Artist Biography

Birge Harrison

(1854 - 1929)

Table of Contents

    American Tonalist landscape painter

    By Amy Spencer

    Working with subtle hues and tones, Harrison excelled at rendering the delicate moods of nature.

    I. Biography

    Birge Harrison was known for his subtle paintings of winter landscapes and street scenes. He used a limited range of hues and colors to create tonalist paintings that were tranquil and poetic, leading one art critic to comment, “It is no belittlement of Mr. Harrison’s present work to say that had he not become a painter he would have been a poet.”[1] Harrison traveled extensively in his youth; however, during his later years, he lived in Woodstock, New York where he was an influential teacher at the Art Students League’s summer school.

    Birge Harrison, sometimes referred to as Lovell Birge Harrison, was born in Philadelphia in 1854. He was the son of Apollos and Margaret Belden Harrison, brother of Alexander and Butler, and cousin to Elizabeth R. Finley (the three youths also became artists). Harrison was a descendant of the English solider Thomas Harrison, major-general to Oliver Cromwell (Thomas signed the death warrant of Charles I in 1649).

    In 1874 Harrison began taking art classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Shortly after, he met John Singer Sargent who persuaded Harrison to travel to Paris with him to continue his art education. Harrison left for Paris in 1875. There he studied figure painting with Alexandre Cabanel and Émile-Auguste Carolus-Duran at the École des Beaux-Arts for the next four years. During this time, Harrison also sketched and painted outdoors at artist colonies in Pont-Aven and Concarneau in Brittney and Gréz-sur-Loing thirty miles south of Paris. This shift in practice began his increasing focus on landscape painting.

    Harrison received his first public recognition when he exhibited Novembre (1881) and The Return from the First Communion (unknown) at the Paris Salon in 1882. In 1883 Harrison married artist Eleanor Henderson at St. Georges, Bloomsbury, London. The same year poor health forced Harrison to return to America where he began working as a freelance illustrator for magazines such as Scribner’s, Harper’s, and Atlantic Monthly.

    In search of clean air and picturesque landscapes, Harrison travelled extensively with his wife within America and abroad over the next decade. The exact chronology of his travels is unclear; however, contemporary catalogues suggest he spent time living among the Hopi and Navajo people in Arizona and New Mexico, and traveled to remote locales such as Sri Lanka, South Africa, and India.[2]

    During this nomadic period, Harrison and his wife spent time living in Australia. He exhibited work at the Victorian Artists’ Society in 1890 that “attracted the favourable criticism of the visitors.”[3] Then, in 1891, Harrison and his wife auctioned a collection of oil paintings before returning to Europe. A Melbourne newspaper article notes, “[Harrison and his wife] see nature with their own eyes and interpret what they see with a . . . feeling of the sentiment both of the scene and the season, of the period of the day, and the cheerfulness or melancholy influences of the enveloping atmosphere.”[4] Harrison sold sixteen paintings at this auction.

    In 1893 Harrison returned to America and settled in Santa Monica for a few years. After his wife died in 1895 he moved to Plymouth, Massachusetts and married Jenny Seaton in 1896. In 1904, at the invitation of Ralph Whitehead, Harrison and his wife moved permanently to Woodstock, New York where he became the painting instructor in the Arts and Crafts Colony at Byrdcliffe.

    Harrison was a prominent teacher and in 1906 he persuaded the Art Students League to relocate its summer school to Woodstock. Harrison became the first painting instructor at the new summer school, a position he held for the next five years. In 1909 Harrison published a collection of his seminars in a book titled Landscape Painting. In this volume Harrison describes specific painting techniques and expresses his thoughts on topics such as “The Importance of Fearlessness in Painting” and “The Future of American Art.” He writes to students of painting: “Be courageous. Always dare to the limit of your knowledge and just a little beyond . . . Aim to tell the truth; but if you have to lie, lie courageously. A courageous lie has often more virtue than a timid truth.”[5]

    Harrison died in Woodstock in 1929. His work is held in many prominent collections including the Musée d’Orsay, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and National Academy of Design.

