Harry Leith-Ross

Artist Biography

Beloved Bucks County Impressionist and Teacher

By Margarita Karasoulas

An accomplished artist noted for his snow-covered landscapes, Leith-Ross is considered one of the most exhibited and decorated artists of the New Hope art colony.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

Harry Leith-Ross was an important member of the third and last generation of New Hope artists and an undisputed master of the landscape genre during its peak in American art. Born in 1886 in the British colony of Mauritius, Leith-Ross first immigrated to the United States at the age of 17 and would make his mark in the art world relatively late in his career. Due to chronic allergies and asthma that plagued him in the tropical colony and throughout his life, Leith-Ross was sent to live with his paternal grandparents in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, where he spent his childhood, though he made frequent visits to visit his mother’s family in England and the Netherlands. Leith-Ross was noted to have been a precocious child with a genetic predisposition to art. His Dutch maternal relatives, Barbara van Houten and Hendrik Willem Mesdag, a well-known marine watercolorist, were both respected and established artists who fostered his early appreciation for art. Leith-Ross particularly recalled visiting his uncle’s studio and acknowledged that “the smell of paint and the love of it became a part of my life.”1

At his parent’s urging, Leith-Ross enrolled at the University of Birmingham to pursue engineering but failed to complete the degree as he was observed to have made “drawing after drawing rather than pay attention to his studies.” In 1903, his parents sent him to New Mexico to work under his uncle as a paymaster. Three years later, he finally abandoned his parent’s hopes of becoming a businessman and sought employment at the printing and engraving company Smith-Brooks in Denver. Through his early career in commercial art, Leith-Ross learned the basics of art, honed his technical skills and began to fully realize his innate artistic abilities. In 1908, he moved to Paris where he studied at the Delecluse Academy and the Academie Julian under artist Jean-Paul Laurens and additionally studied landscape painting in England under Stanhope Forbes.2

Upon his return in the United States in 1910, Leith-Ross furthered his education by attending classes with C.Y. Turner at the National Academy of Design before enrolling at the Art Students League summer school in Woodstock, NY in 1913. Under the influence of Birge Harrison, John F. Carlson, and John Fulton Folinsbee, Leith-Ross aligned with the conservative faction of artists at Woodstock. Leith-Ross would forge a lifelong friendship and professional relationship with Folinsbee and Harrison. He shared a barn studio with Folinsbee during the summer and began spending winters at Harrison’s winter home in New Hope, PA beginning in 1914. In New Hope, he became well acquainted with the colony’s leading artists including Lathrop, Redfield, Garber, and Spencer. Between 1914 and 1935, Leith-Ross visited and painted in New Hope frequently and would divide his time both there and at Woodstock. In 1935, he permanently moved to New Hope where he remained until his death.3

Painting en plein air with the landscape as his primary subject, Leith-Ross would become a leader of this genre in the early to mid 20th century. As John Folinsbee noted, his works were “outstanding records of his favorite terrain, Bucks County in Pennsylvania – its moods, its quality, its roads, mills and farm lands – subjects lived with and known through years of understanding”.4 He typically depicted intimate, humble genre scenes and found beauty in the “seemingly mundane”.5 He received particular acclaim for his snow-covered landscapes, a theme he cherished as a result of the time spent at Harrison’s winter home. Leith-Ross’s wife recalled that he “loved the curves of drifts and the sunlight on the snow. He also loved the gray days and moodiness of winter”.6

Leith-Ross, like many other members of the New Hope art colony, was not constrained under the tenets of a particular movement but committed to the development of his own unique individual style. It is clear; however, under the tutelage of Harrison and Carlson, that Leith-Ross’s works were steeped in a relatively conservative tradition. During the 1920s and 30s, Leith-Ross borrowed Harrison’s tonalist technique and his early works in particular were characterized by subdued, poetic effects and evocative, moody images. He also displayed Impressionistic qualities through a bright color palette, thick impasto brushwork, and a vivid attention to surface textures and patterning.7

