Harry Carnohan, artist and critic, was born on April 18, 1904, in Milford, Texas, the second of three sons of William George and Maie (Rogers) Carnohan. He grew up in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas after moving there with his family at an early age. He studied art under Vivian Aunspaugh and Frank Reaugh. He continued his studies at the Art Institute of Chicago, where in June 1926 he was awarded the Bryan Lathrop Traveling Fellowship for study in Europe. He spent the next 4½ years studying in Paris and other major European art centers. During this period he studied for a year with the influential modernist teacher André L'Hote and exhibited his work at the Salon d'Automne in Paris (1927).
Following his European sojourn Carnohan returned to Dallas, where he became active in the Dallas Nine, a circle of regionalists. He presented his theories on modern art at meetings of the Dallas Art League and shared information on recent developments in European art with other artists. For the Dallas Journal Carnohan wrote articles critiquing a series of exhibitions that influenced the Dallas regionalist group, including the Kress traveling exhibition of early Italian painters (1933), the College Art Association's exhibition of Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco (1934), and an exhibition of contemporary lithographers organized by Lloyd Rollins for the Dallas Museum of Art (1934). Carnohan was more open to contemporary European styles such as surrealism than Jerry Bywaters and Alexandre Hogue, the leading exponents of southwestern regionalism.
Carnohan almost certainly came into contact with the Surrealists, who were active in Paris at the time he was there, and whose influence permeates his best-known work, West Texas Landscape (1934). He evoked a sense of strangeness in this painting through the precise placement of a bucket, a garden hose, a shed, stones, and other ordinary objects that took on a life of their own in the harsh light of the West Texas sun. The painting was executed in the cool palette favored by the early Italian Renaissance painters, whom Carnohan admired. West Texas Landscape won the purchase prize at the Seventh Annual Allied Arts Exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts in 1935 and was singled out as one of the two finest paintings exhibited by Texan artists at the Centennial Exposition (1936). Carnohan worked in oil, watercolor, pastel, and tempera and experimented with graphic techniques as a member of the Lone Star Printmakers group. He favored landscapes, figures, and portraits after briefly experimenting with abstraction.
In spite of his limited output, Carnohan won considerable acclaim during his years in Dallas. His work won praise at the 1933 and 1935 Allied Artists annuals in Dallas and the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition. He was chosen as one of several artists to represent Texas in a touring exhibition of American art organized by the New York City Museum of Modern Art (1933), and in 1934 he participated in the annual exhibition of contemporary painters sponsored by the Whitney Museum in New York City. He was also represented at the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco in 1939.
Carnohan taught at the Dallas Art Institute in the late 1930s and apparently spent some time in Colorado Springs, Colorado, before accepting a position in the art department at Columbia University in 1940. In November 1940 Columbia University mounted a solo exhibition of his work that traced his development over fifteen years, from the early abstractions, to his Texas landscapes with their emphasis on color and space, to his most recent work at that time, gouaches of Vermont scenes characterized by rich patterning.
On December 31, 1942, Carnohan married an artist, Lucille (Michaela) Cimbollek, in New York City; they had two daughters and a son. Uncomfortable with the emerging emphasis on abstract art in New York City, Carnohan left Columbia University in 1953 and subsequently moved with his family to Pacific Beach, California. They later settled in nearby La Jolla, where Carnohan worked as a furniture and antique dealer. The couple were divorced in 1966. Carnohan died in the San Diego area on March 9, 1969. His work is represented in the Dallas Museum of Art.