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Eli Harvey’s Animals

Eli Harvey mostly sculpted wild animals from close observation.
courtesy of Clinton County Historical Society
Eli Harvey mostly sculpted wild animals from close observation.

Eli Harvey grew up in a Quaker community near Wilmington, Ohio to become a celebrated sculptor. And yet most Ohioans have never heard his name. Harvey mostly sculpted wild animals from close observation. The Historical Society in Clinton County has now digitized the art and writings of Eli Harvey.

Many people have seen the image of the lions that sit outside the New York Public Library. Michael Coyan is an art historian, and he sees a big difference with Eli Harvey’s lion sculptures. The library lions are more stylized. Harvey’s lions reveal his patient observation of the real animals.

"The sinews are taught. Or the animal is at rest. The expression out of the eyes and the face matches the supine body, a tense body, or the body guarding the kill."

Eli Harvey was born in 1860 and grew up on the family farm. He learned to draw and paint on his own, but the Quaker community didn’t always understand his love for art. Christine Synder is a descendent of the Harvey family. She says that one day young Eli was outside painting a landscape.

"And a neighbor came by on his horse and wagon on his way to Sligo to get the mail. And the neighbor stopped and made a comment to young Eli that maybe he would be better off working."

Eli replied that he was working more than the man sitting on the wagon. Harvey drew portraits of prominent locals to raise enough money to attend art school in Cincinnati. One time, Harvey bargained to receive his pay in sheep which he then sold. After Harvey became an art teacher in Cincinnati, he made his way to Paris to study landscape painting at the Academie Julien. Later, Harvey wanted to use the French countryside to paint the mythic scene of Orpheus charming the animals.

"And then he began to realize that in order to paint the animals he needed to understand their anatomy. So he spent some time trying to learn the musculature and the skeletal makeup of these large animals," says Christine Snyder.

From then on, his passion for sculpting wild animals grew. Harvey spent years drawing and sculpting the lions at the zoo in the Jardins Des Plantes. He studied with the premiere animal artists in Europe. This work wasn’t always appreciated, says Michael Coyan.

"At the Parisian Academy for years, they had categories as to where the great art were, you know? The best painters were the history painters, and then were Biblical painters, and then there were portrait painters, and they literally had this listing. And the one that was at the very bottom and thought of the least were animals because animals had no souls."

But in 1901, Harvey’s career took off when he won a competition to sculpt the lions for the Lion House at the New York Zoo in the Bronx. The work took him three years to complete. After the Lion House, Harvey was in demand for public art. Tycoons hired him to sculpt their prize bulls and other animals. He sculpted the seven-foot Brown University bear mascot and the elk that is the symbol for the national order of the Elk’s Lodge. Christine Snyder says that many times Harvey patiently worked with reluctant model animals for several weeks at a time. As with that elk who was in rutting season.

"He was confined inside a shed. So this elk was very unhappy. And of course an elk with a full set of antlers is a very dangerous animal. But he was able to convince the elk to accept his presence inside the shed for a long enough period for him to get the measurements and the observations that he needed," she says.

Michael Coyan believes Eli Harvey’s sculptures reveal a connection to animals that goes all the way back to his Quaker roots on the farm in Ohio.

"I think he was trying to get in touch with the soul of that creature, with that spark of life that is in that creature, and to communicate that honestly, and to carry it through to people who would only experience that creature in that sculpture in that moment. He calls on a gentleness. And that’s his great gift. That’s his gift to us in everything he’s done."

Soon anyone online will be able to experience Harvey’s animals as well as study his anatomical sketches, drawings, and paintings when the digitization process is complete.

Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO and supported by WYSO Leaders Frank Scenna and Heather Bailey, who are proud to support storytelling that sparks curiosity, highlights creativity and builds community.

Copyright 2021 WYSO. To see more, visit WYSO.

Eli Harvey grew up in a Quaker community near Wilmington, Ohio.
courtesy of Clinton County Historical Society /
Eli Harvey grew up in a Quaker community near Wilmington, Ohio.
courtesy of Clinton County Historical Society /