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The American watercolor in the 1920s
Magazine Antiques, March, 1998 by Barbara Dayer Gallati

The American watercolor movement is usually understood in the context of the 1880s, when such artists as Winslow Homer, John La Farge, Thomas Eakins, and Samuel Colman were leaders among the hundreds of American painters who exhibited with the American Watercolor Society and brought watercolor to then unprecedented critical and market popularity in the United States. Although the activity of these artists did, indeed, elevate the medium to a more respected status in the hierarchy of the arts, by the 1890s the critical spotlight had again turned away from watercolor despite the often remarkable attention paid to individuals for whom watercolor was an integral part of their output. Thus while artists like Homer and John Singer Sargent were lionized for their achievements in watercolor throughout the early years of the twentieth century, the sense of a unified movement prevalent in the 1880s was lost. In the 1920s, however, there was a watercolor renaissance of sorts that placed it at the center of critical discussions, eventually resulting in watercolor being named the "American medium."

Unlike the movement of the 1880s, which was led by the artists themselves, the revival of the 1920s owed its energy largely to the perceptions of curators and critics. They responded to substantial activity in watercolor painting by attempting for the first time to establish a separate national history for the medium. Symptomatic of the heightened interest was an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (now the Brooklyn Museum of Art) in 1921 entitled simply A Group Exhibition of Water Color Paintings by American Artists. The show, which brought together 365 works by fifty-four artists, was, according to the catalogue of the same title, an effort to bring before the American public as many of the meritorious water colors of American design and of recent date as the capacity of the Brooklyn Museum galleries will allow...[to demonstrate] that the growing popularity of water color painting rests on a firm foundation.

The exhibition was on view for only slightly more than a month, but it had a lasting influence on the history of watercolor in the United States, for it generated a spate of critical commentary that influenced the development of the canon that currently defines American watercolor history for this century. The shows overwhelming success led to the museum's ground-breaking series of biennial watercolor exhibitions that lasted until 1963.

By 1921 the Brooklyn Museum had established itself as a center for collecting and displaying watercolors. In 1900 the museum had purchased Jacques Joseph Tissot's Life of Christ, a series of 5 oils, 345 watercolors, and 111 pen and ink drawings that Tissot executed between 1886 and 1894. In 1909 the museum acquired eighty-three of the eighty-six watercolors that Sargent exhibited at Knoedler Galleries in New York City that year, making it the first American institution to collect a large group of Sargent watercolors. In 1912 the museum acquired twelve watercolors from Homer's estate, and in 1915 it staged the first comprehensive exhibition of Homer's work in that medium. These events were potent factors in shaping the museum's reputation, as witnessed by a letter from the photographer, editor, and dealer Alfred Stieglitz to the museum's director:

The Brooklyn Museum I had frequently heard of, but had never been there. It had bought a block of Sargent's water colors. It had bought the Tissot biblical drawings. It had bought many Winslow Homer watercolors....Such was my visualization whenever I heard the name Brooklyn Museum.

The work of Homer (see Pl. III) and Sargent (see Pl. IV) provided the foundation for the 1921 exhibition, with the artists represented by seventeen and twenty works respectively. This positioned them at the end of the historical period for watercolor and the point from which the modern watercolor was launched.

While the over-all selection of works emphasized contemporary trends, a small, rather eccentrically chosen group of examples by other late nineteenth-century artists such as Robert Blum, J. Alden Weir, and John La Farge (see Pl. VI) was included to represent milestones of the recent past. Most abundant, however, were works by contemporary practitioners, many of them specialists in watercolor. Shaped by the belief that artists could not be fairly represented by a single example, the installation consisted of groups of three to twenty works by each painter. This policy limited the number of artists whose work was displayed while at the same time offering an unusual opportunity to gauge the relative power of individual artists within a larger context.