In 1931, Leith-Ross also began experimenting with watercolor. Citing Winslow Homer as his inspiration, the watercolor suited his need for quick spontaneous expression.8 His ensuing works were much sought after and frequently featured in solo exhibitions. In a description of an exhibit of his watercolors at the Grand Central Art Galleries in 1948, fellow Bucks County Impressionist and art critic Walter Emerson Baum acknowledged the popularity and quality of his images. He wrote: “It is hard to imagine how the watercolor medium, as it was practiced several decades ago, could occupy a place in the field of modern art. Yet the watercolor has held its own. Thanks to those who are eternally engrossed in pushing its possibilities to the utmost the watercolor exhibition of today is quite as exciting as are the shows of other mediums. The career of Harry Leith-Ross is synonymous with what has gone on in the field. His strong, rich, colorful papers are attuned to the culminations of which everyone must be aware who is familiar with the painting process”.9

During the 1940s and 50s, Leith-Ross’s artistic style evolved slightly though not as stark in contrast as his other New Hope contemporaries. His works moved toward realism and demonstrated a thinner and more evenly applied application of paint and a more somber color palette. Though he never embraced abstraction and expressionism, Leith-Ross began to respond to the contemporary influences of modernism. He became particularly attuned to his compositions, incorporating light in angles and lines in an attempt to add structure and visual interest to his works. 10

Though Leith-Ross’s landscapes were in accordance with the subject matter of the times, his garnered particular praise for their distinct charm, skillful rendering and universal appeal. In his 1930 exhibit at the Macbeth Gallery, a critic acknowledged: “For several seasons the pictures by Leith-Ross have stood out among their companions on the walls of the big exhibitions. There has been something about them that set them apart from the general run even of those having more or less the same inspiration of subjects.”11 The Herald Tribune art critic Royal Cortissoz also wrote: “Anyone of ordinary ability can paint a recognizable picture of our typical woods and pastures, but arresting the imponderable spirit of these things is another story. Mr. Leith-Ross arrests it, especially when he is painting snow scenes. There he seems to get into his impression the very essence of the old-fashioned American country house, the worn barn and its more or less unkempt surroundings. He does this, too, through the exercise of a technique, which is not only sound, but also has elements of individuality in it.” 12

In addition to his career as a painter, Leith-Ross was also an active teacher during his lifetime. He first became an instructor at the Art Students League summer school at Woodstock in 1919. From 1919-1925 he became involved in the Rockport Art Association in Rockport, Massachusetts as a founder and teacher. He additionally taught students privately and as a visiting faculty member at universities, including the University of Buffalo (1941), the University of Utah (1955), and the College of Southern Utah (1955). In 1956, he wrote and published his famous book, The Landscape Painter’s Manual. Due in part to his own strong relationships with his instructors, Leith-Ross sought to impart his knowledge, technique and devotion to art to others. He encouraged his students to “be themselves”, advocating an artistic freedom and the development of an individual style.13

During the last years of his life, Leith-Ross continued to paint and teach in his beloved Pennsylvania terrain. He passed away on March 15, 1973 at the age of 87.

During a prolific and well-respected career, Leith-Ross received numerous prizes and glowing reviews from art critics. He also left behind an important legacy as an esteemed art instructor and leading authority on landscape painting. His works are collected by many major museums including the James A. Michener Museum, Smithsonian Institution of American Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

