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Poetry in Design: The Art of Harry Leith-Ross

May 12 - October 1, 2006



(above: Harry Leith-Ross, Snowy Morning in Jericho, ca. 1930s, oil on canvas, H.24 x W.30 inches. Collection of Thomas and Karen Buckley)


The James A. Michener Art Museum in New Hope, PA presents Poetry in Design: The Art of Harry Leith-Ross, an exhibition about one of the most decorated and prolific Pennsylvania Impressionist artists from May 12 through October 1, 2006 in the Della Penna Gallery.  

Leith-Ross (1886-1973) became renowned for his vibrant, carefully composed oil paintings and for his transparent watercolor technique in the tradition of the eighteenth century. For more than 30 years Leith-Ross regularly exhibite his watercolors, drawings, and oil paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the National Academy of Design, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Organized by the Michener Art Museum, this retrospective exhibition features more than 50 works, which give a full range of oil paintings and watercolors, as well as a selection of his exquisite Conte crayon drawings.


(above: Harry Leith-Ross, Tenant's House and Tracks, n.d, oil on canvas, H.24 x W.26 inches, Private Collection)

Poetry in Design: The Art of Harry Leith-Ross is accompanied by the publication Poetry in Design authored by Michener's associate curator Erika Jaeger-Smith.  This new book gathers together Leith-Ross's work from major museums and private collections for the first time, in a richly illustrated volume that showcases an artist who was one of the most decorated and prolific Pennsylvania Impressionists. This beautifully illustrated book chronicles Harry Leith-Ross' life from his birth to his final residence in Bucks County. This is the definitive publication covering the artist's life and work and is the sixth volume in the acclaimed series of books on Pennsylvania Impressionist artists produced by the expert curators of the Michener Art Museum.  Poetry in Design is co-published by the Michener Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Born in the British colony of Mauritius, Leith-Ross first immigrated to his grandparents' castle in Scotland, and later moved to the United States.  The early career endeavors of Leith-Ross took him on an indirect path. He studied engineering, worked for his uncle's coal-mining business, and pursued an advertising and commercial art career with a printing and engraving company. In 1909, he traveled to Paris to study painting, which would become his life's work.

After study in Europe, Leith-Ross moved to New York and began to exhibit his paintings at the National Academy of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His work from this period demonstrates bold broken brushwork and thick rich impasto. It was during this time that he met John Folinsbee, a noted painter of the Pennsylvania Impressionist School. Leith-Ross moved to Pennsylvania in 1935, where he quickly became an integral member of the New Hope arts community, settling with his wife in Upper Makefield.


(above: Harry Leith-Ross, Urban Project (Reconstruction, Amsterdam), n.d., oil on canvas mounted on masonite, H. 32 x W. 42 inches, Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia, PA Gift from the collection of Harry and Catherine Kuch, 1987)

Leith-Ross taught in universities across the country and had many private students at every stage of his life.  Throughout his career he encouraged his students not to fear painting from memory. He also cautioned them to focus their efforts on conveying a mood as well as distilling their ideas into a single concept before beginning to paint; as he said, a canvas must express "just one thing." His work shows a great emphasis on visual design as well as mood, and he was critical of impressionist paintings that relied on only light and shadow. Along with his award-winning oil paintings, he became renowned for his transparent watercolor technique in the tradition of eighteenth-century painters.

The James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA will present Poetry in Design: The Art of Harry Leith-Ross from October 28, 2006 through March 4, 2007 in the Fred Beans Gallery.

Following are wall panel texts for the Doylestown exhibit:

Poetry in Design: The Art of Harry Leith-Ross (1886-1973)
Harry Leith-Ross was one of the most important artists associated with the early 20th-century impressionist art colony in New Hope. But his life took many twists and turns before he came here. Born in 1886 on the island of Mauritius, near the coast of South Africa, he spent his formative years in the best schools in Scotland and England, ostensibly preparing for a career in business or government service. But he took every opportunity to hone his drawing skills. Particularly important as an early inspiration for Leith-Ross were several Dutch relatives who, as leading members of The Hague School of artists, reinforced his interest in the creative life and deepened his desire to paint both land and water. In fact, he would return to his beloved Holland often over the course of his lifetime to depict the landscapes, marine scenes, and cityscapes of his favorite towns and ports. He immigrated to the United States as a young man, where he completed his education at the hands of the legendary instructors at the National Academy of Design in New York City, as well as at the summer school of the Art Students League in Woodstock, New York.
Leith-Ross painted many different subjects throughout his life, but landscape was his first love, whether he was working in Europe, Canada, or one of his favorite American locales. Under the tutelage of the renowned painter Birge Harrison in Woodstock, he learned to translate the moods of dawn or dusk onto the snow-covered canvases he favored for his winter oil paintings. It was Harrison who introduced Leith-Ross to the New Hope region, and in 1935 he settled here permanently.
Leith-Ross believed passionately that the design (or composition) of a canvas was of paramount importance for its success. But he also had a rare gift for visual poetry, and his predilection for line and shape did not prevent him from conveying the subtle atmospheres of nature. He especially found poetry in the ordinary; he peopled his village scenes with figures pursuing humble activities such as construction work, hanging laundry, or skating leisurely on a pond in moonlight. This exhibition and the accompanying publication explore the entire range of Leith-Ross's work, from his early impressionist canvases, to his masterful watercolors and drawings, to his modernist-influenced images of buildings and boats.
Erika Jaeger-Smith, Assoc. Curator of Exhibitions
James A. Michener Art Museum
The Drawings, Oils, and Watercolors of Harry Leith-Ross
Leith-Ross won many prestigious awards for his detailed, intimate drawings, his intricately composed oil paintings, and his spare, translucent watercolors. The common threads that run through all these genres are a serene sense of place and an appreciation of the everyday lives of people, qualities that are heightened by careful composition based on practical principles of visual design.
Leith-Ross loved to depict the landscape in the various European and American towns and villages he favored for his subject matter. They included the ports of Holland, the English countryside, and the beaches of Nova Scotia, as well as the Woodstock and New Hope scenes for which he is best known. These locales were not just momentary ports of call -- Leith-Ross lived in these places, for months or even years, and his pictures reflect the intimacy of one who was truly familiar with his subjects. His travels allowed him to see not just the beauty of land and city, but also the commonality of people's lives -- people at work and play, who are comfortable in their surroundings and caught up in ordinary moments. They may be busy or at rest -- repairing a road, waiting for a train, or casually chatting with a neighbor. There may even be two cats engaged in leisurely conversation, while sunning themselves on a large rock at the edge of a clapboard house!
In his pure landscapes, and especially his well-known winter scenes, Leith-Ross often combined a moody poetry with the strong sense of realism that was regularly practiced by his Pennsylvania Impressionist colleagues. The powerful design elements in his work may be masked by the gentle sense of nostalgia evoked by his subject matter -- but he was always intensely aware of composition. Patterning, through repeated or converging lines, is a common motif in his work: a long fence cutting through vertical trees, shafts of raking sunlight, boats lined up in a canal, or the translucent white edges of windows or even blades of grass. In later canvases and in his watercolors, he sometimes simplified the forms so their geometrical underpinnings became apparent, while at the same time employing a spare paint application that further emphasized the underlying shapes. While his design sense and palette may have subtly evolved, he never abandoned his original subject matter, and always remained true to the sense of poetry that defined his earliest works.


This exhibition is sponsored by Sanford Alderfer Companies.

rev. 10/26/06

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