American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent, now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, represents the most comprehensive loan exhibition in over 40 years. Devoted to the most important chapter in the history of watercolor painting in the United States, American Watercolor brings together more than 170 works drawn from public and private collections throughout the country.
The exhibition chronicles the growth of interest in watercolor painting among leading American artists in the 1860s, and its development into a uniquely American medium during the second half of the nineteenth century and the first several decades of the twentieth century. This magnificent survey also demonstrates the extraordinary range of American watercolor subjects… from intricately detailed landscapes and genre scenes to architectural renderings and designs for ceramics and stained glass.
In addition to the exceptional works of Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, the exhibition also includes contributions of many other leading American artists such as William T. Richards, Thomas Moran, and Edwin Austin Abbey, whose reputations were greatly enhanced by the popularity of their watercolors. Interestingly enough, the exhibition begins with Winslow Homer’s last dated watercolor, Diamond Shoal – two sailors struggling to tame their ship on a turbulent sea. The work, painted five years before Homer’s death, clearly represents the artist’s adventurous side, which is also demonstrated in a series of captivating scenes – such as A Garden In Nassau, Bermuda, and Building a Smudge – designed to awaken our wanderlust.
John Singer Sargent was a bit more prolific than Homer in the types of works he created. And the exhibition highlights everything from portraits and natural landscapes to city scenes. One of his more unique (eccentric) pieces is Muddy Alligators, painted during an extended stay in Florida in 1917. Variously described as “his masterpiece,” and praised by Inquirer art critic Thomas Hine for the reptiles’ “complacently lethal grins,” the painting has attracted a good deal of attention over the years.
However, I much prefer Sargent’s more intriguing Venetian works, specifically his rather dark and mysterious A Venetian Trattoria (pictured). With just two principal colors, blue and brown, he displays his mastery of the subtle contrasts of light and shadow. According to curator Kathleen A. Foster: “A Venetian Trattoria was part of Sargent’s advent as a watercolor painter in 1904, when it was sent among a group of five Venetian subjects to the exhibition of London’s Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours, to which he was promptly elected. The following year it appeared in an even larger debut, a one-man show at the new Carfax Gallery in London that gathered forty-four of his watercolors, highlighting Sargent’s public arrival in a new medium.”
According to Inquirer art critic Thomas Hine, the high point of the exhibition comes in a gallery where examples of work by Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent that deal with similar subjects are hung side by side. A wall panel then invites viewers to judge which was the greatest watercolorist, soliciting your vote as you exit.
But despite all this artificial artistic mano a mano, in a very real sense, it is Edwin Austin Abbey who quietly steals the show. Abbey was born in Philadelphia in 1852 and studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He began his career as an illustrator, producing numerous illustrations and sketches for Harper’s Weekly and Scribner’s Magazine. He is best known for his drawings and paintings of Shakespearean and Victorian subjects, as well as for his painting of the coronation of Edward VII. His most famous set of murals, The Quest of the Holy Grail, adorns the Boston Public Library. In 1908-09, Abbey began a program of murals and other artworks for the newly completed Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He died in August 1911, leaving two rooms of the commission unfinished.
Only two of Abbey’s paintings are part of American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent, but they are more than enough to grab (and hold) the limelight. In 1882, a half-dozen art critics commenced their reviews of the American Watercolor Society exhibition with a discussion of Abbey’s The Sisters, which pictures two sisters – one seated, the other standing – at the piano in a page-out-of-Jane Austen-like English setting. His clever work in black and white had long been acknowledged, but this painting clearly established his incredible skill as a watercolorist. “There are few artists in London who can do such an exquisite piece of work, regarded whether for its sweetness and grace, its dignity, its color, or its delicacy and strength of drawing,” wrote the New York Times.
The Sisters continued as the favorite and focal point of the 1882 exhibition and remained the best known and most reproduced of Abbey’s work for several years. But his success was followed by numerous other exceptional watercolors, culminating with An Old Song in 1885. And, like The Sisters before it, An Old Song became the darling of AWS 1886 exhibition. As curator Kathleen A. Foster notes: “A masterpiece of technique, it demonstrated the maturity of Abbey’s work at the age of thirty-three, after a few years of living in London among the finest watercolor painters in the world… The delicacy and range of his handling in this painting, from the broad washes used to render the floor to the sparkling details of silver and brass, captured a panorama of reflecting surfaces as well as the tender expressions of the figures.” The painting tugged at the heartstrings… and the purse strings as well. On the exhibition’s Buyer’s Day, An Old Song reportedly sold for $3,000 (a thousand more than The Sisters); at the time, the highest price ever paid for an American watercolor.
American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent, which will be on view through Wednesday, May 14, 2017, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art only, is simply an extraordinary, must-see exhibition.
And after an exciting afternoon among the watercolors, take a short drive down 21st Street and have dinner at the new Friday Saturday Sunday, 261 South 21st Street, Philadelphia. You won’t be disappointed.