II. Chronology

1886 Born on January 27 in Mauritius.
1889 Moved to Scotland due to health issues. Began attending the University of Birmingham for engineering.
1903 Moved to New Mexico where he worked as a paymaster in his uncle’s mining company.
1906 Moved to Denver, Colorado. Began working in the art department at the Smith-Brooks Company for illustration and took his first fine art lessons.
1908 Pursued his studies in Paris, where he enrolled at the
1910 Returned to the United States and joined a commercial advertising firm in New York City. Began studying at the National Academy under artist C.Y. Turner.
1913 Moved to Woodstock, NY. Enrolled at the Art Students League’s summer school under artist Birge Harrison. Met artist and long-time friend John Fulton Folinsbee. Exhibited at the National Academy and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
1914 Began spending the winter season with Birge Harrison at his home in New Hope, PA.
1915 Received the James W. Porter Prize, Salmagundi Club, and the Art Students League Prize.
1917-19 Enlisted in the U.S. army during World War I where he was stationed at Fort Bliss, TX. Traveled to England to visit his mother after his father’s death.
1919 Returned to Woodstock, NY and became an instructor for the Woodstock Artist’s Association.
1919-1925 Became involved in the Rockport Art Association as a founder and teacher.
1921 Received the Charles Noel Flagg Prize, Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts and the
Second Prize, Massachusetts Artists Association.
1922 Received Honorable Mention, Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts.
1923 Received Honorable Mention, Springfield Art League.
1924 Received Landscape Prize, New Haven Paint & Clay Club
1925 Met and married his wife, Emily Slaymaker.
1927 The National Academy purchased its first Leith-Ross painting. Received Ranger Fund Purchase Prize, National Academy.
1928 Elected an Associate Member of the National Academy of Design. Received Burton Mansfield Prize, New Haven Paint & Clay Club.
1931 Began experimenting with watercolor.
1933 Received Prize, Oganquit Art Center, 10th Annual Exhibit
1934 Commissioned to paint a series of works for the Connecticut Forestry Department. Received John I.H. Downes Prize, New Haven Paint & Clay Club.
1935 Moved permanently to New Hope, PA. Joined the Phillips Mill Community Association and was elected a member. Received Honorable Mention, Palm Beach Art Center and Purchase Prize, New Haven Paint & Clay Club. Exhibited with the New Hope artists at the Montclair Art Museum.
1936 Elected a full Academician at the National Academy of Design.
1938 Received Lay Members Prize, Salmagundi Club
1941 Received William Church Osborn Prize, American Watercolor Society
1944 Received Purchase Prize, Woodmere Art Gallery and Thumb Box Exhibition Prize, Salmagundi Club
1946 Received 2nd Annual Special Exhibition Prize and Anonymous Member Prize, Salmagundi Club
1948 Received Members Prize, Baltimore Watercolor Club
1949 Received Woodmere Prize, Woodmere Art Gallery and Watercolor Prize, Salmagundi Club
1953 Received Bronze Medal, National Arts Club and Lay Members Prize, Salmagundi Club
1955 Received Ranger Fund Purchase Prize, National Academy of Design; Morse Gold Medal, National Academy of Design; Gold Medal, National Arts Club; Honorable Mention, Salmagundi Club; Gold Medal, National Academy of Design; First Prize, Baltimore Watercolor Club
1956 Wrote and published The Landscape Painters Manual. Received Obrig Prize, National Academy of Design; Second Prize, Baltimore Watercolor Club; the American Artist Prop League Prize.
1958 Received First Prize, Washington Watercolor Club.
1959 Received Hirshley Prize, Baltimore Watercolor Club; Thumb Box Exhibition, Salmagundi Club.
1960 Received Salmagundi Prize, Salmagundi Club; Clark Bryson Prize; Salmagundi Club
1961 Received Herman Wick Memorial Prize, Salmagundi Club
1966 Received Marion W. Richardson Prize, Phillips Mill Community Association
1973 Died on March 15 in his Buckingham Valley nursing home in Pineville, PA.

