George Harvey's Anglo American atmospheric landscapes

The “Epochs of the Day” were horizontal compositions in which Harvey used diagonals to propel the series forward, as in a moving panorama. He arranged them from daybreak to midnight, interspersed with subjects of meteorological conditions or the seasons. For the initial scene of daybreak with its pioneer setting (Fig. 3), he illustrated a passage from James Fenimore Cooper’s (1789–1851) novel The Prairie (1827), his only reliance on literature. Drawn from the third of “The Leather-Stocking Tales,” it contrasts the blazing fires with a hint of light on the horizon. For the subsequent sunrise view of Flatbush from Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, Harvey used a reciprocal diagonal (Fig. 4). Highlighting the ephemeral meteorology, he scratched out the breath of a cow hitting the chilly air, and, underlining the sublimity of the view, he represented the Reformed Dutch Church of Flatbush, which still stands, in the distance. “The present view is at sunrise, typical of our Christian hopes, for the sunrise of the soul is at the boundary of life,” he wrote.20 After two additional morning scenes he inserted meteorological views and cloud scenes (see Fig. 6), followed by an Indian summer episode with a railroad and then five types of storms, including the view in Figure 8. In that technically sophisticated watercolor, where Canadian settlers make maple syrup, Harvey created heavy wet snow­­­flakes and fog by man­­­­ipulating the gouache and the paper’s reserve as well as by scraping small abrasions into the paper. In a tour de force of synesthesia, he communicated the frigid temperatures and humid air of late winter experienced by the boy collecting sap.

Among Harvey’s six afternoon vignettes are views of the Erie Canal, Niagara Falls, the Potomac River, Jersey City near sunset,and his Westchester property facing the Palisades (Fig. 5). The early date of the last derives from its similarity to an oil painting signed and dated 1836 that depicts a location upriver and the fact that Harvey exhibited three such subjects at the National Academy in 1837.21 By scraping the surface of the paper at the far left and stippling orange gouache on the reserve, he conveyed the sun’s reflections on the river. In another afternoon scene (Fig. 7), set on Boston Common with the Massachusetts State House of Charles Bullfinch (1763–1844), he recorded a rare double rainbow, one of nature’s most spectacular meteorological events. Harvey’s interest in rainbows can be linked to the English artist John Constable (1776–1837) who, like Harvey, showed at the Royal Academy in 1832.22 Constable had studied rainbows seriously by 1812, and also painted double ones.23 Unlike Constable, Harvey did not accurately represent the color sequence of the secondary bow reversed from that of the primary. However, the symbolism of the rainbow—hope and reconciliation—did not escape him in the Boston scene, the most allegorical of his series, where it signifies divine approval of the nation’s progress in the afternoon of its life.24

With scientific documentation, technological observations, and picturesque effects, Harvey captured the day fading into evening in five stages. The first takes place on the waterways of Pennsylvania’s extensive network of canals in the Allegheny Mountains (Fig. 9), and the second where two Finger Lakes, Cayuga and Seneca, intersect with the Erie Canal as the sun slips below the horizon (Fig. 10). In the third twilight scene (Fig. 12) his vantage point across the river from bustling Catskill Landing enabled him to focus on the transparent atmosphere and hazy lavender of the distant mountains. The view is punctuated by the silhouette of a dead tree suggesting nature’s cycle in a mood reminiscent of the German romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich (1771–1820).25 The fourth evening scene (Fig. 11) shows the meteorological bow (bands of colored light) beyond the lighthouses on the Navesink Highlands, which Harvey claimed, “Professor Morse” had pointed out.26 The twin lights had stood sentinel over the treacherous coastal waters of northern New Jersey since 1828 and were the primary lights for New York harbor. Exploiting this breathtaking site for twilight, one of the subtlest times of day, Harvey suggests by his technique the mist characteristic of the hour. Since the lights were rebuilt in 1862, his watercolor preserves not only this transient moment but also the earlier maritime monuments. By contrast, Harvey’s nightfall showcases a fairly new technology, gaslight illuminating Broadway in front of Saint Thomas’s Church in New York (Museum of the City of New York).27

Harvey closed the series with a pair of nocturnes lit by astronomical phenomena. In the first with a waning gibbous moon and stars (Fig. 13), three hunters warming themselves by a fire are alarmed by the sound of a stampede of bison; the silhouetted leafless tree adds a picturesque note to this composition reminiscent of the English artist Samuel Palmer (1805–1881) and foreshadows the end of the frontier. In the final view, Midnight. Aurora Borealis, Fishing by Torchlight (whereabouts unknown), artificial illumination competes with celestial fireworks.

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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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