51 

ALEXANDER HARRISON

American (1853-1930)

"MISTY MORNING"

oil on canvas, 27 3⁄4x 39 1⁄2inches,

signed lower right "Alex Harrison"

PROVENANCE

The artist: Thomas Burke, Esq., Seattle, Washington;
Private Collection, Oregon; By descent in the family to Private Collection,
Las Vegas, Nevada.

EXHIBITED

(probably) Paris, Salon au Champ de Mars, May 17–September 17, 1891,
no. 463, (as Jeune fille
au bois); London, Royal Institute of Oil Painters,
October 1891; (possibly) Tacoma, Washington, Western Washington Industrial
Exposition (second season), opened September 10, 1891; Chicago,
World’s Columbian Exposition, May 1–October 30, 1893, No. 524; Chicago, Art
Institute of Chicago, Thirteenth Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists, October 30–December 9, 1900, no. 105;
Washington, DC, Corcoran Gallery of Art, First Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings by Contemporary American Artists, February 7–March 9, 1907. (not listed in the
catalogue); Washington DC, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Retrospective Exhibition of OilPaintings by Alexander Harrison, N.A. and Birge Harrison, N.A., March 7 – March 29, 1914, no. 13

LITERATURE

“The Institute of Painters in Oil Colours,” The Manchester Guardian (England), October 29, 1891, p. 8; William A. Coffin, “The Columbian Exposition—II.—Fine Arts: The United States Section,” The Nation 57 (August 10, 1893), p. 97; Charles Rollo Peters, “Alexander Harrison and His Most Successful Paintings,”San Francisco Call 84 (November 13, 1898), p. 28; Frederick W. Morton, “American Artists’ Exhibition at Chicago,” Brush and Pencil 7 (December 1900), p. 181; “Corcoran Exhibition of Contemporary Paintings,” Academy Notes, Buffalo Fine Arts Society (April 1907), p. 170.

Note: A label from A Guinchard, Paris, France is on the reverse.

Estimate$50,000—$75,000

 

 

A painter of Tonalist coastal views and plein-air scenes of women and children, [Thomas] Alexander Harrison spent most of his career as an expatriate in Paris.[i] There he was considered “the dean of American painters” and his studio was a prominent gathering place for artists of many nationalities.[ii] Among his friends were leading figures in the Paris art world, including Ernst Meissonier, Jules Bastien-Lepage, Puvis de Chavannes, Jean-Charles Cazin, Jules Breton, Eugène Carrrière, and James McNeill Whistler. Harrison’s younger brothers [Lowell] Birge and Butler were also painters—Alexander and Birge worked in similar styles and often exhibited their work together.

 

Harrison was born in 1853 in the Philadelphia suburb of Germantown to Apollos W. and Margaret (Belden) Harrison. His first art training was at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1871–72. He subsequently spent six years as a topographical draftsman for the United States Government Survey Expedition, which entailed charting the coasts of Maine, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, and spending five winters surveying the Florida swamps. He continued this work in Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast. These youthful experiences may have heightened his sensitivity to coastal scenery. While on the West Coast, Harrison studied under Virgil Williams and Raymond Yelland at the School of Design, San Francisco, participated in the Bohemian Club (San Francisco), and spent time in Monterey with Jules Tavernier.


In the spring of 1879, Harrison traveled to Paris, which would be his home for the rest of his career. Resuming his art training, he attended the École des Beaux-Arts, studying for a year and a half with Jean-Léon Gérôme. In the early 1880s, he began visiting the well-known artist’s colonies of Brittany, often in the company of his brother Birge. In Pont-Aven, he was part of the circle around the American painter Robert Wylie. In nearby Concarneau, he came to know Bastien-Lepage and probably received instruction from him.[iii] His other companions in these locales included several English painters—William Stott, Aubrey Hunt, and Stanhope Forbes—along with the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. Harrison also painted in the artist’s colony at Grez, south of Paris, where he associated with artists from several countries, such as Carl Larsson (Swedish), Peder Severin Kroyer (Danish), John Lavery (English), and many American painters.

