top of page

No. 98 Robert B. Harshe


Dr. Harshe’s reputation as a painter is largely posthumous. A few close friends knew and associated with him as a “Sunday painter,” most notable among them being Charles H. Whistler, who interrupted his own career as a painter to make several millions of dollars, and then returned belatedly to his easel and to a trusteeship in the Art Institute. But it was not until the retrospective exhibition at the Art Institute three months after Dr. Harshe’s sudden death Jan. 11, 1938 that the world at large was made aware that a great watercolorist and an able painter in oils had died with the museum director.

Dr. Harshe’s show, naturally, was nationally noted in the newspaper and art magazine press. Since it closed May 22, 1938, the pictures have been on a tour of the country, first at the Rehn Gallery, New York; then at Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh; Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, N.Y.; the Toledo Museum of Art; the Milwaukee Art Institute; and the Nelson Gallery, Kansas City, where the show is hanging the first half of the present summer. The last half of the summer, the collection will be seen at the Joslyn Museum, Omaha, and later at the University of Missouri and early in 1940 at the University of Illinois. In all cities visited,

Dr. Harshe’s reputation as the museum director who organized the great World’s Fair show of 1933 has not been tarnished.


Dr. Harshe went at painting quite seriously, even though he did not advertise to the world his accomplishments with the brush.


“One of his ambitions was to become a successful artist,” Mr. Worcester testified in the memorial edition of the Art Institute Bulletin. “He worked steadily Saturday afternoons and Sundays to perfect his work, but his standards were high, and only to his close friends would he show his work, nor would he exhibit it in the contemporary exhibitions at the Art Institute or in the exhibitions of other museums.”


“Few people knew of his passion,” testified Daniel Catton Rich, his successor as director of the Art Institute, in the foreword to the catalogue of the retrospective show. “When he came to the Institute, he made up his mind not to show his work. ‘It would only confuse things,’ he would insist when some friend, sensing its quality, urged him to exhibit.”


Nevertheless, the Luxembourg in Paris owned a set of his etchings at the time of his death, and there were watercolors of his in the collections of the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Museums.


Robert Bartholow Harshe was born at Salisbury, Mo., May 26, 1879. His boyhood ambition was to be an artist, and the ambition seems to have burnt bright within him until that tragic morning in January last year when he was stricken with a heart attack and died in his bathroom. He had been at his desk at the Art Institute the day before. There were unfinished paintings on his easel and scattered about his studio.


Graduating from the University of Missouri in 1899, he came shortly afterward to Chicago for his first contact with the Art Institute he was to help so powerfully to make outstanding in the eyes of the world as a student in the Institute’s school.


Without finishing there, he went on to New York where he studied with Arthur Dow at Columbia University and sketched at the Art Students’ League, striking up a friendship with a fellow student, George Pellows. Next, to Paris and the Calarossi Academy, and then to London, where he studied with Frank Brangwyn and Phillip de Laszlo. He returned to America in 1902 with three years behind him of intensive training to be an artist. Those who regard him as “dilettante” with brush and paint should take note and remember.


Departure on a new trail came when he took a job in 1902 as supervisor of manual arts at Columbus, Ga. Then came an instructorship for three years in the fine arts department of his alma mater, the University of Missouri, and next he went for five years to Leland Stanford University, a professor of graphic arts.


In 1915, he left Stanford to become director of the Oakland, California, Public Museum, where he began to make a reputation outside the circles of art education. San Francisco was organizing the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and Prof. Harshe became assistant chief of the Department of Fine Arts, with commission to go abroad to help assemble and bring pictures to the Fair.


“Rebels” in Chicago art who so often confused Dr. Harshe with “the academy” fail to take into consideration that the director, in his California period, was considered something of a “wild man” himself. It was Harshe, of German descent, who first brought German “Expressionism” in its extreme forms to California, not long after the “Armory Show” of 1913 in New York and Chicago, when both German and French “Expressionism” hit the East. Dr. Harshe’s importations set a precedent, for the Pacific Coast even to this day is more alert to German “Modernism” than is the Atlantic seaboard and the Midwest. In this California era, Harshe wrote a book, A Reader’s Guide to Modern Art, much quoted as authoritative.


After Oakland and the San Francisco Fair, Harshe returned east where from 1916 to 1920 he was assistant director of the Department of Fine Arts, again in close touch with the international art situation because of the annual Carnegie International.


In 1920, he came to Chicago as assistant director of the Art Institute under George W. Eggers. Mr. Eggers resigned in 1921 to go to Denver to direct and help build the new Denver Art Institute and its school, and Robert B. Harshe was chosen for the big job he filled until his death.


Mr. Harshe’s administration was a stormy one from the outset until its close. Though the Art Institute had housed the Matisse-Picasso “Armory Show” of 1913 — New York had had to stage it in space hired in an armory, whence its name — and though Through the war years a determined element in the Institute had tried to keep an open mind, the museum, when Dr. Harshe took over, was ironclad “conservative.”


Radical elements were clamoring at the doors, however, and the “Salon des Refuses” was only a few months in the future, when a “runaway” shows was staged in a department store, with great éclat in protest against the “tyranny” of the Institute.


Harshe’s job was to liberalize the Institute, in accordance with his own instincts, yet cautiously and gradually. He was something of an opportunist and a whole lot of a politician.


The “radicals” clamored against him at the outset; the “conservatives,” at the finish.


There was a terrific to-do over the admission into the sacred halls of the Birch-Bartlett collection. Harshe let it in first as a “temporary exhibition.” Amidst violent opposition in the Institute’s “family” of trustees, as well as artists outside, it finally was permanently installed, to the administration of the world. But there are still “diehards,” “sanity in art” people who would like, in 1939, to see acceptance of the princely gift revoked — believe it or not.


Installation of the Birch-Bartlett collection and the assembling of the 1933 official art show of A Century of Progress are the high-water marks of the Harshe administration.


But for a third of a century, the sensitive artist within the rugged educator and director was seeking for expression. Doctor degrees were presented him by Northwestern and Yale; France, Sweden, and Belgium gave him ribbons — but as administrator, not as artist.


When the posthumous show came, it revealed Dr. Harshe as still struggling with the problems of oil paint. He was a belated “impressionist,” follower of Degas, Bonard, and Vuillard, his chief idols, but not yet free from their influence nor from his own shackles.


In watercolor, it was different. He was at home, spontaneous, airy, at times dazzling. Early in his administration at the Art Institute, he set out to develop the International Watercolor Annual. He started to play with watercolors himself to see how it was done and what was expected. Watercolor sketching was his vacation recreation. He got into these little, casual pictures everything he tried to put into his oil. It is as a watercolorist, I think, that Dr. Harshe will go down in art history — in his capacity as artist, as distinguished from his career as museum director.

bottom of page