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Birge Harrison

 (1854 - 1929)
Birge (Lovell Birge) Harrison was active/lived in New York, Massachusetts, California.  Birge Harrison is known for tonalist landscape, snowscene and Indian pueblo painting.

Birge Harrison

Biography from the Archives of askART

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Birge Harrison has been described as one of America's leading tonalist painters.  His specialties became moonlit landscapes, pueblos, and Indian genre, but unlike many of his Impressionist contemporaries, who liked to paint "en plein air," he painted from memory and preferred a muted palette.  He was one of the first generation of painters and teachers in the Woodstock, New York art colony, which under his influence became a center of Tonalist-style painting.  He also became a part of the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony, affiliated with the Arts and Crafts Movement.  In the 1880s, he did illustrations for Scribner's, magazine, which sent him on travels around the world.

He first enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and advised by John Singer Sargent, went to Paris in 1875.  He studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, with Alexander Cabanel, and in the atelier of Carolus Duran.  Then he traveled world wide for Scribner's including to India, Australia, and the South Seas.

In England he was influenced by the atmospheric effects of the works of John Crome and John Constable, and he concluded that the highest achievement in modern art was landscape painting.

He returned to New York, where he taught landscape painting and was Director at the Art Students League.  Stressing the importance of the big vision and atmospheric effects and mood in landscape painting, he founded the Woodstock Art Colony and made his home in that picturesque Dutch region of the Catskills.  He also painted New York City scenes and snow scenes.

From 1880, he made several trips West, living briefly in Espanola, New Mexico and Santa Barbara, California.  From 1906 to 1911, he served as Director of a summer school at Woodstock under a program run by the Art Students League, and he was credited with being a major positive influence on the development of the Woodstock Art Colony.

Exhibitions include:
Expo Universale, Paris, 1889 (medal); Columbian Exposition (Chicago), 1893; Buffalo Exposition, 1901; Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St Louis), 1904; Panama Pacific International Exposition, 1915.

Collection: Luxembourg Museum (Paris).

Sources include:
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Edan Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940

Biography from The Johnson Collection
Although Birge Harrison is best remembered as an inspirational teacher and influential writer, he was also a dedicated landscape artist in his own right. Harrison was born into a prestigious Pennsylvania family on October 28, 1854. His parents encouraged his interest in art, and as young boys, Birge and his brother Alexander were allowed to travel to the studios of Thomas Sully and J.R. Lambdin in Philadelphia to watch the artists work.

Harrison began his serious art studies with Thomas Eakins, at the Philadelphia Sketch Club, who taught the importance of developing one's personal style. Harrison later credited Eakins as a model for his own teaching methods. In 1876, he continued his education in Paris with his brother and entered the atelier of the painter Carlous-Duran. He also took classes at the prestigious École de Beaux-Arts and absorbed the artistic atmosphere that Paris had to offer. He was especially interested in the work of the Tonalists who used textures and hues to inspire feelings. During the summer months, Harrison visited art colonies where he developed his love of painting en plein air. He also met his wife, Australian painter Eleanor Ritchie, at one of these colonies. In 1882, the French government purchased his painting November, one of the first American works to be purchased by France.

Harrison and his wife left France in 1883 and spent the next several years traveling the world. They returned to France in 1885 before setting out for Australia in 1889 where they lived for two years. The Harrisons returned to the United States in 1891 and settled in California. They became friends with their neighbor Ralph Whitehead, and Harrison gave his first art lesson to Mrs. Whitehead, informally beginning his teaching career. Unfortunately, in 1895 Harrison's wife died from complications while expecting their first child. Harrison returned east to be with his family. He remarried in 1896 and lived in Massachusetts where he began to paint the snow-filled landscapes that became his best known subject matter.

In 1904, Ralph Whitehead hired Harrison as an instructor at an art colony he founded in Upstate New York called Brydcliffe. Harrison moved to the nearby town of Woodstock and taught at the colony for one year. In 1906 the summer program of the Art Students League was moved from Connecticut to Woodstock. Harrison was asked to head the school, and he accepted. Harrison quickly became a very influential and popular teacher among the art students. He devoted his classes solely to landscape painting and wrote a book on the subject in 1909. He taught his students to paint their landscapes with emotion. His own works incorporate soft lighting and muted colors that demonstrate a spiritual connection to the land. Although he retired from teaching in 1911, Harrison lived in Woodstock for the remainder of his life and continued to stay active in the artistic community.

In 1908, Harrison and his wife traveled to the Southern port city of Charleston, South Carolina. During his stay he produced several quiet street scenes as well as poetic views of Charleston Harbor. Harrison also had a great influence on a young local artist named Alice Ravenel Huger Smith. Using her family's kitchen as his studio, Harrison offered Smith informal lessons and criticisms of her work. Harrison also convinced his former Woodstock student Alfred Hutty to visit Charleston. Hutty eventually moved to the city and became a leading figure, along with Alice R.H. Smith, in the Charleston Renaissance, an artistic resurgence that took place in the 1920s.

