Thomas Alexander Harrison (1853-1930)

Born in Philadelphia in 1853, the American painter Alexander Harrison moved to France in 1879. He had briefly studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts before becoming a draftsman in a survey expedition mapping the US coasts of the United States, which awakened his interest in the marine landscapes that would later make him famous. A student of Gérôme and Bastien-Lepage in Paris, he frequently sojourned in Brittany at the end of the XIXth century. His paintings can be seen in French museums, including « Solitude » in the Musée d Orsay.

What is his relationship with Proust?

In September 1895, Proust and Reynaldo Hahn met Alexander Harrison in Beg-Meil where he was then residing. He is responsible for their discovery of Penmarch and the Pointe du Raz. The inspiration for the character of the writer C. in Proust’s first novel, Jean Santeuil, Harrison later became the model for Elstir, the painter in In Search of lost time. Harrison’s name, linked to Florida, appears in parenthesis in a 1903 letter of Proust to his friend Georges de Lauris and in his Carnet de 1908, which explains the remark of the fictional painter about his painting representing the Carquethuit Harbor: « Carquethuit is quite different, with thoses rocks on the low shore. I know nothing in France like it; it reminds me of certain aspects of Florida. » Proust, Reynaldo Hahn and his cousin Marie Nordlinger will visit Alexander Harrison in his Parisian studio on the rue Campagne Première in July 1897.

Why this painting?

Entitled « Beach Tides », this marine landscape was executed by Alexander Harrison in Brittany at the same time Proust was there and writing Jean Santeuil. He may have seen the painting — which is now for sale in its original frame — in the artist’s studio. In technique, it is representative of tonalism — a movement led by Alexander’s brother Lowell Birge Harrison, to which Whistler belonged for a while. This particular painting fits Proust’s description of one of Elstir’s « manières » when the narrator of the Search visits him.

Why in the museum of Aunt Léonie’s house ?

Impatient to have his first book, Pleasures and Days, illustrated by Madeleine Lemaire published at the end of 1895, Proust began writing a novel where he mentions the names of Illiers and Beg-Meil for the first time. He will later transfer his memories of Brittany to Normandy, when he invented Balbec, the other « side » of Combray. With the acquisition of this painting, which would go along nicely with the two drawings by Madeleine Lemaire we recently purchased, the two works preceding and announcing the Search would be represented in the museum, Combray and Balbec would be reunited.

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