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The New York Water Color Club
Magazine Antiques, Nov, 2005 by David A. Cleveland

The New York Water Color Club (NYWCC), founded in 1890, has always been something of a phantom on the radar screen. This is primarily due to the club's amalgamation with the American Watercolor Society in 1941.

The NYWCC was founded by a group of ambitious and skilled artists, among them Childe Hassam (see Pls. VII, VIII), Charles Warren Eaton (see Pls. IV, IX), Rhoda Holmes Nicholls (see Pl. II), and Henry Bayley Snell (1858-1943). They were seeking another outlet and forum for their work, both in watercolor and pastel. The American Watercolor Society, founded in 1866, had, by the end of the 1880s, grown in membership and expanded its annual spring exhibition to nearly eight hundred works, including many by amateurs. The young talents who formed the NYWCC were intent on a more elite and professional, yet democratic, organization to promote their work.

In its first decade and into the early years of the twentieth century, the NYWCC was in the forefront of the tonalist movement, which specialized in intimate landscapes in muted tones, while promoting Whistlerian aestheticism, particularly by including pastels in their annual exhibitions. In addition, the club promoted the interests of women in art by exhibiting many of their works and encouraging their participation in the executive functions of the club.

The early 1880s witnessed a sea change in American art circles. A new generation of American artists had returned from Paris, Munich, London, and Venice with radical new ideas that challenged the older Hudson River school establishment at the National Academy of Design in New York City. The young artists disdained the grandiose, often bombastic, landscapes of the previous generation with their elaborate details and nationalistic themes. Under the spell of James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), this generation championed the guiding principle of art for art's sake, stressing design and the beautiful application of pigment to achieve a unified and pleasing effect. Tonalist landscapes were favored, often scenes at dawn or dusk, emphasizing a mood rather than a specific place.

From Munich, artists like William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), John Henry Twachtman (see Pls. V, VI), and Frank Duveneck (1848-1919) brought back vigorous brushstrokes and an expressive style that was as much about the application of paint as it was about the subject painted. From Paris and the American art colonies in Brittany and Normandy, painters like Julian Alden Weir and the brothers Alexander and Birge Harrison, under the influence of Jules Bastien-Lepage, developed an abiding love for naturalistic atmospheric effects and a high horizon line to dramatize foreground features in their landscapes. (1) From Dutch sources and the Hague school, artists like Henry Ward Ranger (1858-1916), Twachtman, and Leonard Ochtman (1854-1934) returned to the United States with a love for domesticated landscapes bathed in silvery light. (2)

From an institutional perspective, these stylistic shifts in American art resulted in the creation of three new professional organizations: the Society of American Artists in 1877; the Society of Painters in Pastel in 1884; and the NYWCC. The Society of American Artists was founded by a group of young artists that formed around John La Farge (see Pl. XI). They split with the National Academy because of the latter's prejudice against the work of the younger European-trained artists. The society's first exhibition in 1878 at the Kurtz Gallery in New York City featured the works of founding members whose names read like a who's who of artists working in Whistler's aesthetic tonal mode. They included La Farge, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, William Sartain, Robert Swain Gifford, William Morris Hunt, Homer Dodge Martin, and others who were pioneering the newest stylistic advances taught in Paris and Munich as well as the tenets of the English aesthetic movement promoted in the writings and lectures of Whistler and Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).

The younger generation led by Chase and his students from the Art Students League soon took a prominent role in the society's exhibitions. They not only favored a progressive approach to art, but also instituted fairer, more exacting, and more scrupulous juries to vet works for the society's annual exhibitions. By contrast, the National Academy allowed members to exhibit without vetting.

The trend toward greater professionalism was reinforced by the founding of the Society of Painters in Pastel, the first group in the United States to promote pastels as a serious medium. It was also the most ephemeral art society of the day, folding in 1890 after only six years and four exhibitions. Members included Robert Blum (1857-1903), Chase, Hugh Bolton Jones (1848-1927), Weir, and Twachtman, all of whom were also influential in the Society of American Artists. The Society of Painters in Pastel was one of the conduits by which Whistler--his style, techniques, and artistic persona--was most ably introduced to the American art world. (3) Blum, Weir, and Twachtman in particular encouraged an entire generation to appreciate Whistler's sketchy, intimate, and idiosyncratic style, which successfully translated the most transitory effects of atmosphere and light onto toned paper. Whistler's less-is-more aesthetic became widely influential throughout the art world into the first decade of the twentieth century.

The NYWCC further extended Whistler's influence, especially among tonalist landscape painters who filled the ranks of the new club. Although there does not seem to be a direct connection between the demise of the Society of Painters in Pastel in 1890 (4) and the founding of the NYWCC in the same year, they may have filled a similar niche in the art world. Two of the founders of the new club, Hassam and Eaton, had exhibited at the fourth and final show of the Society of Painters in Pastel in May 1890, and three exhibitors and members of the pastel society, Twatchman, Walter Launt Palmer (1854-1932), and Irving Ramsey Wiles (1861-1948), subsequently joined the NYWCC. (5)

The rationale for establishing the new organization is found in the minutes of the first meeting on March 26, 1890:

An informal meeting of a few of the New York Artists was held ... for
considering the feasibility of forming a new Water Color Society, the
principal object being for the purpose of having fall exhibitions [which
were to include both watercolors and pastels].

