Portrait of Kay
Mac Harshberger
circa 1927

Keeper of the Flame

In the back parlor of a classic Victorian flat in San Francisco, there hung for many years a magical evocation of 1920s Paris: a life-size portrait of Countess Katherine de Landry, with long scarf, cloche hat and gloved hands holding yellow tulips.

The subject of the portrait, known to her friends as Kay, lived in that flat for more than 20 years after her divorce from European royalty, always maintaining the style and elegance the portrait proclaims. After her death in the mid-1970s, the portrait moved only a few blocks, to the beneficiary of her estate, the art historian William W. Whitney.

Whitney soon made a great discovery: the painting came with a cache of other Art Deco treasures by the same artist, Kay's brother Mac Harshberger.

Mac Harshberger had sailed to Paris in 1921 to continue his artistic education just a year after his sister married into the distinguished de Landry family. He also had a felicitous marriage: He entered the atelier of Maurice Denis just as Denis and his friends Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard were striking out in new directions as founders of the post-Impressionist group of painters who would become known as the Nabis.

Harshberger was strongly influenced by the group. Like them, he created not only easel paintings, but also murals, costumes, illustrations and other decorative elements inspired by the heady aesthetic ferment flowering in 1920s Paris. The climax was the landmark Exposition des Art Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, held in Paris in 1925, which gave its name to the Art Deco period.

Since he became the keeper of the flame, William Whitney has devoted great effort and enthusiasm to ensuring that Harshberger's work receives greater recognition. As a longtime professor of art history and a former executive director of the California Historical Society, he brought a scholar's approach to the task of rescuing Harshberger's work from obscurity.

With Whitney's encouragement, a one-person exhibition of Harshberger's work was presented by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco at the Palace of the Legion of Honor and at the Honolulu Academy of Art. Harshberger's work is in the permanent collections of those institutions and of the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami, whose collection focuses specifically on the art and design of the moderns.

Whitney wrote about Harshberger and his art in An Elegance of Line: The Graphic Art of Mac Harshberger. The monograph was published in a signed and numbered limited edition that includes plates of 20 of Harshberger's works. It is another manifestation of William Whitney's determination to keep alive Mac Harshberger's work capturing the spirit of Art Deco Paris in the 1920s.

Portfolio: Mac Harshberger
More about William W. Whitney