Although Lovell Birge Harrison is best remembered as an inspirational teacher and influential writer, he was also a dedicated landscape artist in his own right. Harrison was born into a prestigious Pennsylvania family on October 28, 1854. His parents encouraged his interest in art, and as young boys, Birge and his brother Alexander were allowed to travel to the studios of Thomas Sully and J.R. Lambdin in Philadelphia to watch the artists work.
Harrison began his serious art studies with Thomas Eakins, at the Philadelphia Sketch Club, who taught the importance of developing one’s personal style. Harrison later credited Eakins as a model for his own teaching methods. In 1876, he continued his education in Paris with his brother and entered the atelier of the painter Carlous-Duran. He also took classes at the prestigious École de Beaux-Arts and absorbed the artistic atmosphere that Paris had to offer. He was especially interested in the work of the Tonalists who used textures and hues to inspire feelings. During the summer months, Harrison visited art colonies where he developed his love of painting en plein air. He also met his wife, Australian painter Eleanor Ritchie, at one of these colonies. In 1882, the French government purchased his painting November, one of the first American works to be purchased by France.
Harrison and his wife left France in 1883 and spent the next several years traveling the world. They returned to France in 1885 before setting out for Australia in 1889 where they lived for two years. The Harrisons returned to the United States in 1891 and settled in California. They became friends with their neighbor Ralph Whitehead, and Harrison gave his first art lesson to Mrs. Whitehead, informally beginning his teaching career. Unfortunately, in 1895 Harrison’s wife died from complications while expecting their first child. Harrison returned east to be with his family. He remarried in 1896 and lived in Massachusetts where he began to paint the snow-filled landscapes that became his best known subject matter.
In 1904, Ralph Whitehead hired Harrison as an instructor at an art colony he founded in Upstate New York called Brydcliffe. Harrison moved to the nearby town of Woodstock and taught at the colony for one year. In 1906 the summer program of the Art Students League was moved from Connecticut to Woodstock. Harrison was asked to head the school, and he accepted. Harrison quickly became a very influential and popular teacher among the art students. He devoted his classes solely to landscape painting and wrote a book on the subject in 1909. He taught his students to paint their landscapes with emotion. His own works incorporate soft lighting and muted colors that demonstrate a spiritual connection to the land. Although he retired from teaching in 1911, Harrison lived in Woodstock for the remainder of his life and continued to stay active in the artistic community.
In 1908, Harrison and his wife traveled to the Southern port city of Charleston, South Carolina. During his stay he produced several quiet street scenes as well as poetic views of Charleston Harbor. Harrison also had a great influence on a young local artist named Alice Ravenel Huger Smith. Using her family’s kitchen as his studio, Harrison offered Smith informal lessons and criticisms of her work. Harrison also convinced his former Woodstock student Alfred Hutty to visit Charleston. Hutty eventually moved to the city and became a leading figure, along with Alice R.H. Smith, in the Charleston Renaissance, an artistic resurgence that took place in the 1920s.
Harrison continued to exhibit his work, with his brother and on his own, well into the twenties. However, Tonalism had fallen out of popular favor near the end of his career as audiences and critics became interested in more modern art. Harrison produced many beautiful landscapes over the course of his life, though he is best remembered as a great teacher who had a tremendous influence on the next generation of painters. Today his work is included in many private and public art collections such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Academy Museum, the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.