Harry Roseland was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of German-born parents. As a youth, he attended Adelphi Art School in Brooklyn, where he received instruction and encouragement from the genre painter John Barnard Whittaker. He also studied under the portraitist James Carroll Beckwith in New York, and possibly with the realist painter, Thomas Eakins, in Philadelphia. While most artists of his generation went to Europe to complete their formal training, Roseland expressed his independence by choosing not to go abroad. Instead, he refined his technique through independent study, developing a style characterized by rich colors, superb draftsmanship and a naturalistic rendering of the figure.
Roseland initially painted landscapes, portraits and floral still lifes, but he eventually turned his attention to figure painting which, according to one biographical account, was the “branch of art he preferred.” His early themes included rural types and old people he encountered in and around Brooklyn, as well as portrayals of fashionable women --sentimental themes that appealed to Victorian taste.
Although his work was well received, Harry Roseland sought to distinguish himself in the art world by exploring subjects that were considered indigenous to American life. He subsequently added African American genre scenes to his repertoire of themes. In doing so, he became one of the few painters--among them Eastman Johnson, Winslow Homer and Thomas Hovenden--to focus on the day-to-day lives of blacks.
Based on his own observation of the customs, manners and dress of post-Civil War African-Americans in the Northeast, Roseland depicted blacks in cozy, domestic interiors or working contentedly in the fields. Oils such as The Co’Tin (1898; private collection) and The Family (1901; private collection) were much admired by critics, who considered them to be faithful pictorial records of life in the South. Roseland’s work also retained its note of sentimentality, as in The Knitting Lesson (1895; private collection), which features an elderly black woman giving instruction to a young, well-dressed white woman.
For almost twenty-five years, Roseland worked out of a studio in the Ovington Building on Brooklyn’s Fulton Street. By the mid-1880s he was exhibiting his genre subjects at the annual exhibitions of the Brooklyn Art Association, the Brooklyn Art Club, and the National Academy of Design in New York under titles such as The Gossips (location unknown), In the Orchard (location unknown) and Ready for the Matinée (location unknown). He became hugely successful in American art circles, recognized, according to one contemporary commentator, as “. . . a teller of stories, on his canvases.” Roseland’s acclaim was such that his paintings were frequently reproduced in art periodicals and popular magazines of the day.
Harry Roseland continued to focus on genre painting until around 1910 when, responding to changes in taste, he returned to landscape subjects, showing a view of Monhegan Island, Maine, at the 1912 annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design in New York. After an absence of almost two decades, he exhibited portrayals of the crowded beach at Brooklyn’s Coney Island at the academy annuals of 1931 and 1933.
In addition to exhibiting his work in New York, Roseland also participated in the annuals at the Art Institute of Chicago, the American Art Society in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He was the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, including a gold medal at the Brooklyn Art Club (1887), the Second Hallgarten Prize at the National Academy of Design (1898) and medals at the American Art Society (1902 and 1907).
Harry Roseland died at Long Island College Hospital on December 20, 1950. His paintings can be found in many public and private collections throughout the United States, including the Brooklyn Museum; the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences; Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, New York; Charleston Art Museum, South Carolina; the Heckscher Museum, Huntington, Long Island, New York; and the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.