    II. Chronology

    • 1854 (Lovell) Birge Harrison born in Philadelphia on October 28, 1854, the son of Apollos and Margaret Belden Harrison and brother of Alexander and Butler
    • 1874 Begins taking art classes at the Pennsylvanian Academy of the Fine Arts
    • 1875 Travels to Paris where he studies figure painting with Alexandre Cabanel and Émile-Auguste Carolus-Duran at École des Beaux-Arts for the next four years
    • 1882 Exhibits two works at the Paris Salon
    • 1883 Marries Eleanor Henderson at St. Georges, Bloomsbury, London
    • 1887 Awarded silver medal at the Paris Salon
    • 1889 Awarded silver medal at the Paris Salon
    • 1889–93 Lives among the Hopi and Navajo people in Arizona and New Mexico; spends times sketching and painting in Sri Lanka, South Africa and India
    • 1890–91 Lives in Melbourne, Australia
    • 1893 Returns to America and settles in Santa Monica, California; wins medal at the Chicago Exposition
    • 1895 First wife, Eleanor, dies
    • 1896 Moves to Plymouth, Massachusetts and marries Jenny Seaton
    • 1901 Awarded medal at the Buffalo Exposition
    • 1904 Moves to Woodstock at the invitation of Ralph Whitehead as the first painting instructor in the Arts and Crafts Colony at Byrdcliffe; wins silver medal at the St. Louis Exposition (World Fair)
    • 1906 Becomes painting instructor at the Art Students League’s newly opened Woodstock artist school
    • 1909 Publishes book, Landscape Painting; also publishes series of articles on “Vibration in Landscape Painting” in Palette and Bench magazine and “The Future of American Art” in the North American Review
    • 1910 Receives gold medal at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; rents a tower room in the Château Frontenac in Quebec City for a few months to paint winter scenes
    • 1929 Dies May 11 at his home in Woodstock, age seventy-four

    III. Collections

    • Art Complex Museum, MA
    • Butler Institute of American Art, OH
    • Detroit Institute of Arts
    • Figge Art Museum, Davenport, IA
    • Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
    • Gibbes Museum of Art, SC
    • High Museum of Art, Atlanta
    • Indianapolis Museum of Art
    • Joslyn Art Museum, NE
    • Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, TN
    • Museum of Fine Arts, TX
    • Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes, France
    • Musée d’Orsay
    • Museum of Fine Arts, Tournai, Belgium
    • North Carolina Museum of Art
    • Oglethorpe University Museum, GA
    • Palais de Tokyo (Ancien National D’art Moderne), Paris
    • National Academy of Design, NY
    • Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
    • Philadelphia Museum of Art
    • Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC
    • Swarthmore College, PA
    • Toledo Museum of Art, OH
    • Union League Club of Chicago, IL
    • United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, DC (located Longfellow National Historic Site, Cambridge, Massachusetts)
    • University of Arizona
    • University of Minnesota
    • Vassar College, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, NY
    • Wichita Art Museum, KS
    • Woodstock Artists Association, NY

    IV. Exhibitions

    • 1882 Paris Salon
    • 1890 Victorian Artists’ Society, Melbourne, Australia
    • 1897 American Art Galleries, New York
    • 1900 The Art Institute of Chicago
    • 1904 Century Club, New York
    • 1907 Century Club, New York
    • 1914 Fine Arts Building, New York
    • “Anglo-American Exposition,” Fine Arts Palace, London
    • 1921 American Art Galleries, New York
    • 1999 The Woodstock Art Colony, Bruce Museum
    • 2003 “Byrdcliffe: An American Arts and Crafts Colony,” Klienert James Art Gallery, Woodstock, NY

    V. Memberships

    • National Arts Club
    • National Institute of Arts and Letters
    • New York Water Color club
    • Philadelphia Sketch Club
    • Salmagundi Club
    • Union International des Arts et des Lettres

    VI. Notes

    1. “Birge Harrison, Noted Artist, Dies,” New York Times, May 12, 1929, p.28.
    2. Catalogue of the works of Birge Harrison: Paintings (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1900), p. 12.
    3. “Our Melbourne Ladies’ Letter,” The Mercury, April 4, 1890, p.3.
    4. “Art Notes,” The Argus, May 22, 1891, p. 10.
    5. Birge Harrison, Landscape Painting (New York: Charles’ Scribner’s Sons, 1909), pp. 158–159

    VII. Suggested Resources

    • Adler, Kathleen, Erica E. Hirshler and H. Barbara Weinberg. Americans in Paris, 1860–1900. London: National Gallery, 2006
    • Harrison, Birge. Landscape Painting. New York: Charles’ Scribner’s Sons, 1909.
    • Morgan, Ann Lee. The Oxford Dictionary of American Art and Artists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
    • Dearinger, David B., ed. Paintings and Sculpture in the Collection of the National Academy of Design, Volume I, 1826-1925. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2004.

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