 

Harrison exhibited for the first time at the Paris Salon in 1881. His first major success occurred in the following year when he exhibited a work entitled Châteaux en Espagne (Castles in Spain) (1882, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) at the Salon. Depicting a boy day-dreaming on a beach, the painting is in the plein-air naturalistic mode of Bastien-Lepage, who is known to have admired it.[iv] Harrison went on to create several similar images of children in beach settings as well as depictions of idyllic nude women in the outdoors. Among the latter, En Arcadie (1885, Musée d'Orsay), first shown at the Paris Salon of 1886, brought Harrison his greatest notoriety.[v]

 

In 1890, Harrison was a charter member of the new Paris Salon, held at the Champ de Mars, and served on its jury. He spent at least part of the following year in the United States, where he listed his address as 115 East 23rd Street in the new Salon catalogue of that year.[vi] In the years that followed, he continued to spend time in the French countryside, including an extended trip in the summer of 1895 to the coastal town of Beg-Meil in Brittany. There he encountered the writer Marcel Proust and his companion, the musician Reynaldo Hahn. The three established a friendship, and Proust later used Harrison as the model for the character C, an expatriate artist, in his unfinished first novel Jean Santeuil (1896–1900), as well as for aspects of the character Elstir in Remembrance of Things Past (1871–1922).[vii]

 

Throughout his career, Harrison had a passion for coastal scenes, often painting views of beaches and the sea at dusk or in the glow of moonlight.  In these works, his minimalist compositions and subtle tonal harmonies were highly admired. Within this groups, he developed a specialty of serial views of breaking waves, in which he used a plein-air approach inspired by French Impressionism, although he probably worked from memory. Among his best-known depictions of this subject, The Wave (1885, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia), was shown at the Paris Salon in 1885 and at the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris. In 1899, the artist Charles Francis Browne wrote: “Harrison, by his searching study of the phenomena of wave formation, and reflections of sun, moon, and cloud upon various surfaces of the incoming waters, has given us a new kind of picture, and has made himself a master in this class of subject. He is one of the best marine painters of his time, and as a painter of surf has no equal.”[viii]

 

In 1889, Harrison was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor; he became an officer in 1901 and in that year, he became an Academician at the National Academy of Design, New York. Several of Harrison’s works belong to museums in America and France, including the Metropolitan, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Musée de Quimper. Harrison never married and died in his Paris studio in 1930.[ix]  

 

The Painting

 

Rendered circa 1882, Misty Morning belongs to the widespread popular genre in European art of peasant imagery. This theme was extremely popular among European and American artists in the late Nineteenth Century for its evocation of nostalgia for a time in the preindustrial past, and for the opportunity it provided for artists to depict figures naturalistically in the outdoors, bringing out the coloristic and picturesque aspects of their traditional attire. The most likely location for the work is Grez, where Robert A. M. Stevenson (a cousin of the writer) observed in an article of 1894: the “tree-forms” were “more elegant” than in Barbizon, and “the spirit of color hung about the supple stems, the bowery foliage, the shaded pools, the long grasses, the waving reeds, and all the cloudy vaporous growths of river-banks, swamps, and fields.”[x] In Harrison’s painting, a river is subtly implied on a diagonal in the right background, where it merges into the kind of cloudy vaporous growths, mentioned by Stevenson, while blending into a soft atmospheric light.

 

The forest of sparse birch trees is characteristic of Grez; Harrison’s brother Birge featured similar trees in his large Novembre (1881, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes), a view set in Grez that was shown at the Paris Salon of 1882 (later purchased by the French government.) Both Harrison brothers created scenes in which fallen leaves cover the ground. Like Birge, Alexander chose to paint Grez in the autumn, although Birge’s scene, in which dry brown and russet leaves form large piles, depicts a later time in the year than Alexander’s painting. In the latter, the leaves, golden yellow with tints of orange, are much less dense and give luminosity to the scene, their scattered forms creating reflective light.

