George   Harvey

(1800 - 1878)

Although better know for his landscapes, George Harvey began his career as a miniatureist. Nothing of his formal education is known except that he was painting miniatures in England before he came to the United States when he was twenty. He spent the first two years "in the remote wilds of the New World, hunting and trapping, scribbling poetry and prose, drawing and sketching" in Ohio, Michigan, and parts of Canada, according to the artist's journal, quoted by Donald A. Shelley.

By 1825, he was in New York City working as a miniature painter, and in 1828, he was elected an associate to the National Academy of Design and moved to Boston. In 1830, he made athe first of six trips to London to improve his skills. Modest about his accomplishments, Harvey was nonetheless a prolific and successful artist. Sometime after he returned to America in 1832, his health began to deteriorate from overwork, and eventually he was obliged to give up miniature painting for a time. About 1834, Harvey purchased a tract of land and built a house at Hastings-on-Hudson, neas Washington Irving's home in Irvington, Sunnyside, which he helped remodel in 1835-1836. From then on he devoted himself to landscape painting: he is best known for his small format atmospheric watercolors.

In 1844, he exhibited 213 works, including 22 portrait and landscape miniatures at the Boston Athenaenum. Harvey traveled a great deal, kept a New York City studio in the 1840s, lived in Boston during the 1850s, and was back in New York City and Brooklyn in the 1870s, until he returned permanently to England by 1873.

English-born George Harvey came to America in 1820 to seek his fortune. A skilled and successful painter of portrait miniatures and delicate watercolor landscapes, he was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1828.

Both artist and entrepreneur, Harvey planned to create and market an elaborate album of engravings of significant American landscapes. He was intrigued by the “ever-varying atmospheric effects” of the American climate, which he found remarkably different from those in England. In 1835 he began recording his impressions in a series of sketches and watercolor paintings; it was at this time that he visited Pittsford village in western New York.

In 1841, Harvey published his portfolio Atmospheric Landscapes, with engravings by William J. Bennett from Harvey’s watercolors. Four engravings, collectively entitled 'Scenes of the Primitive Forest of America at the Four Periods of the Year', were issued as aquatints in 1841 under the patronage of Queen Victoria. The portfolio, however, was too expensive; only 250 copies were sold, and the project was discontinued. In the late 1840s, Harvey transcribed many of his watercolor sketches onto glass lantern slides for lectures to introduce English audiences to America’s extraordinary landscapes. Although he continued to travel between England and America, George Harvey made his home along the Hudson River near his friend Washington Irving.

In Harvey’s painting, the gentle diagonal curve of the Erie Canal leads the viewer’s eye along the towpath, past the packet boat and on to the distant village of Pittsford, New York, just outside the city of Rochester. Neither the soft delicate buildings in the town nor the man-made waterway and towpath appear to disturb the natural land forms. The stillness of the water reflects every detail of the sky, the trees, and the packet boat.

Pittsford on the Erie Canal -- A Sultry Calm and a similar work now at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York were painted from sketches done during the artist’s visit to the Rochester area in 1835 or 1836. Viewing the canal from the south bank at King’s Bend approximately one mile west of Pittsford village, Harvey in carefully rendered details includes the towpath, three horses, a guide and rider, the trees and flora of the area, and, in the distance, the village of Pittsford with two church spires and a brick-red stepgabled building.

Harvey’s interest in the varying effects of atmospheric conditions on the landscape at different times of day is evident in the painting, where clouds fill the top half of the painting and are carefully reflected in the water below. As an introduction to a lecture for the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1849, Harvey wrote:

The cumulous cloud, from which the sketch was taken, rose with great suddenness. At noon the weather was very oppressive and sultry, and not a cloud to be seen; at two o’clock the sky was in commotion, and at three a most terrific thunder storm burst upon the country. The little village in the distance is near to Rochester, a great place for flour mills. The principal trade of Pitsford [sic] is the purchase of grain for other markets; it is situated in one of the most productive agricultural districts in the Union.

Harvey shared with many Hudson River School artists the view of American wilderness as a “second creation.” In this view the canal boat becomes a symbol of Adam in the new Eden, securely protected between the steeples of Christian churches with the divine light of Providence shining upon the scene. American Studies scholar David Nye wrote of the Erie Canal as the “‘technological sublime’ --both a part of the ‘preservation and the transformation of the natural world’ and a component of a ‘moral machine’ that ‘ensured not only prosperity but also democracy and the moral health of the nation.’ ”

Classroom Guide: © Copyright Ownership: Seeing America Through Artists' Eyes

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