George Harvey's Anglo American atmospheric landscapes

While Harvey had asserted that his atmospheric landscapes were based on empirical observations of sky, climate, and light, by 1850 he was articulating a more scientific orientation. In Royal Gallery of Illustration, he wrote that the views were informed by the pioneering Linnean classification of clouds formulated by the English chemist and meteorologist Luke Howard (1772–1864), first posited in 1803 and accepted to this day.42 Howard’s work paralleled the visual studies of Constable. Harvey’s debt to Howard finds reflection in his use of Howard’s nomenclature, as in Figure 6, and it also surfaces in Figure 11, where he depicted Howard’s three layers of atmosphere (mists, cumulus clouds, and cirrus clouds). Howard and Harvey were also connected by geography; after 1812 Howard had moved to Tottenham, Harvey’s city of birth and burial, and sometime between 1857 and 1866 Harvey sold the atmospheric landscapes to his son, John Eliot Howard (1807–1883), who eventually dispersed them.43

Details of Harvey’s life after 1850 are scarce. After advertising his glass slides in the Boston Transcript (March 22, 1851) and the New York Evening Post (April 7, 1851), he leased his show to the young Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), who presented Harvey’s “Dissolving Views” of American scenery and sold his pamphlets to audiences in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island.44 By 1857 Harvey was back in London, although he continued to cross the Atlantic during the 1860s and 1870s, including visiting Florida and Bermuda. In 1871 he attempted unsuccessfully to publish chromolithographs after his watercolors of Newport, and in 1876 he published The Sires and Sons from Albion Sprung, an illustrated book of poetry and plays, in London under the nom de plume George St. George. None of these ventures were as positively received as the atmospheric landscapes, Harvey’s most significant contribution in a career paradigmatic of the challenges artists faced in marketing two-dimensional works and the effects technology exerted on them.

Two of the atmospheric landscapes are included in the exhibition Drawn by New York: Six Centuries of Watercolors and Drawings at the New-York Historical Society, at the historical society until January 7, 2009, and thirteen others are on view in the Luce Center on the fourth floor through November. The exhibition travels to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, and to the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati starting next summer.

A special thanks to Stephen R. Edidin, curator of American and European art at the New-York Historical Society, for sharing his files on Harvey. I am also most grateful to: Kevin J. Avery, associate curator in the Department of American Painting and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Deborah McCracken Rebuck, curator of the Dietrich American Foundation, Chester Springs, Pennsylvania; and Christine Huber, assistant curator of exhibitions, Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill, North Carolina; as well as Alexandra Mazzitelli, research associate at the New-York Historical Society.

[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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