 

The attire of the young woman in Misty Morning is also typical of Grez. Whereas the women of Pont-Aven and Concarneau tended to wear antique costumes with embroidered skirts and plaited collars, those of Grez chose simpler dresses, such as those worn by the figure in the current example. Her clothing consists of a plain weathered blue jacket, a loose green skirt that echoes the greens in the landscape, and a white bonnet.[xi] Other artists in Grez depicted similarly dressed figures, such as William Stott in Le Passeur (The Ferry) (1882, Tate Britain, London) and Ernest Parton in an illustration in Stevenson’s article.[xii]

 

In Misty Morning, Harrison followed in the mode of Bastien-Lepage, painting a believable scene of everyday life and treating the landscape with fresh naturalistic observation. Such an approach was considered Modern in the 1880s for its avoidance of idealization, sentimentality, and fantasy. In the leaves and grass, Harrison used Impressionist brushwork, applying his paint with short dabs and rhythmic dashes that let the pigment density express texture and create an active optical effect for the viewer. He used a high horizon, an element of Impressionist painting meant to create a sense of immediacy, as the viewer’s eye is held in the foreground rather than allowed to travel into a scene’s depths. Along with his loose, open brush handling, Harrison unified the work through a harmonious tonal arrangement established by luminous pinks and yellows that are blended in the background and used as accents throughout the rest of the image.

 

Harrison additionally followed the example of Bastien in the figure and architectural forms, which he rendered with precision and firmness. This approach draws attention to the figure, who is silhouetted against the landscape and stands at the meeting point of two compositional diagonals; consisting of the birch trees that extend from the near right to the far left and the path that starts in the left foreground and proceeds toward the building in the right distance, where its presence is hidden by the fallen leaves. By such a placement of the figure, Harrison accentuates her stillness. He depicts her standing with her feet together and her head slightly bowed, as she engages in deep thought.

 

The painting was probably first exhibited with the title of Jeune fillle au bois (Young Girl in the Woods) at the new Paris Salon, held at Champ de Mars, from May 17 through September 17, 1891. The evidence that it was the work exhibited with this title can be found in an article that appeared in the Manchester Guardian on October 29, 1891 that served as a review of the Annual Exhibition of the Royal Institute of Painters in Oil Colors, held in London, in which the work was shown with its current title. The author stated: “The well-known American artist Mr. Alexander Harrison contributes ‘Misty Morning,’ a delicate study of autumn tints in their more sober variety, which was, if we mistake not, shown at the Champ de Mars this spring.”[xiii]

 

Based on a label on the work’s verso, which reads “Exposition de Washington,” it is possible that Harrison next sent it to Tacoma, Washington, for inclusion in the second season of the Western Washington Industrial Exposition, which opened September 2, 1892.[xiv] Along with its display of machinery and minerals, the Exposition, included an art gallery.[xv] From there the painting could have gone directly to Chicago for inclusion in the World’s Columbian Exposition, which opened on May 1, 1893.[xvi] There it was one of Harrison’s five works shown.[xvii] In an article on works by American artists at The Fair, the critic William Coffin described Misty Morning as “a charming wood interior of yellowish tone” and commented that “Mr. Harrison’s pictures are distinguished by genuine beauty and veracity of color.”[xviii] In an 1898 article in the San Francisco Call, the Tonalist painter Charles Rollo Peters remarked: “The ‘Misty Morning,’ a charming though little known Harrison is considered by painters to be one of the artist's best creations.”[xix]

 

Harrison again exhibited Misty Morning in Chicago at the Art Institute’s Thirteenth Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists, held October 30 to December 9, 1900. The painting was one of five works by Harrison on view that critic Frederick Morton called “exquisite pieces of workmanship” that are “all decidedly tonal in their characteristics, and show markedly the influence of Parisian associates on Harrison’s style.”[xx] The painting was included in 1907 at the First Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings by Contemporary American Artists. It was not listed in the catalogue, but its presence in the exhibition is confirmed in an article in Academy Notes, published by the Buffalo Fine Arts Society. The article calls Misty Morning “a work of exquisite color and wonderful atmospheric quality—‘envelopment’ certain writers would term it—[that] might have been painted by Bastien-Lepage.”[xxi] The painting was also shown in March 1914 at the retrospective of the works of Alexander and Birge Harrison, organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

 

 

Lisa N. Peters, Ph.D.

