George Harvey's Anglo American atmospheric landscapes

October 2009 | The English-born artist George Harvey is primarily remembered for his spectacular watercolor landscapes, although he was also a painter in oils, a miniaturist, architect, poet, and writer. In the 1830s and early 1840s he created a series of forty “atmospherical” watercolor views of American scenery that he intended to have engraved and sold serially by subscription, a project he hoped would foster a better understanding between England and the United States. Over the course of two decades, he promoted it on both sides of the Atlantic with published commentaries and magic lantern shows, in a flirtation between art, science, optics, and popular spectacle.

While his artistic training remains unknown, he may be the G. Harvey who exhibited the still life Flowers at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1819.1 After immigrating to the United States in 1820, Harvey spent two years traveling and sketching in Ohio and Michigan, on the frontier, and in Canada. By 1827 he had established residence in Brooklyn. The following year he made his debut at the National Academy of Design2 and was elected an associate member; and in 1829 he moved to Boston. After traveling to England in 1830 or 1831 to study, he was back in Boston in 1833, but by 1834 overwork had weakened his health. On medical advice to spend time outdoors, he purchased twenty acres in what is now Hastings-on-Hudson in Westchester County, New York.3 On this estate he built a rustic cottage called Woodbank and de---signed its gardens, relating: “These exercises in the open air, led me…to notice and study the ever-varying atmospheric effects of this beautiful climate. I undertook to illustrate them by my pencil, and thus, almost, commenced a set of Atmospherical Landscapes.”4

By 1836 Harvey had engaged another Anglo-American artist William James Bennett to engrave the views for his series. The writer Washington Irving (1783–1859), who was Harvey’s neighbor and whose house, Sunnyside in Tarrytown, he helped redesign, was to edit the text. After issuing a prospectus,5 Harvey published the first installment in 1841 as Harvey’s Scenes of the Primitive Forest of America, at the Four Periods of the Year. Bennett’s four hand-colored aquatints of the seasons based on Harvey’s watercolors told a wilderness story of seasonal pioneer labors against the backdrop of gigantic first-growth forests (Figs. 1, 2) enhanced by Harvey’s text. Few copies are known, but it seems that the American edition included an illustrated frontispiece that was intended to be the title page for the entire series, Harvey’s American Scenery, representing different atmospheric effects at different times of day, while theEnglish edition did not.6 Harvey planned to follow this quartet of the “Epochs of the Year” with thirty-five horizontally oriented “Different Epochs of the Day.”

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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