Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on July 14, 2010 with the permission of the Hearst Art Gallery at Saint Mary's College and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Hearst Art Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address:

Annie Lyle Harmon



by Erika Esau

In the 1880s, the famous Anglo-Indian author Rudyard Kipling travelled to California, where he observed with fascination San Francisco's incipient social scene. In his bookAmerican Notes,he made the following comments about the young women he met there:

They are original, and regard you between the brows with unabashed eyes as a sister might look at her brother. . . They possess, moreover, a life among themselves, independent of any masculine associations. They have societies and clubs and unlimited tea-fights where all the guests are girls. They are self-possessed, without parting with any tenderness that is their sex-right; they understand; they can take care of themselves; they are superbly independent.

These remarks appeared just as Annie Lyle Harmon began her career as a painter, having as her mentor California's most renowned landscape artist of the period, William Keith. From what can be reconstructed of Annie Harmon's life, Kipling's assertions describe her perfectly. Born in San Francisco in 1855 into a prosperous lumbering family, Annie grew up amid San Francisco's small cultivated society. Her family knew members of the city's artistic community, and they were affluent enough that Annie did not have to worry about earning a living or finding a husband. Her brother Edward married William Keith's only daughter Hortense (called Tennie), a felicitous circumstance that made the bond between Annie and her teacher a more enduring one. She remained an independent artist and described herself as such throughout her life.

Before entering Keith's famous studio with its group of woman students,[1] Harmon studied with another leading light among San Francisco painters, Raymond Dabb Yelland -- evidence that her pursuit of an artistic life was a committed one. She began to work with Keith in the early 1880s; the works she exhibited in her first show in 1885 centered on images of the California landscape in emulation of Keith's style. As was Keith's practice, Annie sketched from nature, but, unlike plein air painters of the time, finished most of her paintings back in the studio. A photograph of Annie appears in Brother Cornelius's biography of Keith: she sits at an easel, in the dress of the early 1890s, with several of Keith's paintings behind her (including his view of the Santa Barbara Mission, now owned by Saint Mary's College). She was by that time, according to her sister-in-law Tennie's letters, a fixture in the artist's studio, along with several other young women.[2] In a letter Harmon wrote to Keith during his final illness in 1910, she recalled the days when she and another young woman, Marie Hoesch, had studied with him: "We can never forget the good old studio days with our Master of Art, nor can we forget the stick that used to come flying across the Studio to make us jump and laugh when our minds were so intent on our work." His place provided a congenial atmosphere for these young women yearning to create art.

Harmon exhibited frequently in public, particularly at the San Francisco Art Association, from her first show in 1885 of a Gualala River scene, on into the 1920s. She even participated in the exhibits at the Woman's Building of the World's Columbian Exhibition, the famous Chicago fair of 1893. She was prolific enough that she lost nearly 400 paintings when her studio in the San Francisco Press Club Building was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. What Harmon seems to have gained most strongly from Keith's tutelage was an appropriate stylistic method for depicting the California landscape. Trees in many varieties and forms were her preferred subject, as those exhibited here reveal. She developed two contrasting painterly styles for her depictions of nature, depending on her approach to the portrayal of light. On the one hand is the method seen in her images of redwoods, painted in a thick impasto, as if she were trying to capture the density of the brown-red bark and the dark greens of the leaves. The texture of the paint in many of these paintings makes these surfaces glisten, although little light enters these scenes. Trees were her most favored, most repeated, subject throughout her life.

On the other hand were her depictions concentrating on atmospheric effects, whether of clouds around Mount Tamalpais or on the coast, or of a sunnier summertime sky in her scenes of haystacks-subject matter shared with her mentor Keith. Here her brush was often wispy, almost feathery, with thinner layers of paint and more concentration on illumination, a method seen also in paintings done during her travels. Harmon was adventurous and independent enough to have undertaken foreign trips, during which time she applied her brush to new geographies. Her surviving paintings include views of Australia's Mount Kosciusko, indicating that she travelled there in the early 1900s, although no records outside of her own notes on the backs of the paintings can be found to confirm this visit. Her most successful surviving works emanate from her visit to a rubber plantation in Mexico in 1901. These scenes demonstrate Harmon's excited attention to capturing the details of a tropical landscape -- all humid atmosphere and dusty shades of yellow.

Along with many of the women artists Keith mentored over the years, Harmon continued to paint her landscapes until her death in 1930. But for the devoted persistence of the two collectors represented here, her work may have disappeared entirely along with that of so many other genteel Californian women at the beginning of the last century. This exhibition provides the first opportunity to re-examine a close early associate of William Keith, and to consider the breadth of his influence.

1 "He would have no boys or young men as pupils -- 'they are too inquisitive,' he said; but with young ladies he got along famously both as an instructor and as 'social lion' in their circle." Brother Cornelius, Keith: Old Master of California, New York, G.P. Putnam's, 1942, p. 173.

2 According to Keith's daughter Tennie, who also sketched in her father's studio, "Annie [her sister-in-law] and Sis [Emily Hay] are there nearly all day, so the studio is all right. They have got the sketching craze and go about twice a week to the Cliff House..." Quoted in Brother Cornelius, p. 178.

About the author

Erika Esau is an art historian and librarian who taught at Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin, and The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. She has just completed a book on artistic exchange between California and Australia, Images of the Pacific Rim: Australia and California, 1850-1935, (Power Publications, Sydney, 2010).


Resource Library editor's note:

The above essay was reprinted in Resource Library on July 14, 2010, with permission of the Hearst Art Gallery at Saint Mary's College, which was granted to TFAO on July 10, 2010.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Heidi Donner at Hearst Art Gallery for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above essay.

For biographical information on artists referenced in this essay please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

RL readers may also enjoy:

Return to Superbly Independent: Early Western Landscapes by Annie Harmon, Mary DeNeale Morgan, and Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

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