Hassam took much of the credit for founding the club and had clearly considered its financial benefits:

I started the Water Color Club, and I was its first president.... That
happened because we wanted to have another exhibit in the Fall. Water
colors were so low in price, and it was a more democratic art, as water
colors could be sold for much lower prices than the oil paintings and it
was the medium of the English speaking people.

In addition to Hassam as president, Eaton was elected treasurer, and Nicholls, a talented English-born watercolorist, was elected vice president. Half the original membership was comprised of women, many of whom had exhibited with the American Watercolor Society, but had not been elected members.

A New York Times review of the NYWCC exhibition in 1891 noted that women occupied many executive positions:

The Water Color Club is therefore not merely to a large degree manned by
women, but officered too; and a little examination of the catalogue will
show that more than one-third of the exhibitors are of the same sex. But
these do not contribute quite as many pictures as their numbers warrant,
for the works credited to women aggregate somewhat less than one-third
of the whole.

In 1906 the New York Times noted that of the ninety-nine members of the American Watercolor Society only two were women. (9) So the NYWCC may well have served as a more congenial and sympathetic outlet for talented women. (10) In the late 1880s, the American Watercolor Society had drawn criticism both for the quantity of exhibitors, numbering between six and seven hundred, and second-rate amateur works, too many of them flower studies, according to critics. Also criticized was the society's policy of allowing members to exhibit a virtually unlimited number of works without having them vetted. Jury vetting did, however, apply to submissions from all nonmembers.

On April 16, 1890, at a meeting in Hassam's studio, the founders of the NYWCC voted for tough standards of jury selection. According to the minutes, a motion to allow members one or more pictures not subject to the jury was roundly defeated. One member moved that the number of pictures of each exhibitor be limited to five. (12) The guidelines issued before the club's first exhibition specified that "All pictures, without exception, will be submitted to the Jury, and its judgment will be final." (13) This meant that the best works by the professional artists would get the lion's share of exhibition space. Before the growth of commercial art galleries in the 1890s, artists were dependent on the major annual exhibitions to sell their work.

Eaton, Hassam, and the other founders of the NYWCC would have been well acquainted with the rules set by the Society of American Artists to vet submissions, which made the latter's exhibitions the best in the country until its reamalgamation with the National Academy in 1906. (14) The absence of such cold-blooded scrutiny for the exhibitions of the American Watercolor Society had been a complaint of artists and critics for years. The guiding philosophy of the NYWCC was spelled out in a rather defensive announcement in the New York Times in June 1890, which also hinted at the underlying issues separating the two watercolor groups.

The artists who have incorporated themselves as a Water Color Club of
New York wish it clearly understood that they have no desire or design
to enter the lists against the Water Color Society, which has been so
deservedly popular hitherto. They propose to hold their exhibitions in
Autumn, and ask the help of the members of the older organization to
make a success. This is quite as it should be. Rivalry of a certain kind
is good, but not one in which artists withdraw into separate camps. By
holding two exhibitions each year in friendly emulation it will be
possible to reduce the number of pictures shown at each and raise the
standard for admission. The day for huge monopolies like the Paris Salon
and the London Royal Academy is past. Convenience, fairness, and common
sense alike dictate a number of small exhibitions rather than a few in
which the quantity of objects wearies the soul.

This gauntlet thrown down to the New York art world was picked up by the New York Times in its review of the NYWCC's first exhibition in the fall of 1890.

If the pictures do not vary by a hair's breadth from the ordinary run of
work shown at the regular exhibitions, what then? Then we have one more
collection of pictures, no better in grade than those we see elsewhere.
Then the commercial aspect of art confronts us with rather less disguise
than usual ... the collection suggests an enlarged shop, and the new
society is seemingly a firm of dealers in art with many partners to it
instead of few. This suggestion forces itself uncomfortably to the front
at the first exhibition of the New York Water Color Club.

A more sanguine review of the inaugural exhibition appeared in the Art Amateur.

The first exhibition at the American Art Galleries of the New York Water
Color Club may fairly be said to justify the club's existence.... It is
not without justice that a considerable number of pictures and studies
in pastel has been admitted.
The two arts have, as to the effects aimed at, much in common, and
some artists show a disposition to blend their techniques, so that it is
not always possible to say, at a glance, whether a certain picture is in
pastel or watercolor.... The average of merit (of the 400 works
displayed) is decidedly high, and there are very few extreme departures
from it.... There is an almost total absence of the childish attempts
which are displayed every year at more pretentious shows, and which we
do not doubt, have often "crowded out" works as good as those which form
the bulk of the present exhibition.

DAVID A. CLEVELAND is an independent scholar and curator who has lectured widely on American tonalism.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Brant Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group


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