British Watercolors from the Permanent Collection
In Europe, the use of watercolor reaches as far back as medieval times, and during the Renaissance it was regularly employed by some of the era’s most prominent artists—Dürer’s flora and fauna studies come immediately to mind. But the medium blossomed as an autonomous approach only in the middle years of the eighteenth century. It became particularly prevalent in England, where the acceptance of landscape as an appropriate subject matter, coupled with the widespread availability of readily portable cakes of water-soluble pigment, which allowed artists to work sur le motif, led to a tradition that, by the early years of the nineteenth century, grew to rival oil painting in beauty and desirability.
This exhibition celebrates the so-called Golden Age of British watercolors, a period spanning roughly from 1750 to 1850 in which the medium reached its pinnacle in the hands of a remarkably diverse group of artists. The earliest practitioners, represented here most clearly by Francis Towne and James Miller, followed a purely topographical tradition in which site-specific motifs were first sketched in pencil and only later, perhaps even in the studio, fleshed out in color. Later artists—John Varley, David Cox, and Peter De Wint, for example—discarded this linear approach in favor of exploring the more painterly qualities of watercolor, often in an effort to capture the poetic aspects of their subjects. The shift in attitude was marked in 1804 by the founding of the Society of Painters in Water Colours, organized as an alternative to the Royal Academy of Arts, at the time the only viable venue for exhibition but not open to membership for artists who desired to show only drawings, as watercolors were then categorized. The Society’s annual exhibitions, which drew large crowds throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, allowed the public, and the critics, to experience the medium in a favorable light, and introduced to younger generations of artists the expressive possibilities of watercolor.
Through the efforts of many of the artists represented here, painting with watercolor became accepted as an approach every bit as serious as sculpture or painting in oil. And it was an accomplishment that was considered to be uniquely British. William Henry Pyne, one of the founders of the Society of Painters in Water Colours and an early advocate in the press, wrote in an 1823 review: “With reference to Water Colour Painting, we have to speak of a new art, originating with the English, and perfected within the age whence it began.”