Harold Weston was born February 14, 1894 in Merion, Pennsylvania, to S. Burns and Mary Hartshorne Weston. A twin brother, Edward, died at the age of six months. The family was well-off financially. At the age of 15, Harold spent a year traveling in Europe and attending school in Switzerland and Germany. It was in Europe that Harold Weston began to draw.
After his return to the United States in 1910, Harold Weston was stricken by polio. His left leg was paralyzed. But Weston refused to take the advice of doctors who declared that he would never walk again. Through a regime of physical conditioning and the use of leg braces and a cane, Weston learned how to walk (albeit with a pronounced limp). He began to hike, clinging to trees as he went up and down hill.
Weston entered Harvard University in 1912 and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in Fine Arts in 1916. Weston continued to hone his graphic art skills, serving as editor of the Harvard Lampoon and contributing a large number of original cartoons and artworks to the magazine. In 1914, he studied under the American painter Hamilton Easter Field at the Summer School of Graphic Arts in Ogunquit, Maine.
Unable to enlist due to his paralyzed leg and with World War I looming, Weston volunteered with the YMCA, serving as a hospitality liaison with the British Army in Baghdad in the Ottoman Empire. He encouraged soldiers to draw and paint to pass the time, and organized Baghdad Art Club in 1917 as a means of exhibiting and promoting their art. Because of this work, he was appointed Official Painter for the British Army in 1918.
Main period of work
Weston's sojourn in the Middle East proved to have a lasting impact on his work. The colors and light he witnessed there deeply affected his palette. Lacking paint, watercolor and paper, he was unable to capture the colors and light he saw and was reduced to writing about them in letters home. He produced only a handful of charcoal sketches from this period in his life.
Weston also witnessed the horror of famine and disease while in the Middle East. He saw men die of heat exhaustion, and became intensely frustrated at his inability to save others—especially children—from starvation.
Weston returned to the United States after the war via the Far East. For four months, he lived in a tiny one-room apartment in New York City, working in exchange for rent. He explored the city's bureoning art galleries, becoming acquainted with the latest in modern art reaching American shores.
But Weston concluded that the working life was draining him of his creative energies. In 1920, with the help of some local carpenters, he built a one-room log cabin near St. Huberts, New York. Throughout 1921 and the winter of 1922, he painted and sketched in charcoal, pencil, oil and watercolor on cardboard and canvas. Weston was convinced that modern art had become stuck in a rut, and he was determined to create something new.
Using contacts he had made while living in the city, Weston gave the first solo exhibition of his work at the Montross Gallery in New York City. Seventy sketches and 63 paintings were shown in November 1922. The show was a huge success. Restricted to landscapes, critics nevertheless heaped praise on his vibrant use of color and the unique American perspective he brought to his work.
Weston met his wife, Faith Borton, in early 1923. He invited his sister and some of her Vassar College friends to his cabin that winter. Faith impressed him with her ability to withstand the harsh winter weather, her intelligence and her creativity. The deeply religious Quaker family disapproved of the agnostic Weston. But he adopted her family's faith and they were married on May 12 of the same year.
Over the next two years, Harold and Faith Weston lived in the one-room cabin in the Adirondack Mountains. They kept house together, tended the garden together and painted together. Weston preferred to paint when it was cold. Temperatures in the cabin often plunged as low as 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and Faith Weston found the living harsh.
But the period produced a significant change in Weston's work. Isolated, Weston turned his attention away from landscapes and to his own wife's body. He painted her nude figure repeatedly, applying his painting techniques to the contours and curves of her body. The paintings Harold Weston produced came to be known as 'landscape nudes'—a radical departure from traditional nudes.
Faith Weston was too embarrassed to show her family the portraits, but Harold proudly displayed them to Alfred Stieglitz, who considered them daring and new. The Montross Gallery, however, refused to show them.
In August 1925, Harold Weston collapsed from a kidney infection. Doctors removed one of his kidneys, but pneumonia set in. He was near death for nearly a month before he began to recover. Doctors advised him to move to a warmer clime, but the Westons decamped instead for a farmhouse near Céret in the French Pyrenees. The house they lived in was centuries old, and built into a hillside. A working sheep barn below the living quarters helped keep it warm in winter. A chapel to one side held services every day, the bell in the tower over their rooms ringing the faithful to worship.