III. Collections

Bowdoin College, MA
Brigham Young University, UT
Bucks County Fine Art Collection, PA
Bucks County Intermediate Unit #22, PA
College of Southern Utah, UT
Connecticut State Forestry Service, CT
James A. Michener Art Museum, PA
Kutztown University, PA
National Academy of Design, NY
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
New Haven Paint & Clay Club, CT
Payne Art Gallery, Moravian College, PA
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, PA
Reading Public Museum, PA
Rochester Institute of Technology, NY
Saint Joseph’s College, CT
Springville Museum of Art, UT
University of Utah, UT
Woodmere Art Museum

IV. Exhibitions

1914-1937 Art Institute of Chicago
1940-1961 Baltimore Watercolor Club
1919-1947 Corcoran Gallery of Art
1943-1948 Carnegie Institute
1931, 1935 Casson Galleries
1940 Currier Gallery of Art
1928-1929 Doll & Richards
1946 Ferargil Galleries
1948, 1954 Grand Central Art Galleries
1930, 1931 Macbeth Gallery
1916 Mahoning Institute of Art, Reuben McMillan Free Library
1921 Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester
1943 Metropolitan Museum of Art
1915-1950 National Academy of Design
1920-1942 New Haven Paint & Clay Club
1916-1952 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1919 Powell Gallery
1915 Toledo Museum of Art
1958, 1962 Woodmere Art Gallery

V. Memberships

Allied Artists Association
American Watercolor Society
Audubon Artists
Baltimore Watercolor Club
Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts
National Academy of Design
New Haven Paint & Clay Club (1926-1942)
New York Watercolor Club
North Shore Artists Association
Philadelphia Watercolor Club
Phillips Mill Community Association
Salmagundi Club
Woodstock Artists Association

VI. Notes

1 Erika Jaeger-Smith. Poetry in Design: The Art of Harry Leith-Ross (Doylestown: James A. Michener Art Museum, 2006), pp. 14-16.
2 Erika Jaeger-Smith. Poetry in Design: The Art of Harry Leith-Ross (Doylestown: James A. Michener Art Museum, 2006), pp. 17-19.
3 Erika Jaeger-Smith. Poetry in Design: The Art of Harry Leith-Ross (Doylestown: James A. Michener Art Museum, 2006), p. 20-24.
4 Watercolors by Harry Leith-Ross, exh. Cat (New York: Ferargil Galleries, 1946).
5 Brian H. Petersen, Pennsylvania Impressionism, ed. Brian H. Petersen (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), p. 36.
6 Erika Jaeger-Smith. Poetry in Design: The Art of Harry Leith-Ross (Doylestown: James A. Michener Art Museum, 2006), p. 42.
7 Erika Jaeger-Smith. Poetry in Design: The Art of Harry Leith-Ross (Doylestown: James A. Michener Art Museum, 2006), pp. 48-49.
8 Erika Jaeger-Smith. Poetry in Design: The Art of Harry Leith-Ross (Doylestown: James A. Michener Art Museum, 2006), p. 54.
9 Watercolors by Harry Leith-Ross, exh. cat (New York: Grand Central Art Galleries, 1948).
10 Erika Jaeger-Smith. Poetry in Design: The Art of Harry Leith-Ross (Doylestown: James A. Michener Art Museum, 2006), p. 51.
11 Landscapes by Harry Leith-Ross, exh. cat (New York: Macbeth Gallery, 1930).
12 Erika Jaeger-Smith. Poetry in Design: The Art of Harry Leith-Ross (Doylestown: James A. Michener Art Museum, 2006), p. 53.
13 Erika Jaeger-Smith. Poetry in Design: The Art of Harry Leith-Ross (Doylestown: James A. Michener Art Museum, 2006), p. 60.

VII. Suggested Resources

Bush, George S., ed. The Genius Belt: The Story of the Arts in Bucks County Pennsylvania. Doylestown:
James A. Michener Art Museum, 1996.
Hunter, Sam. American Impressionism: The New Hope Circle. Fort Lauderdale: Fort Lauderdale
Museum of Art, 1985.
Leith-Ross, Harry. The Landscape Painters Manual. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1956.
Love, Richard H. Carl W. Peters: American Scene Painter from Rochester to Rockport. Rochester:
University of Rochester Press, 1999.
Pedersen, Roy and Robin Larsen. New Hope Modernists, 1917-1950. Doylestown: James A. Michener
Art Museum, 1991.

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