STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
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Compared to viewing a watercolor painting in person, looking at a digital version of a watercolor doesn’t come close.
Well, not unless you saw the trailer video for the Philadelphia Museum of Art blockbuster exhibition “American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent.”
It brings together more than 170 works — most of them exhibited infrequently and seldom lent — to delve into the distinctly made-in-the-USA origin of an appealing, difficult-yet-rewarding medium.
The museum’s George D. Widener director and CEO, Timothy Rub, called it “a congregation of masterpieces.”
Although art history shows watercolor was practiced widely in the United States before the Civil War, it was regarded as commercial illustration or a pastime for women and children. That changed with the founding of the American Watercolor Society in New York in 1866.
The society’s founders, said “American Watercolor”’s curator Kathleen A. Foster, were masterful marketers and welcomed anyone that was interested — artists that were disenfranchised, graphic designers, entrepreneurial women, folk artists, decorators, architects, travel enthusiasts, scientists and others.
Unlike the impressionists in Europe, American watercolor masters were very detail oriented, said Foster, the Art Museum’s Robert L. McNeil Jr. Senior Curator of American Art.
“By the 1880s, it is the toast of the town. By the 1920s, it’s being lauded as the American artform,” she said, adding that watercolor paintings were easier to collect and less expensive than oil paintings.
“American Watercolor” has multiple layers of emotion, beauty and innovation to it. In one gallery, with all-Winslow Homer on one half and all-John Singer Sargent on the other, there’s a space for visitors to vote for which of the two was the more influential artist.
Also among this installation of unusual finds are works by Homer’s mother, Henrietta Benson Homer, who taught her son how to paint in watercolor; Flora Bond Palmer, who designed lithographs for Currier & Ives; Bryn Mawr’s “Red Rose Girls” — Elizabeth Shippen Green, Violet Oakley and Jesse Willcox Smith; as well as Centennial-era nostalgia for the colonial days like Philadelphia watercolorist Edwin Austin Abbey’s “The Sisters;” videos demonstrating different watercolor painting techniques; and a display of pigment powders, sketchbooks, tubes of watercolor paint that belonged to Sargent and watercolor sets that belonged to Homer and Philadelphian Thomas Eakins.
There’s loads of landscapes that stir feelings of patriotism, and even inspired Congress to form the National Park System more than 100 years ago. 1870s superstar painter Thomas Moran couldn’t crank out works like “Big Springs in Yellowstone” fast enough.
There’s a collection of painstakingly meticulous still lifes and plein air nature Pre-Raphaelite works of the 1850s and 1860s. “But the critics were looking for more,” Foster commented.
The modern concept of integrated decoration of home interiors can be traced back to the 1878 book “The House Beautiful” by William Morris. It opened the door for artists to make money designing wallpaper, ceiling stencils, stained glass, textiles, lighting fixtures, ceramics and furniture. A gallery dedicated to the “decorative age” includes a first-time-ever display pairing of John LaFarge’s stained glass work “Peonies in the Wind” with his 1890 watercolor and gouache “Peonies in a Breeze.”
“A Watercolor Salon” replicates what one of the American Watercolor Society’s annual shows in the 1880s might have looked like: paintings displayed in heavy frames; exotic textiles, metalwork and ceramics helping the patrons imagine these watercolors in their own parlors; and an illustrated catalogue you can take home as a souvenir. It features a painting by Louis Comfort Tiffany, who was a celebrated watercolorist before he became renowned as a decorative designer.
Then there’s the new generation that emerged after Sargent’s death in 1925, including Charles Demuth, John Marin, Charles Burchfield and Edward Hopper, that continued to charm American art lovers.
According to wall text in the exhibit, the watercolor movement ultimately reflects the American notions of freedom, individuality and national artistic expression.
You may notice that the lighting seems low, and that two paintings are covered by sliding curtains. The reason the lending of watercolors is rare is their fragility and their light sensitivity. Philadelphia will be the only city “American Watercolor” will be shown.