Europe changed Weston's palette again. His colors became lighter, and his work more abstract. He and Faith made side-trips to Paris, France and became acquainted with painters working there. Captivated by etching, Weston learned the technique and began to experiment with it. During a stay at the beach with friends, Weston watched as they touched. He quickly sketched out the various positions and embraces they engaged—in until a skiff loaded with local fishermen became too interested, and the cavorting nude couple had to reclothe themselves for the day. Weston transformed the sketches into etchings, which he called 'the Love Series.'
Weston arranged for an exhibition of his work in Paris, and later at the Montross Gallery. The gallery promised to display the nudes, alongside his landscapes, but reneged and put them in a closet.
The Westons—now with small children in tow—returned to America in 1930. They took up residence for a short period in Greenwich Village before returning to the cabin in the mountains near St. Huberts.
Toward domesticity and realism
Weston continued to turn out prodigious amounts of artwork. With a small family surrounding him, he focused more and more on the everyday: A quilt, plants in the garden, snowshoes. His work was displayed at the Phillips Memorial Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art. His painting Green Hat won third prize in painting at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1939.
The 1930s led Weston away from art, however. The national crisis brought about by the Great Depression brought out Weston's social and political consciousness. When in 1936 the Treasury Relief Art Project asked him to paint murals for the General Services Administration building in Washington, D.C., Weston eagerly agreed. Over the next two years, Weston created 22 panels that depict moments in the construction process. Realizing that his GSA work had to inspire as well as be visually pleasing, Weston adopted motifs from the art deco movement because the style was associated with a forward-looking, positive time in American life. Weston also turned away from abstraction and toward photo-realism.
The advent of World War II led Weston to abandon painting entirely in 1942 in favor of political work. Disturbed by memories of the starvation he had seen in the Middle East, he lobbied full-time for humanitarian food relief. In 1943, he founded Food for Freedom, and built a coalition of civic, religious, labor and farm organizations representing more than 60 million Americans which advocated for food aid for refugees in Europe and Asia. He became an expert on food policy and the politics of farm policy in the U.S.
Weston conceived of an international food relief agency which would provide a permanent mechanism for supplying food to refugees around the globe. He personally lobbied Eleanor Roosevelt for the idea; she credited him as the impetus behind the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.
Exhausted from his political endeavors and wishing to return to painting, Weston seized upon the idea of painting the United Nations headquarters, then under construction in New York City. He worked on the painting for three years, further refining his hyper-realistic style.
In 1954, the Westons purchased a winter home in Greenwich Village. Harold Weston was 56, and not as able to weather the harsh Adirondack winters as he had been.
But he was still politically active. That same year, Weston helped found the National Council on Arts and Government, an artists' group which lobbied for government support for the arts. He later served as its vice president and president. In 1965, the group won passage of legislation creating the National Endowment for the Arts.
Known more for his political work than his painting by his mid-60s, Weston sought to return to his first artistic love. He abandoned realism in favor of abstraction. He found inspiration while vacationing on the Isle of Rhodes in Greece. Abstract art was a natural extension of the hyper-realism he had been perfecting since the 1940s. But it also enabled him to abandon realism and return to modern art. In nature, Weston saw the pattern and rhythm which he could transfer to canvas. He painted his last significant work, the 'Stone Series,' from 1968 to 1972. It was based on stones found on the Gaspé Peninsula in Canada.
In 1971, Harold Weston published his only written work, Freedom in the Wilds: A Saga of the Adirondacks.
Harold Weston died on April 10, 1972 in New York City.
- Appelhof, Ruth A.; Haskell, Barbara; and Hayes, Jeffrey R., editors. The Expressionist Landscape: North American Modernist Painting 1920–1947. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988. ISBN 0-295-96691-2
- Foster, Rebecca; Welsh, Caroline; and Stebbins Jr., Theodore E. Wild Exuberance: Harold Weston's Adirondack Art. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8156-0834-9
- Phillips, Stephen B. Twentieth-Century Still-Life Painting from the Phillips Collection. Washington, D.C.: The Phillips Collection, 1997. ISBN 0-943044-22-7
- Weston, Harold. Freedom in the Wilds: A Saga of the Adirondacks. St. Huberts, N.Y.: Adirondack Trail Improvement Society, 1971.
- Wolf, Ben. Harold Weston. Philadelphia: Art Alliance Press, 1978.