Artwork Information

  • Title:

    Sawmill at Shady, The

  • Artist:

    Harrison, Birge

  • Artist Bio:

    American, 1854–1929

  • Date:

    about 1905

  • Medium:

    Oil on canvas

  • Dimensions:

    30 1/4 x 40 1/4 in.

  • Credit Line:

    Wichita Art Museum, Roland P. Murdock Collection, purchased with funds bequeathed by Mrs. Elizabeth Innes Galland

  • Object Number:


  • Display:

    Not Currently on Display

About the Artwork

Since the beginning of the 19th century the natural landscape tradition has been a dominant force in the development of American painting. But while artists of the early and mid-19th century treated the landscape with much attention to precise detail, most turn of the century landscapists focused on mood rather than fact, on suggestion rather than on descriptive detail thereby more intimately relating to the subtle effects of nature while employing the natural scene as a point of depar­ture for conveying both impression and sentiment.

One of the most sophisticated groups of landscapists working at the end of the 19th century represented a movement that flourished between 1880 and about 1915 which today is known as Tonalism. Birge Harrison was certainly one of the leading spokesmen of this move­ment and this work painted by Harrison about 1910 and titled Old Sawmill rather clearly epitomizes Tonalist aesthetic theory. Here an old sawmill stands in an open expanse of snow-covered ground near the foot of a hill. Wheel tracks in the snow, as seen at the lower left, carry the eye to the middle distance. But actually the subject of this work is not so much the sawmill as it is the ex­perience of the quiet setting itself on a cold and gloomy winter day at dusk when the misty atmosphere sup­presses all detail and like a diaphanous veil faintly blurs the bushes and trees and the outline of the distant hill. Human figures are altogether absent from the composi­tion, and it is the magic of the broad view into open natural space which evokes a mood of complete quiet, tranquility and solitude, a mood much intensified by the dominant subdued gray and blue-gray color tones, ex­tremely close in value much as in a black and white photograph. What is especially interesting is that the same tonal proximity that contributes to the mood of this painting also occurs in nature at early dawn, at dusk and at moonlight and during the late fall and winter seasons, a fact which explains the time-setting most often chosen by the Tonalist. Indeed, all the characteristics of this painting typify the aesthetic doc­trine to which the Tonalist group rather uniformly adhered.

Although the Tonalist movement itself was clearly related to the parallel development of American Impres­sionism at this time, the two were certainly not identical, for tonalism was more directly inspired by the work of the French Barbizon painters and by the avant-garde paintings of the American expatriate James A.M. Whistler. Perhaps the most significant aspect of Tonalist painting was its obvious reaction against the literal transcription of nature and its interest instead in simplified form, thus in one sense heralding the abstract formalism which came early in the 20th century.

Birge Harrison was born in Philadelphia in 1854. He attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and subsequently studied in Paris with the noted painter and teacher Carolus-Duran. In the course of extensive world-wide travels he spent considerable time in England where he became much inspired by the light and spaciousness expressed in works by John Constable and by the muted color tones used by the Norwich school painters, especially John Crome. On his return to the U.S. in 1897, Harrison settled in Woodstock, New York where he offered classes under the auspices of the Art Students League. Harrison was a prolific painter and as a teacher and writer exercised much influence on other artists. He wrote extensively for such periodicals as the North American Review, Craftsman, Century Magazine, International Studio, and others, and in 1909 published a book titled Landscape Painting. In 1910 he was elected to full membership in the National Academy of Design. Harrison’s works are represented in major museum collections throughout the U.S. He died in Woodstock in 1929.