George Harvey's Anglo American atmospheric landscapes

In his forty preparatory watercolors (including the one for the frontispiece/title page),7 he combined documentary and scientific observation of climate and atmosphere with emblematic weather iconography and poetic manipulation, creating the only series of American watercolors devoted to geographical regions observed at specific times of day and under particular weather conditions. However, they also harbored contemporary spiritual and moral ideas—like those of the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) in his Cosmos (English ed., 1845)—that weather and climate affected the moral and intellectual development of a people. Harvey also implied that the distinctive climate of North America was an indication of divine providence.8 In painting the scenes he employed traits derived from British watercolor and miniature traditions, most notably a dazzling stipple technique foreshadowing the American Pre-Raphaelites, which Harvey may well have seen in the work of English watercolorists such as Robert Hills (1769–1844). Eighteen of the thirty known watercolors for the series are now in the New-York Historical Society, 9 the largest repository of Harvey’s work. (The museum has twenty-seven watercolors, six oils, and four portraitminiatures,10 while the library holds a copy of the English edition of Harvey’s Scenes.)

Explaining the genesis of his project in terms of history painting, Harvey noted his aspirations to portray the history of the day, thereby linking it to the genre epitomized by Thomas Cole’s “Course of Empire,” which charts the rise and fall of a nation-state in the diurnal cycle. By contrast, Harvey’s message was optimistic and republican, celebrating progress through settlement, cultivation, development, the rise of technology, and the use of natural resources from Virginia to Canada. Instead of a geographically organized tour of American sites, he arranged his scenes in an episodic progression through a single day interspersed with seasonal and meteorological variations.11 As he noted on the back cover of Harvey’s Scenes, his approach reflected the transatlantic vogue for dioramas and panoramas.

In 1837 Harvey leased a studio in the old New York University Building, where his neighbor and mentor was his friend Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872). Known later as an inventor, Morse may have encouraged Harvey’s interests in scientific methods. Morse was also the first president of the National Academy, where, also in 1837, Harvey exhibited nine landscapes that were either early versions of the atmospheric landscapes or the final works with preliminary titles.12

By 1838, when Harvey again left for Europe to garner subscribers and market his series, he had completed twenty-two watercolors. After returning to the United States in 1840, he continued to seek subscribers and exhibited the landscapes in New York and Boston. He also solicited endorsement letters from prominent artists—Morse in New York, Washington Allston (1779–1843) in Boston, and Thomas Sully (1783–1872) in Philadelphia. By 1841 Bennett’s aquatints—the plates for which could only produce about 250 good impressions—had been issued.13 Harvey colored one set and, unable to locate accomplished colorists in this country, turned for assistance to his London co-publisher, the Ackermann firm.14 Reflecting his interest in perception and optics, he published an article about oceanic phosphorescence,15 but remained frustrated in his efforts to attract subscribers. In 1842 he exhibited at the National Academy oil paintings of the seasons (for sale) and their watercolor models (not for sale).16 That same year he also showed, at the fair held by the American Institute of the City of New York, where Morse exhibited his “Electro Magnetic Telegraph,” “One Set of Atmospheric Views [the seasons], bound in ordinary manner. One [set] framed. One [set] retouched by himself. One [set] bound in morocco, entirely coloured by himself.”17 The following year his one-person retrospective at 322 Broadway, home of the American Art-Union and the Apollo Association, marked the first time he exhibited the atmospheric landscapes as a group.18 In 1844 he showed at the Boston Athenaeum, including watercolors of the seasons and thirty-five times of day subjects (not for sale). Underlining the organic evolution of his series and the dominance of atmospheric effects over locations, he described one thusly: “Subsiding Storm. Mountain Scene, this is merely the study of the intended effect. The locality of the view is not yet decided upon.”19

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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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