Castles in Spain (Chateaux en Espagne), ca. 1882
Thomas Alexander Harrison (1853 – 1930)
Painter Thomas Alexander Harrison was noted as a painter of horizontal wave seascapes, nocturnal beach scenes, bathing and clothed female figures, plein-aire pastoral landscapes and children on beaches. Harrison, whose brother Birge Harrison, also became a successful artist, was born and raised in Philadelphia, where the family lived in Germantown.
Much of his work was inspired by an intrinsic love of the sea and the vastness of nature, space and the sky he observed during his six year experience, 1872-1877, surveying the shores of New England, Florida and Pacific Coast for the United States Coastal and Geodetic Survey. Harrison’s formal study of art was delayed by this employment, although in 1872, he had studied briefly at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before joining the Survey.
In 1877 in Seattle, he left his survey job and traveled San Francisco where he enrolled for a year and a half at the San Francisco School of Design. He left for Paris in the spring of 1879, and made his primary home there, returning occasionally to the United States. In Paris, he enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux Arts as a student of academic painter Jean Leon Gerome and exhibited in the 1881 Paris Salon. Also in 1881, he began a friendship with Jules Bastien-Lepage, who introduced Harrison to painting en plein-aire. Soon Harrison became the acknowledged leader of the artists’ colony at Pont Aven in Brittany.
Harrison was a charter member in 1890 of a new Salon established by Jean-Louis Meissonier, where he exhibited on a regular basis and served as a juror for their exhibitions. In 1885, Harrison’s painting, In Arcadia, was purchased by the French government, and “he moved to the forefront among artists who were investigating bright outdoor light and the relationship of figures to landscape. At the same time, he began his long series of marine subjects, predominantly nocturnal beach scenes.” (Davis, 250)
In 1885, he was elected to the prestigious Society of American Artists in New York, but was not elected until 1898 later to the National Academy of Design, likely because of his residency in France. At the time of this election, he had a lengthy stay in the U.S. In later years, he taught winter classes in Paris and spent time in New Hope, Pennsylvania. He also traveled to North Africa.
He maintained memberships in other American arts organizations such as the Philadelphia Watercolor Club, Art Club of Philadelphia and Century Association of New York City. He also belonged to the Paris Society of Arts and Crafts.
Harrison exhibited in the United States at the National Academy of Design, Carnegie Institute, Society of American Artists, and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1913, he and his brother Birge Harrison were hosted with an exhibition by the City Art Museum of Saint Louis.
Harrison’s work is in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; Musee d’Orsay, Paris; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; and the Royal Gallery, Dresden.
Thomas Alexander Harrison died in 1930. A writer for The New York Times termed him the “dean of American painters in Paris.”
John Davis, “Thomas Alexander Harriston,” Paintings and Sculpture in the Collection of the National Academy of Design, Volume One, 1826-1925.
Biography from the Archives of AskART