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The American Watercolor Movement: 1860 – 1925

Kathleen A. Foster, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Edmond J. Safra Visiting Professor, spring 2015

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Winslow Homer, Young Woman Sewing, 1876. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection, Bequest of James Parmelee

In the decades after the Civil War, American artists suddenly took up watercolor painting, largely spurred by the energetic members of the new American Society of Painters in Water Colors (later known as the American Watercolor Society), formed in 1866. In the 1870s the rising popularity of the society and its annual exhibitions established a reputation and a collector base for many young artists — among them William Trost Richards, Winslow Homer, Edwin Austin Abbey, Thomas Moran, and Thomas Eakins — and launched a taste for watercolor that would transform the importance of the medium in the United States. Neglected and disparaged in the United States before the Civil War, by the turn of the century watercolor would become the favorite of American painters and collectors (as seen in the work of Homer, John Singer Sargent, and Maurice Prendergast) and a natural choice for the moderns of the next generation, including Charles Demuth, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Edward Hopper. The transformation in the medium wrought by the so-called American Watercolor Movement — with an examination of its sources, motives, and principal artists — will be the central narrative of a special exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2017; preparing the checklist and catalog for that exhibition has been my project at CASVA this spring.

As the Edmond J. Safra Visiting Professor, I also was charged with leading a colloquy on the topic “American Watercolor Painting, 1850 – 1950” for emerging scholars and conservators, using the splendid watercolor collection at the National Gallery of Art, recently enriched by the transfer of the fabled American collections of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. I spent many pleasant hours with CASVA’s Edmond J. Safra research assistant, Sally Mills, and with colleagues in the National Gallery’s department of modern prints and drawings, surveying the collection with a view to my research and exhibition preparation as well as to the Edmond J. Safra Colloquy. I owe special thanks to curators Judith Brodie, Carlotta Owens, and Charlie Ritchie for their patience and enthusiasm and to Kimberly Schenck, the head of paper conservation and my partner in planning the session in the conservation lab.

The colloquy was launched with a lecture introducing the story of the watercolor movement, followed by two days of sessions that gave a historical and technical survey of American practice from the mid- nineteenth century to the modern period. Before the organization of the American Watercolor Society in 1866, the inherited strands of British watercolor painting, including sketching from nature and the tradition of the “exhibition watercolor,” were maintained by a small band of British immigrants, and many of the society’s founding members were British- born. Most of the landscape painters of the Hudson River School (such as Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt) were, however, uninterested in watercolor, preferring to sketch in oils or draw with a schematic system of line, ink wash, and white gouache, demonstrated in numerous drawings in the National Gallery’s collection. The new society succeeded only by recruiting younger landscape artists (such as Richards and Moran) and the circle of American painters swayed by John Ruskin’s teaching or the example of J. M. W. Turner. The membership was also bolstered by the ever-growing community of engravers and illustrators who used wash and watercolor professionally, including the likes of Homer and Abbey. Homer abandoned illustration after realizing that he could find a market for his watercolors, and his launch in the society’s exhibitions in the 1870s would transform his career.

The National Gallery’s superb collection of Homer’s watercolors, seen alongside the sparkling work of Sargent and Prendergast, offered the basis for an afternoon’s session in the conservation lab, led by former National Gallery conservator Judith Walsh, now professor at SUNY Buffalo State, which offers one of the country’s premier paper conservation programs. Her knowledge of Homer’s techniques, illuminated by the opportunity to apply the examination tools of the conservation lab, was supplemented by a hands-on sharing of paper and watercolor materials by Kimberly Schenck. The discussion, ranging from watercolor techniques to typical condition problems and framing issues, gave the scholars a chance to examine these watercolors closely and also to understand the power of scholarly collaboration between art historians and conservators. The third day’s sessions continued these conversations with a focus on the twentieth century, anchored by the National Gallery’s extraordinary John Marin collection, set in the midst of key watercolors by John Burchfield, Demuth, Hopper, Stanton MacDonald-Wright, and O’Keeffe. The startling confidence of these artists and the variety of effects they achieved in watercolor illustrated the transformation of the medium, which had by 1925 become a natural choice for American artists and a field for progressive, experimental, and widely admired painting. Capping off these days of exploration, the group was treated to a lecture-demonstration (with class participation) in watercolor techniques by associate curator and accomplished watercolorist Charlie Ritchie, who proved — if the lesson had not already been learned — that watercolor is both easy and dauntingly difficult, simple and infinitely complex.

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