Sometime around 1934, an 18-year-old American girl, Anne Harvey, painted a remarkable portrait of the sculptor Constantin Brancusi in his Paris studio. Brancusi, who was an accomplished photographer, also took some delightful photographs of Anne Harvey. For a time, moreover, he was Anne Harvey’s principal art teacher as well. She had already studied with Leger, but Matisse advised her to switch to Brancusi. Whether or not her encounters with the sculptor ever blossomed into a love affair, we do not know. Brancusi was then 58. It should be mentioned, too, that in 1927 Anne’s mother, Dorothy Dudley, had published an article about Brancusi in The Dial .
What we also know is that years later a Chicago newspaper reported that “a score of Parisian celebrities … made [Anne Harvey] a pet from the time she was 12, until she left Paris just ahead of the Nazi invaders and returned to her home in New York.” Jules Pascin had done a drawing of her when she was 13. Calder, Picabia, Miró and Giacometti were family friends. In New York in the early 1940′s, Peggy Guggenheim exhibited Anne Harvey’s work at her Art of This Century gallery.
Anne Harvey (1916-1967) is now the central figure in an exhibition called A Family Line: Drawings and Paintings by Anne Harvey, Jason Harvey and Steven Harvey , which is currently on view at the New York Studio School. Jason Harvey (1919-1982) got a somewhat later start than his precocious younger sister, becoming a painter at the age of 43 after a successful career in advertising and design. (In advertising, he handled the Lucky Strike account, which made him one of the top players in that game.) For a time he also operated a gallery in his Cooper Square loft. His father, Harry Harvey, had also been in advertising, but he was a writer as well. Anne Harvey did the illustrations for his biography of Claude Debussy.
Steven Harvey, Jason’s son and Anne’s nephew, is a painter and freelance curator, best-known recently for the Louis Eilshemius exhibition he organized at the National Academy of Design. He is on the contemporary-art staff of the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, and shows his work regularly at the Schlesinger Gallery. He has also written one of the essays for the excellent catalog that accompanies the Family Line exhibition.
Clearly, we are in the presence of a remarkable family of highly individual talents with this exhibition. If Anne Harvey remains the dominant figure, it is probably owing to her surprising independence from the styles that presided over the Parisian milieu which she frequented in the formative years of her career. You can’t really point to anything in her work that derives directly from the modern French masters. It won’t do, either, to call her paintings and drawings “American” in spirit, for they aren’t imitative of any of the American modernists.
Writing about her work in 1971 on the occasion of a memorial exhibition at the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, Lawrence Campbell correctly observed that “No painter was ever freer from the clichés of modern French art,” and spoke of a style that “was entirely her own.” In both her drawings and her pastels–a medium in which Anne particularly excelled–there is at once a nervous, headlong compulsion to fill every surface with an overabundance of observed detail and a powerful countervailing impulse for clarity and order. The drawings can sometimes set one’s teeth on edge because of their frenzied linear patterns, and the visual extravagance of the pastels often pose a similar threat of accretion and surfeit. Yet, the result remains perfectly legible and triumphantly resolved.
The best paintings by Jason Harvey are, on the other hand, distinctly American in spirit. Usually painted in acrylic on wood panels, they are delicate in their soft tonalities and rigorous in the simplicities of their forms. An interior called Kitchen, Cooper Square is enough of a masterpiece to make one wish the artist had produced more in this vein. And his landscapes of the dunes in Provincetown are lyric delights in a style that resembles that of Edwin Dickinson’s seascape oil sketches.
Steven Harvey’s paintings and drawings from the last decade or so are entirely devoted to female nudes, and resemble neither his father’s work nor his aunt’s. Some are complex compositions that make use of mirror images, and all are governed by a restrained expressionist appetite for anatomical distortion–perhaps, at times, too restrained.
I cannot recall ever before seeing an exhibition quite like A Family Line , in which family history, personal history, art history and individual artistic personalities are vividly combined into a single narrative. From Paris in the 1920′s and 30′s to New York from the 1950′s to the turn of the 21st century, it is all an amazing story, and even more amazing in some of the biographical portraits that are outlined in the catalog essays–the aunt, Helen Dudley, for example, who went to Oxford to study Greek with Gilbert Murray and had a love affair with Bertrand Russell, who (literally) drove her crazy. Come to think of it, Anne Harvey’s life didn’t have a happy ending, either. She was luckier in her art than she was in her romantic attachments.
A Family Line remains on view at the New York Studio School, 8 West 8th Street, through Feb. 23. Admission is free.