 

[i]  There is no recent monographic source on Alexander. Sources for the artist include Charles Francis Browne, “Alexander Harrison: Painter,” Brush and Pencil 4 (June 1899), pp. 133­–35, 137–39, 141, 143–44; Charles Louis Borgmeyer, “Alexander Harrison,” Fine Arts Journal 29 (September 1913), pp. 515–16, 518–32, 534–44; and Doreen Bolger Burke, American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Volume III: A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born between 1846 and 1864 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980), pp. 159–61

[ii]  “Harrison, Painter, Dies in Paris Studio,” New York Times, October 14, 1930, p. 25

[iii]   Harrison is listed as a student of Bastien in Paris Salon catalogues from 1884 to 1889.  See Lois Marie Fink, American Art at the Nineteenth-Century Paris Salons (Washington, DC.: National Museum of American art, Smithsonian Institution, 1990), p. 350

[iv]  See Burke, p. 160

[v] The critic Theodore Child noted that, in spite of its title, the painting contained “nothing fanciful or imported from dream-land.” Child related the painting to the modern French School, which was based on “the observation of values and the integrity of the subject.” Theodore Child, “American Artists at the Paris Exhibition,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (September 1889), p. 506. En Arcadie was purchased in 1904 by the French government.

[vi]  Fink, p. 352

[vii]   According to Hahn, Harrison opened his companions’ eyes to how light plays on water. Hahn wrote to a friend: “We have seen the sea successively turn blood red, purple, nacreous with silver, gold, white, emerald green, and yesterday we were dazzled by an entirely pink sea specked with blue sails.” Hahn to Marie Nordlinger, quoted in William C. Carter, Marcel Proust, A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 197

[viii]  Browne, p. 138

[ix] “Harrison, Painter, Dies in Paris Studio,” p. 25.

[x]  R[obert]. A. M. Stevenson, “Grez,” Magazine of Art 17 (1894), p. 31.

[xi]  On clothing worn in Pont Aven and Concarneau, see Birge L. Harrison, “Quaint Artist Haunts in Brittany—Pont-Aven and Concarneau,” Outing 24 (1894), p. 25

[xii]  For Parton’s illustration, see Stevenson, p. 30

[xiii]  “Institute of Painters in Oil Colours,” Manchester Guardian, October 29, 1891, p. 8

[xiv]  The first season of the Exposition opened September 10, 1891. The date of the opening of the second season, September 2, 1892, is noted in The Banking Law Journal (New York) 7 (September 15, 1892), p. 294.

[xv]  See “Industrial Fair,” Appletons’ Annual Cyclopadia and Register of Important Events of the Year 1891 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1892), p. 862.

[xvi]  A post on the Tacoma Library website states that the best of the products from the Western Washington Industrial Exposition were “sent to Chicago in time for the World’s Fair.”  https://www.tacomalibrary.org/blogs/post/western-washington-industrial-exposition-building-1891/, accessed August 8, 2017.

[xvii] Two of those on view in Chicago were coastal scenes (Marine and Twilight, the latter lent by the St. Louis Museum of Fine Arts) and three were figural, including Misty Morning, In Arcadia (En Arcadie), and The Bathers

[xviii] William A. Coffin, “The Columbian Exposition—II.—Fine Arts: The United States Section,” The Nation 57  (August 10, 1893), pp. 97–98

[xix]  Charles Rollo Peters, “Alexander Harrison and His Most Successful Paintings,” San Francisco Call 84 (November 13, 1898), p. 28

[xx] Frederick W. Morton, “American Artists’ Exhibition at Chicago,” Brush and Pencil 7 (December 1900), p. 181

[xxi] “Corcoran Exhibition of Contemporary Paintings,” Academy Notes, Buffalo Fine Arts Society (April 1907), p. 170.

 

 

 

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