Harvey is best known for his Scottish history painting and contemporary narrative scenes. Many of his subjects, designed to invite an emotional response, appear rather sentimental to modern viewers but were extremely popular when first exhibited. Harvey was a student of Sir William Allan's at the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh. He followed Allan's example in his skilled draughtsmanship and detailed preparatory studies for his major compositions. His work also reflects Wilkie's influence. Harvey was a founder member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1826 and went on to become its president in 1864. He was knighted three years later.