By Margi Conrads
The Brooklyn Museum gave its visitors one of the great exhibition treats of the summer in “Masters of Color and Light: Homer, Sargent, and the American Watercolor Movement.” The installation of 150 works, chosen from the museum's permanent collection of about 800 sheets, told the story of the history of watercolor in America from the arrival of the medium in the mid-nineteenth century to the World War II era (there were just a few post-1945 selections). The show outlined the course of watercolor practice in this country and the history of the significant contribution the Brooklyn Museum has made in fostering the medium's importance. Text panels and object labels presented a balanced variety of information -- technical, art historical, and contextual.
The arrangement of the exhibition was chronological, with sections marking important occasions and figures. Acknowledging watercolor’s initial status as a medium appropriate only for personal, preparatory, or utilitarian purposes, works such as Thomas Sully’s Six Figure Studies (c.1837-38) offered exemplary examples of its early uses. A handsome selection of early-nineteenth-century topographical scenes, including a number with Brooklyn connections via artist or image locale, exhibited watercolor's close connection to the landscape tradition. The bulk of the exhibition was devoted to six groupings that illuminated prominent aspects or figures in American watercolor art.
John William Hill’s Pineapples (c. 1864) was one of a number of meticulously delineated paintings by the American Pre-Raphaelites, the most dedicated followers of John Ruskin’s truth to nature dictum.1 The American Watercolor Movement came into full swing in the 1870s, and many of America’s best-known painters exhibited at the annual American Watercolor Society annual exhibitions, making exhibition-scaled watercolors a specialty. William Trost Richards stood at the center of the watercolor movement, and Lily Pond, Newport (1877) and Stonehenge (c.1882) are just two of nearly a dozen sheets that demonstrate his accomplishments. The Brooklyn collection is rich, too, in examples by many of the other leading contributors to the watercolor movement, including Alfred Fitch Bellows, Robert Blum, Samuel Colman, Thomas Eakins, and Thomas Moran.
Two groups of early purchases of works by Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent (in 1912 and 1909, respectively, and augmented by later acquisitions as well), are testaments to the extraordinary results both of these artists achieved with watercolor. Homer’s Turtle Pound (1898) and Sargent’s Bedouins (c.1905) are just two sheets that show the artists at their facile best. Watercolor at Brooklyn in the twentieth century has been defined by the more than forty years of biennial exhibitions, held between 1921 and 1963. From these, Charles Burchfield’s February Thaw (1920) was purchased from the first biennial and the tradition of acquiring outstanding examples of American watercolor, by purchase or actively sought gifts, continues today. More recent acquisitions, such as Arthur Dove’s Untitled (c.1938), Oscar Bluemner’s Loving Moon (1927), and Stuart Davis’ Coordinance (1934), have diversified the strong holdings developed in the 1930s and 1940s, which include Thomas Hart Benton's Lassoing (1931) and Reginald Marsh's Girl on Fourteenth Street (1939).
The sum effect of Masters of Color and Light was as dazzling as the title suggested. The works displayed not only watercolor’s usefulness as a fast-drying medium to record particular places, light, and atmospheric effects, but also the variety of genres and techniques to which artists in America have applied it. The accompanying catalogue, by curators Linda S. Ferber and Barbara Dayer Gallati, is a welcome addition to the literature on American watercolor. Their essays, written with a broad readership in mind as well as with scholarly acumen, advance our knowledge and thinking on America’s most popular medium. The publication is to be commended, also, for a high number of color plates since these works are rarely on view in the permanent collection galleries.
Samuel Sosland Curator of American Art
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Kansas City, Missouri
1 William H. Gerdts, along with Linda Ferber, can be credited with bringing the American Pre-Raphaelites out of obscurity with the 1985 exhibition and catalogue The New Path: Ruskin and the American Pre-Raphaelite Movement (Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum, 1985).