Harrison continued to exhibit his work, with his brother and on his own, well into the twenties. However, Tonalism had fallen out of popular favor near the end of his career as audiences and critics became interested in more modern art. Harrison produced many beautiful landscapes over the course of his life, though he is best remembered as a great teacher who had a tremendous influence on the next generation of painters. Today his work is included in many private and public art collections such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Academy Museum, the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery
BIRGE HARRISON (1854-1929)

Lovell Birge Harrison was a classically-trained artist, critic, and instructor who began his art studies at the Philadelphia Sketch Club and at the newly-founded school of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, under the tutelage of Thomas Eakins. As a young man, Harrison and his two brothers, Alexander and Butler, expressed a strong desire to pursue careers as professional artists. Their father, Apollos Harrison, was a man of letters who had been a successful merchant prior to the outbreak of the Civil War and who later in life became an expert in horticulture, working as the Secretary and Treasurer of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. He clearly was interested in the fine and performing arts, but for monetary and cultural reasons he preferred that his sons find careers away from the struggles of the studio artist.

Nonetheless, Harrison enrolled in Eakins' classes at the Philadelphia Sketch Club and was one of a small group of first students to enjoy the rigorous training at the Pennsylvania Academy. Through his friendship with the portrait painter and well-known engraver, John Sartain, and because of the growing acceptance of the role of studio artists, Harrison was allowed by his father to continue his studies abroad at the studio of Carolus-Duran, who had also taught John Singer Sargent. In fact, it was Sargent who encouraged Harrison to study under the Frenchman.

Harrison's time in France was quite productive, and he exhibited a steady growth of skill. He continued his training at the artist's colony at Grez sur-Loing, and began to exhibit his works at the Paris Salon exhibitions, soon receiving one of the greatest honors for any student, when the French government purchased his painting titled November, shown at the Salon of 1881.

The artist traveled extensively over the next decade, touring the globe with stops in Japan, Australia, and throughout Europe. When he returned to the United States, Harrison, along with his first wife, Eleanor, spent several years in California and also made frequent visits to Charleston, South Carolina, and Quebec, Canada. The exact location and date of Sunburst at Sea are unknown, but this work has much in common with other views of the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina which offered one of Harrison's preferred vistas. Harrison was extremely fond of the city and he visited often in the years after 1908.

In terms of date, it is likely that Sunburst at Sea is one of a series of large-scale exhibition pastels Harrison executed between 1913 and 1915, when he was suffering from a bout of silver poisoning. His ailment rendered him unable to paint in oil, and he used the time to investigate alternate ways of expressing his art. Harrison was a devoted student of various media and their supports, and he outlined his particular interest in pastel in a 1915 article for Art and Progress:

During the past two years I have produced a series of paintings in pastel which are as sound and lasting as the best oil paintings while retaining the exquisite bloom and atmospheric quality which is the distinctive beauty of the pastel, a quality which is due, of course, to its soft-dry, unreflecting surface. ... After much search I discovered a gray paper almost identical to that used by Latour himself, which is still manufactured in France and imported from that country by certain New York color-men. Roberta Sokolitz

This essay is copyrighted by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from Hicklin Galleries, LLC.

Biography from Blake Benton Fine Art, Artists G - K
Born in Philadelphia in 1854, Birge Harrison received his early artistic instruction at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  In 1876 he met John Singer Sargent in Philadelphia at the Centennial Exposition.  Advised by him to continue his studies under Sargent's own master, Carolus-Duran, Harrison left for Paris in 1876.  He enrolled in Carolus-Duran's atelier in August 1877, and the following year attended Alexandre Cabanel's classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

In 1882 Harrison received official recognition when Novembre became one of the first paintings to be purchased by the French government.  At this time he spent his summers working in Brittany and Giverny in Normandy.  He traveled extensively in India, Australia, Asia and Africa during which time he did illustrative work for Scribner's, Century and Harper's magazine.  Upon returning to the United States, he painted tonalist-style landscapes and city scenes.  A critic once said "Harrison understood the narrative content in order to emphasize the landscape's decorative and emotional elements.  He imparted a theme of transience in his works by the barrenness imparted in his paintings."  Often this melancholy mood was reinforced by a solitary figure, often pensive and withdrawn.

Harrison then left his early style of Tonalism for a more plein-air impressionist picked up from Jules Bastien-Lepage with whom he studied with at Pont-Aven.  Then came another major breakthrough in his style when he was shown by an unidentified Scandinavian painter the "secret of atmospheric painting...[and] made clear to me... the importance of Vibration and refraction in landscape painting."

In 1905, Harrison helped found the Art Students League Summer School in Woodstock, New York, and was later credited as being one of the founding members of that art colony.  Harrison was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1910, the most prestigious honor that could be bestowed on an American artist.  He exhibited regularly at the Society of American Artists, the National Academy of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1889 until his death in Woodstock in 1928.

He became known for landscapes, cityscapes of New York and Los Angeles, scense of Quebec, street scenes, and Indians.

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About  Birge Harrison

Born:  1854 - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died:   1929 - Woodstock, New York
Known for:  tonalist landscape, snowscene and Indian pueblo painting

Essays referring to
Birge Harrison

San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915