Harold Weston (February 14, 1894 – April 10, 1972) was an American modernist painter, based for many years in the Adirondack Mountains, whose work moved from expressionism to realism to abstraction. He was collected by Duncan Phillips (now the Phillips Collection), widely exhibited in the 1920s and 1930s, and painted murals under the Treasury Relief Art Project for the General Services Administration. In later life he was known for his humanitarian food relief work during World War II and his arts advocacy that led to the passage of the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965. Weston’s most recent museum exhibition was at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, and his most recent gallery exhibition was at Gerald Peters Gallery in New York City.
Harold Weston was born February 14, 1894 in Merion, Pennsylvania, to Mary Hartshorne Weston, a pianist, and S. Burns Weston, the founder of the Ethical Culture Society in Philadelphia, who gave Weston an “integrity of purpose.” Summers were spent by the family in the Adirondack Mountains in the company of the intellectual descendants of the American transcendentalists, for whom nature, aesthetics, and spirituality were fundamentally linked.
At the age of 15, Weston spent a year traveling in Europe and attending school in Switzerland and Germany, continuing to paint and draw in his sketchbooks while in Europe. After his return to the United States, Weston was stricken by polio in 1911, a chance occurrence that sealed his determination to be an artist. His left leg was paralyzed, and doctors said that he would never walk again. Through a regime of physical conditioning and the use of leg braces and a cane, Weston did learn how to walk and hike again, using his arms to hold onto trees as he went up and down mountains.
Weston entered Harvard University in 1912 and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in Fine Arts in 1916. He served as editor of the Harvard Lampoon, contributing a large number of 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.
Many people believed that the global crisis of World War I would lead to a spiritual regeneration, and Weston wanted to be in the midst of that, “to literally see the heart of humanity laid bare.” Unable to enlist due to his paralysis, and before the U.S. entered the war, he volunteered with the YMCA from 1916-19, serving as a liaison with the British Army in Baghdad in the Ottoman Empire, attending to the mental wellbeing of 400,000 troops. In addition to arranging lectures, cinema, concerts, and tournaments, he encouraged soldiers to draw and paint, and organized the Baghdad Art Club to exhibit and promote the soldiers’ art. He was appointed Official Painter for the British Army in 1918.
Weston’s years in the Middle East had a lasting impact on both his art and social activism. The colors and light of the desert, so unlike the rich greens and blues of the Adirondacks, deeply affected his palette. Weston also witnessed the horror of famine and disease while in the Middle East. He saw men, women, and children die of heat exhaustion and starvation. In the summer of 1917, he reported 400 people a day dying from heat that rose to 128 degrees F in the shade. Weston wrote about some of his experiences for the National Geographic Magazine in April 1921, which included his photographs that he color tinted.
In late 1919 Weston returned to the United States via a caravan east to India, and then by ship with a layover in Japan. For five months he contributed social work while living in an immigrant settlement house in New York City, took classes at the Art Students League of New York, explored the city’s art galleries, and became acquainted with the latest in modern art reaching American shores.