with a magnified intensity and light was painted with unnatural brilliance, with light in effect becoming the subject matter of the picture, gleaming radiantly on a different frequency than atmospheric light and painted in cool colors in a manner eliminating evidence of brushstrokes, thus creating a smooth surface (to this end, the stippling technique was often employed). Additionally, the surface of water was usually portrayed as calm and glossy, and space was carefully controlled to maximize the impact of idealized exaggerations, offering the viewer an intimate image of vast expanses confined to a small format. Generally, a cloudless sky revealed crisply outlined forms and a precise, detailed rendering of landscape. A mood of stillness is also a conceptual element, with “luminist silence” evoking a feeling of permanence: Time seems to stop, locked in a particular moment. As art historian Kathleen Frye has put it: “Absorbed in contemplation of a world without movement, the spectator is brought into a wordless dialogue with nature, which quickly becomes the monologue of transcendental unity.” Some of the artists most closely associated with this movement — which was reininvigorated by a well-received exhibition in 1980 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., called American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875 — include Fitz Hugh Lane, Martin Johnson Heade, John Frederick Kensett, Asher B. Durand, and Edwin Church (Church’s Icebergs sold for $2.75 million several months before the exhibition). Though a number of early nineteenth century American artists are considered to be influences on Luminism, Jane Turner — the editor of the Encyclopedia of American Art: Before 1914 — has posited that “The ‘Atmospheric Landscapes of North America,’ a series of watercolors by George Harvey executed in the mid to late 1830s, was perhaps the first purely Luminist manifestation in American art.” To that point, Harvey, a deeply spiritual man, viewed the settling of the American continent as a symbol of divine intervention, writing in his personal journal that “Providence has doubtless ordained this action and reaction, this interchange of physical and moral benefits, for the perfecting of humanity; whereby, in the fullness of time, the world is to witness the millenium foretold in the scriptures.” Marjorie Searl, the former chief art curator for the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, has pointed out that “Harvey was not alone in his “second creation” view of America . . . Hudson River School painters Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand, for instance, were similarly mindful of the American landscape’s Edenic qualities. Harvey’s philosophical writings make a case for a “millennial” reading of the Rochester painting (Pittsford on the Erie Canal); the canal boat, a symbol of Adam in the new Eden, is pulled westward along a manmade waterway, securely protected between the steeples of Christian churches, with the divine light of Providence shining upon the scene.” By extension, Harvey’s renderings of other locales besides those of his earlier atmospheric watercolors offer distinctive, Luminist-oriented interpretations in settings such as Florida (called “fabulous” by oldfloridapaintings.com) and Newport, Rhode Island. But it is arguably the 26 watercolors executed on the island of Bermuda in the 1870s that are the most consequential of Harvey’s late career work, the island drawing the interest of many of the period’s finest landscape and seascape painters in the years following Harvey’s extended stay. Confirmed as having spent time there by an undated “Catalogue of Paintings and Watercolor Drawings” believed to have been published in the 1870s and describing him as “George Harvey, Esq., late of Bermuda,” Harvey composed a selection of island views interpreted through the unique glow of a luminist lens, freezing in time a serenely lit moment that would soon give way to modernity.
With the purchase in 1940 of a selection of Harvey’s paintings by Kennedy and Co. Galleries, a renewed focus was cast on Harvey’s oeuvre following several decades in obscurity. In 1948, the New-York Historical Society, which the preceding year had received a gift of 18 Harvey watercolors and three of his oils, held the first major exhibition of Harvey’s work in over a century. (The Society is currently the single largest public repository of Harvey’s work, with nearly 40 of his paintings and over half of the original series of atmospheric watercolors in their collection.) At the time of the exhibition, Donald E. Shelley, the Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the Society, called Harvey “one of the most gifted and perceptive of the Anglo-American artists to paint the American scene.” Cataloging the exhibition, he said that it featured many of the artist’s original paintings “for what would have been perhaps the loveliest set of prints published of early American views ever made, had it actually been published. . . . That Harvey was eminently successful in what he set out to is evident not only from the beauty and richness of the watercolors themselves but also by the critical opinions expressed in his day. . . . In presenting this kind of subject matter, Harvey’s watercolors are unique in the field of American art.” Commenting on Harvey’s stippling technique, Shelley added: “So carefully does Harvey place his tiny spots of color side by side, and so accurate is his sense of values, that reduction of some of the watercolors to black and white photography at once diminishes the vibrant charm of the original.” Other sources offering contemporary insights into Harvey’s career include the aforesaid Marjorie Searl, who composed an essay on Harvey's famous work, Pittsford on the Erie Canal, following its being gifted to the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester. Citing the "excellence" of his antecedent portrait miniatures, she called the work “a luminous oil,” going on to write that “the brushstrokes coalesce and create a coherent and compelling effect. Whether dead or sultry calm, Harvey suggested the stillness of the water with painstaking reflections of the sky, boat, trees, and even horses. . . The newly acquired painting takes its rightful place alongside Asher B. Durand’s Genessee Oaks and Thomas Coles’ Genessee Scenery.” The website 1stdibs.com called Harvey “one of the most accomplished watercolor artists of his time. His expertly painted landscapes are filled with charming details, a talent cultivated during his early career as a miniaturist. . . . He shared with other Hudson River School artists the belief that it was 'the highest delight to ramble uncontrolled in search of the picturesque.' . . . His unending determination to document the North American landscape, with all its atmospheric qualities, has made Harvey’s oeuvre one of the most impressive of nineteenth century landscape watercolors.” Referencing Harvey’s atmospheric landscapes, the esteemed American historian and writer Walter Karp wrote that “in each work he tried to render — and he succeeded admirably — the quality of light peculiar to different seasons of the year and times of the day. . . . They recall a land we shall never see again.”
In recent years, Harvey’s watercolors were included in two highly selective group exhibitions at the New-York Historical Society. The first, The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision, ran from May 2005 to February 2006, and showcased over 100 paintings from the movement’s leading exponents, including Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, John F. Kensett, Jasper F. Cropsey, and Albert Bierstadt. The second, titled Drawn by New York: Six Centuries of Watercolors and Drawings at the New-York Historical Society, was on view from September 2008 to January 2009 (later traveling to the Loeb Art Center at Vassar College and the Taft Art Museum in Cincinatti, Ohio), and featured highlights from the Society’s collection dating back to sixteenth-century avian watercolors and a Dutch view of New York City in 1650. On a permanent basis, Harvey’s work is represented in several of America’s most estimable public collections, including — in addition to the New-York Historical Society — the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Brooklyn Museum; and the Princeton University Art Museum. Furthermore, a sample of his work executed in Bermuda is archived at the Bermuda National Gallery.
George Harvey died in 1878 in Tottenham, England, the place of his birth. Though publication of his series of atmospheric landscapes ultimately proved to be elusive, he is increasingly recognized, in the view of such notable art historians as Agnes Halsey Jones, as “a force in awakening Americans to the beauty with which nature had endowed their environment.”
©The Lusher Gallery LLC 2018. All rights reserved. No portion of the material described herein may be reproduced in whole or in part without the prior written consent of The Lusher Gallery LLC.