Distinguished Artist Series

 

Sam Hyde Harris

1889-1977

 

The Paintings of Sam Hyde Harris

by Jean Stern

 

The paintings of Sam Hyde Harris can be divided into two distinct categories: those painted before World War II (1941-1945) and those painted after. The dissimilarities between these two bodies of work are so distinct that it would be easy to think that they were painted by two different artists. The points of difference encompass the total aspect of the artistic work: subject, composition and color.

The early works are characterized by a strong preoccupation with light and atmospheric effects as subject matter. Harris' interest in this genre can be traced to his early and intense admiration of the works of John Constable (1776-1837) and Joseph Turner (1775-1851), the two giants of English landscape painting who are noted for their bold and advanced treatment of light and atmosphere. Harris visited England in 1913 and was completely overtaken by the paintings of these two artists.

Harris' paintings are usually scenes of the local landscape: the hills of Verdugo, Glendale and San Gabriel, as well as city-scapes and industrial scenes of Los Angeles and views of the Newport Beach area. In these early works, the landscape is presented bathed in bluish-white mist--the same mist which when mixed with automotive exhaust is now called "smog". The mist creates wonderful effects, changing color as it recedes in the distance. The effect is spectacular, enlarging the scope of the composition and creating an extremely deep sense of space. By contrast, the paintings of the Newport area, with its waterways, boats and docks, are imbued with a powerful and clear sunlight. The unique and all embracing sunlight of the beach environs reflects off surfaces and textures with blinding ferocity, an effect which Harris captures with remarkable fidelity.

In keeping with Harris' interest in atmosphere, many of his early paintings reveal a great affection for fog effects. He seems, at times, to relish getting up early in the morning to catch the delicate California fog, faithfully recording its ethereal masking of color and form.

Harris' pre-World War II works also exhibit a specialized sense of composition, which becomes a hallmark of his early style. The spectacular aerial perspective discussed above was complemented by a distinctive treatment of the horizon line. Harris structured these paintings with the horizon either near the top of the work or near the base. This altered horizon produced an effect of gradually leading up to the main subject or of leading away from the foreground, a visual device which added considerably to the haze effect. This graduated perspective, with either a high or low horizon, combines ideally with the aerial perspective and reinforces the life-like three-dimensional effect.

Color in Harris' early paintings is subtle and naturalistic, and in the haze paintings, always suberdinate. The haze paintings rely on a soft tonality to produce the atmospheric effects. The earthy colors of browns and reds vary gradually into the misty distance. The greens of the shrubbery combine with the blues of the shadows and blend softly into mauves and lavenders as they work into the background haze. By contrast, Harris' coastal scenes are models of pure color composition, balancing bright colors against strong shadows to give the all-powerful impression of sunny beach light. In all cases, the early paintings display the secure hand of the expert colorist. The paint is applied thick and often shows repeated layering to achieve the desired effect.

From top to bottom: Grand Canyon, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches; Blue and Orange, oil on board, 16 x 20 inches; Shackville, oil on board, 16 x 20 inches; Summer at Sunset Beach, oil on board, 16 x 20 inches.

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For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.


This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 10/28/11

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