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American Watercolors: Excellent Exhibition, But…

American Watercolor In the Age of Homer and Sargent, now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is an exhausting exhibition, in a good way. It displays more than 170 artworks and covers the period from the 1860s to 1925. It is, as the press release says, “the most comprehensive loan exhibition in over forty years devoted to the most important chapter in the history of watercolor painting in this country.”

I spent more than two hours in the exhibition this weekend, and here’s the paradox: though I was ready to leave when I reached the final gallery–there’s only so much the eye can absorb–I wanted more. I wanted more because the show builds to a climax in the 1920s, the time when watercolor became the “American medium.” The best artists in other countries in that period were not using watercolor this way. But we were–Marin, Demuth, Burchfield, Dove and Hopper had made watercolor their primary medium, and other great artists like O’Keeffe put it on equal footing with oil.

And yet this excellent exhibition–I can’t say enough about how good it is–gives us just one small gallery of works from that high point. One Burchfield, one Hopper, one Marin, two Demuths–no Doves. Two O’Keeffes on the same subject.

I am always loath to second-guess a curator, but here it feels as if Kathleen A. Foster, the museum’s senior curator of American Art, ended too abruptly at the story’s climax.

Space was not the issue, because the final gallery displays various papers used by Homer and Sargent, samples of watercolors mixed by the artists and those that come in prepared watercolor boxes. I’d rather have seen a Dove, a better Burchfield, etc.

Explaining process has become a feature of many exhibitions these days, but I question whether we needed that final gallery here, when most kids learn what a watercolor is. After all, the exhibit included videos showing processes–scraping, using salt, etc.–along the way.

Watercolor exhibitions don’t come around all that often, as we all know. They can’t be exposed to light for long, and this show will not travel. It’s a pity that I–and I am sure that I am  not the only one–left wanting more. I can only hope that Foster or someone else will mount a comprehensive exhibition of Modernist watercolors and explain watercolor then went out of fashion.

Meantime, see this exhibition if you can. Just because it’s not perfect doesn’t mean it’s not great. It is. I’ve posted three of my many favorites here: Apples and Plums by John William Hill (top); Splash of Sunshine and Rain (Piazza San Marco, Venice) by Maurice Prendergast (middle), Still Life: Apples and Green Glass by Charles Demuth (bottom).

Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 


  1. Judith Gregory says:

    Like you, I very much enjoyed the American Watercolors exhibition and spent several hours taking it in. A wonderful, ephemeral medium, so well-represented by 19th Century artists, which I think was the curator’s goal. However, I differ with you on the number of early modernist works, though I also loved seeing them, especially Dove and O’ Keeffe. I think that is really another exhibition. Also, I thought the technology, both high and low, was quite effectively integrated, with videos of water-color method throughout and, yes, the case with watercolors, brushes, palettes, and pans, used by the painters. (How great to see Winslow Homer’s palette with its softly graded natural colors!) When I was there, quite a few people were gathered around each of these stations taking them in (some whom I’d overheard earlier on asking questions about technique). These features allow viewers who aren’t artists or art historians to understand the processes better and appreciate the works of art even more. They also create breaks in a very large exhibition. It would be a great field trip for college level painting students!

    • As I said, I thought the videos were very good too. It was only the last gallery that to me was a wasted opportunity–it did not explain processes, as that was in the videos, of which I approved. When I was there, people were not spending time in it (except for those waiting for lagging companions, and many of them were sitting on the benches). It’s all subjective.

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