Philadelphia Museum of Art Features Watercolors by Homer and Sargent

Amy Henderson
Print Friendly
John William Hill, American (born England), 1812-1879, Apples and Plums, 1874. Watercolor on paper, 7 7/8 × 11 3/8 inches. Collection of Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr.

John William Hill, American (born England), 1812-1879, Apples and Plums, 1874. Watercolor on paper, 7 7/8 × 11 3/8 inches. Collection of Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr.

Is it appropriate to define watercolor as “the medium” in American art?  That’s the contention curator Kathleen A. Foster sets forth in her new Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition and catalogue, American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent.

Establishing watercolor’s significance has been the driving force of Foster’s career, beginning with her 1982 Yale dissertation, “Makers of the American Watercolor Movement, 1860-1890.”  While the medium has often been called “quaint” and sniffed at as something women toyed with on Sunday afternoons, Foster has made it her career crusade to show that the medium launched a vital aesthetic movement in America after the Civil War. Instead of imitating French Impressionism, artists embraced watercolor and catalyzed the creation of a uniquely American art–one whose vibrant identity suited the rise of America’s modern national identity in the late 19th century.

The exhibition coincides with the 150th anniversary of the founding of the American Watercolor Society (AWS) in New York in 1866. The AWS transformed watercolor from the taint of amateurism into an artistic vogue: in her catalogue Introduction, Foster writes that “By 1881, watercolor painting was the toast of New York….many of the most lauded and adventuresome American artists were watercolorists” (Foster, 11).  With its ability to capture spontaneous “movement,” watercolor conveyed the pulse of American modernism—as fast, AWC IMAGE 13 - edit Prendergast - Splash of Sunshine and Rainfresh, and immediate as the urban landscape that was hurriedly transforming American life and culture.

Right: Maurice B. Prendergast, American, 1858 -1924. Splash of Sunshine and Rain (Piazza San Marco, Venice), 1899. Watercolor and graphite on paper, 19 3/8 × 14 1/4 inches Private collection.

Introductory galleries in the Philadelphia Museum exhibition depict watercolor’s early life in America as an adjunct to commercial illustration and decorative art, as well as industrial and architectural design. Watercolorists were employed in the lithographic process that helped fuel the mid-century publication of mass distribution magazines like Harper’s Illustrated.

But after the Civil War, watercolor emerged as an important artistic medium on its own. Central to her portrait of American watercolor is Foster’s argument that, webbing from New York’s art community, “the flowering of the watercolor exhibitions around 1880 marked a rare concurrence, when all kinds of artists…were enthusiastically united” in championing the medium that so-well reflected the “contemporary impulse” (13). Artists such as Thomas Moran, Edwin Austin Abbey, and Thomas Eakins helped make watercolor a popular fashion; Winslow Homer became “the star ofAWC IMAGE 21 edit Sargent - Muddy Alligators the phenomenon,” and his work threads through much of Foster’s narrative (24).

Left: John Singer Sargent, American (active London, Florence, and Paris), 1856 -1925. Muddy Alligators, 1917. Watercolor over graphite, with masking out and scraping, on wove paper, Sheet: 13 9/16 × 20 7/8 inches. Worcester Art Museum, Sustaining Membership Fund.

Along with Homer, John Singer Sargent is spotlighted as a leading player in the development of the American watercolor movement. Sargent had used watercolor since childhood and turned to this medium more and more in the 1890s “as a respite from his overbooked portrait schedule and demanding mural projects” (26).

In the early decades of the 20th Century, a new generation of watercolorists took up medium. John Marin claimed the Homer-Sargent legacy and became the star of this movement in the Twenties; he was joined by such artists as Charles Burchfield, Edward Hopper, Charles Demuth, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Reginald Marsh.  By the Thirties, Foster argues that watercolor “was firmly AWC IMAGE 9 - Hassam edit Boulevard at Night Parisestablished and central to the national artistic identity” (27).

Right: Childe Hassam, American, 1859 – 1935 Boulevard at Night, Paris, 1889. Watercolor on paper, 8 × 12 inches. Private Collection.

Watercolor’s place in the artistic firmament gets blurrier at mid-century and beyond. In 1941, the new National Gallery of Art organized its first loan exhibition to showcase contemporary American watercolor; but Foster calls this the “last benchmark for the watercolor movement” (372).

Foster’s catalogue is a legacy in its own right, weighty with a lifetime of scholarship that argues for watercolor’s higher place in the national art pantheon. The exhibition follows these same scholarly guidelines and is organized to incorporate the peripheral tributaries that contributed to watercolor’s overall significance. The problem is that there is too much weight given to peripheral work that, on their own, lack star-power; while not AWC IMAGE 22 edit Marin - Red Sunextraneous to the bigger story and deserving of discussion in the catalogue, these pieces tend to drag the exhibition down.

Left: John Marin, American, 1870 – 1953. The Red Sun, Brooklyn Bridge, 1922. Watercolor with opaque watercolor, scraping, and wiping, and fabricated charcoal with stumping, on thick, rough textured wove paper, 21 5/16 × 26 3/16 inches. The Art Institute of Chicago, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, © 2017 Estate of John Marin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Thirty years ago, the Worcester Museum of Art organized an exhibition that proved jaw-dropping at every glance. American Traditions in Watercolor (1987), which was exhibited both at the Worcester Museum and at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, agrees with Foster that “the history of watercolor painting in America parallels the broader progress of the nation’s art” (Susan E. Strickler, ed., The Worcester Art Museum Collection; NY, Abbeville Press, 1987, p. 21). But less emphasis is placed on the American Watercolor Society and more on a wider perspective that finds watercolor organizations in the 19th century to be “a function of the emerging self-identity of the American artist amid the clamor R-20120525-0091.jpgfor attention of special-interest groups through the entire spectrum of society” (ibid, 32).

Right: Edward Hopper, American, 1882 – 1967. Haskell’s House, 1924. Watercolor over graphite on paperboard, 13 1/2 × 19 1/2 inches. National Gallery of Art, Gift of Herbert A. Goldstone, 1996.

The Worcester exhibition also tracked watercolor’s legacy further into the 20th century, specifically noting the work of such artists as Franz Kline and Jim Dine (Worcester, 41). But it ultimately agreed with Foster that “watercolor may well continue to be regarded as “the American medium.’” (Worcester, 42)

Watercolor’s legacy will depend, as Foster understands, on what artists decide to do. She believes that the medium may be attractive to artists using “hand-held” media formats, but she is also optimistic that “artists will continue to discover the special appeal of watercolor—to be challenged by its difficulty, charmed by its qualities of color, and tempted into action by the accomplishments of past masters” (Foster, 373).

By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer

AWC IMAGE 25 -edit Exhibition Catalogue coverAmerican Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent will be at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from March 1-May 14, 2017. The catalogue*, by Kathleen A. Foster, is available at the Philadelphia Museum of Art museum shop, or online.

Amy Henderson is Historian Emerita of the National Portrait Gallery. She writes frequently on media and culture.

*Thumbnail and catalogue cover: Winslow Homer, American, 1836 – 1910. Diamond Shoal, 1905. Watercolor and graphite on paper, Sheet: 14 × 21 7/8 inches. Private Collection.

Leave a Reply

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.