Harlan was an artist all his life. Over the course of eighty-eight years, he created thousands of woodcuts, sketches, watercolors, and oil paintings. Though he was formally trained at the National Academy of Design and the Cincinnati Art Academy, Harlan never conformed to mainstream expectations of style. His art was spontaneous and deeply personal, he only painted what inspired him. His most important muse was the world's natural beauty. Though his style evolved over time, his subject never did. Harlan’s passion for art is equally a passion for nature:
“But nature means so much to me; it's a religion, really. It isn't just painting to earn a living or painting to do something. It's the source of all my inspiration.”
Harlan pursued art despite his mother’s wishes for more financially stable work: “she thought that one artist in the family was enough.”
In 1919, after graduating high school, Harlan enrolled at the National Academy of Design in New York.
The art world was a bit of culture shock for the reserved young man.
Hubbard and a nude model
“I never will forget, I just opened the door and walked in and there was a nude model on the stand; I had never seen a woman without any clothes on before. I didn't know what effect it would have on me but it had none at all. I was struck first by the radiant beauty of the coloring of the skin and it seemed like it was something beyond, certainly beyond everyday life; when you see people with clothes on they don't look that way.”
Hubbard’s art was not representative of any certain style. He respected realism, while also incorporating an impressionistic gaze. Harlan's style was spontaneous but passionate, a true expression of himself. The Academy of Design challenged these individualistic ideals but he never changed his style.
Harlan rejected contemporary ideas of art
"In those days, you almost had to make something almost abstract; that's what they were doing down at the Art Students' League and what the more advanced painters were trying to do, but I hadn't gotten that far yet and I never did in a way because even to this very day I still respect proportion and construction and accurate drawing. But I'm thinking more and more about the formal side of painting, the relation of colors and the direction of lines and feeling the tension between the different forms, which have nothing to do with realism. Of course, it wasn't long before that they discarded realism altogether in the New York School. Abstract expressionists were just working in abstract form, Jackson Pollock and other well-noted men. But I couldn't follow that. In fact, I never liked it much either. I thought it was interesting, but I had too much love and respect for what I see; I wouldn't want to distort it or disfigure it in any way like they were doing. So that became quite a problem for several years in my life after this first year in the National Academy of Design. And I haven't really worked it out yet. I still think it's evolving.”
Though Hubbard refused to conform to his formal art training, his style was still formulated during his time in New York. Harlan regularly explored museums and galleries, where he was inspired by the greats.
Hubbard created art that would satisfy him
"But my ideas of painting were formulated in those years very much while I was in New York, by the exhibitions I saw at the museums and galleries. And I picked up a pretty good understanding of the Impressionists and Cezanne and Van Gogh and Gauguin and what they . . . and that's about as far as I went. When you get into modernists stemming from Cezanne, like Picasso, I didn't go with them, because they were denying realism for abstract art and trying to make a work of art by abstract painting. But I don't think, I don’t think it can be done, at least no abstract painting has ever had much influence on me. It seemed like there has to be some connection with actual life, with what you see. But then it had to get away from the nineteenth century painters, who were making such detailed paintings, which were really nothing but photographs."
"Like John Singer Sargent?"
"Yeah. Sargent and the landscape painters, too. Some of the landscape painters were, like Twachtman and Ryder, were adding something besides just realism and that's where I got my foundation for what I -- my relation to the history of art. Since then I've made very little progress. Still where I was then, trying to do the same thing, trying to reproduce nature so it will satisfy me and my love for it and at the same time produce a work of art which will have something more, something that the camera couldn't give."
Hubbard on his formulation of style:
"When I started to paint, above all that purpose was to reproduce on paper or canvas what I saw. And the reason that I wanted to do that was that I didn't paint anything that I wasn't moved by the sight of it or very much interested in it so the picture of it would have great value for me. I went on that way for quite awhile and I began to see that there were lots of other ways to go about painting. I was in New York at the time, a young student. I went on under that principle for a long time. The first interest I ever had of something in painting beyond that was a show I saw at the Metropolitan Museum, it must have been a post-Impressionist show or maybe it was Impressionism. Anyway, when I first saw the paintings of Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and I knew at once that here was something different, something beyond just mere representation. I did not know what it was exactly and I didn't worry much about it. But something of that -- get into my work. I began to think of the design of the painting, apart from its representation. This is something quite different from the old idea of composition, which they just tried to balance the different parts of the painting, so it wouldn't look lopsided or so it would have some sort of center. It was a whole new idea and I began experimenting. I don't know as I tried to imitate any of the painters I mentioned, but I did try to sometimes make a formal design or make the painting into a formal design, which meant some tampering with realism. But I found that it wouldn't go; I found that the object that I was painting meant so much to me that I wanted it just as it was. I had such respect for it that I wouldn't consider distorting it to fit into any pattern or any arbitrary design.
That was why my paintings looked, you might say, old-fashioned. There is no design to them. No formal design, which sometimes interferes, often displaces the realism. This is a problem that I've never solved, but I kept working with it, and then it suddenly dawned on me, I saw that the paintings that I had been making, even from the very beginning, had a formal design. It was very evident, with the masses, the lines, the light and dark, the color were all part of a scheme that was independent of the realism but didn't interfere with it in the least. In fact, it furthered it. Then I began to look at old paintings and they all had the same theme, long before the modern painters began to think of design as something separate from representation."