Critical reaction was immediate and copious. Henry McBride remarked on the "novelty to run across such Satanic ironies as Charles Burchfield's watercolors in a museum" (Pl. VIII), and the "bold drawings" of Rockwell Kent (Pl. V).(4) Among the "discoveries" were the work of Joseph Pennell (see Pl. VII) and Dodge Macknight (see Pl. IX). Pennell's twenty views from his Brooklyn window overlooking New York Harbor drew both praise and condemnation depending on whether the critic was an academic or a modernist. Elisabeth Luther Cary in the New York Times hailed Pennell's watercolors for their "extraordinary authority in the use of the medium and still more extraordinary freshness and eagerness of vision."(5) Henry Tyrrell, writing in the New York Sunday World, was less reserved:

If there were a grand surprise medal it would go to Joseph Pennell for his score of lovely little Whisterlerian symphonies and nocturnes, glimpsed "Out of a Brooklyn Window." Who would ever have expected this of pragmatical Joseph Pennell, the hard-boiled etcher, lithographer and critic!

Understandably, the Whistlerian delicacies of Pennell's work did not fare well with modernist critics, whose worship of urban dynamism (a correlate of modernist attitudes) found no satisfaction in Pennell's treatment of such modern icons as the Woolworth Building or the Brooklyn Bridge, both in New York City.

Macknight's art found advocates on both sides of the aesthetic divide. The work of this Cape Cod-based watercolor specialist was nearly unknown outside of Boston, chiefly because his nearly annual exhibitions of new work there sold out immediately. Although three of his radiant watercolors had been on view in the 1913 Armory Show, they were undoubtedly overlooked because of the sheer number and notoriety of the works with which they competed for attention. Essentially the 1921 Brooklyn exhibition introduced Macknight's art to a new audience and considerable critical notice. Possibly the most positive commentary was written by the artist Marsden Hartley, who admired the painter's "feats of visual bravery," which consisted of "virility of technique" and "a passion for impressionistic veracity which heightens his own work to a point distinctly above that of Sargent, and one might almost say above Winslow Homer."(7) Hartley's sentiments were not, however, universally echoed even among his associates in Alfred Stieglitz's circle. The photographer Paul Strand, for example, found fault with Macknight's (and Sargent's) watercolors because they provided "the mere external record of objectivity looked at and not a vision of the forces which animate that objectivity."

The critics did agree that the exhibition offered a rare and overdue opportunity to compare watercolors, and they concluded that the medium was undergoing a transformation. Tyrrell in the Worm observed that

undoubtedly there is a powerful revival under way, for here we find the arch anti-modernist Joseph Pennell, giving us 'Morning Mists' and 'Purple Evenings' the dozens, in a show that unblushingly displays whole groups of pictures of whatnot by Bolshevistic youngsters such as John Marin [see Pl. I], Charles Demuth [see Pl. X], William and Marguerite Zorach [see Pl. XIII], and Man Ray! Has the millennium broken on us or is it that one touch of impressionism in the right medium, makes the whole art market kin?

The display of such disparate works inevitably prompted many reviewers to structure their comments along the lines of academic versus modernist aesthetics. On a deeper level their discussions tie in with the cultural nationalism that prevailed in the 1920s.(10) Watercolor became the ideal medium within the visual arts to substantiate these critics' theories. Because it demanded quickness, facility, decisiveness, and confidence, so as to get it right on the first stroke, watercolor painting came to stand as an easily understood metaphor for the active American spirit. Moreover, watercolor was virgin artistic territory that had not been identified with a national school or tradition in recent times.

The nationalist stance was vividly evident in Strands long review of the 1921 exhibition. Although the relative merits of Homer's and Sargent's watercolors had been discussed for some time, Strand asserted that their differences were founded on the degree to which they expressed their Americanness. For Strand, Homer was "the simple vision of the American pioneer spiritualized...[who] saw the elemental in America as a spirit rather than as a purely material utility" whereas Sargent "escapes the reality of American life both physically and in spirit."(12) Since both artists were represented in the exhibition by works depicting foreign locales (Pls. XI, XII), this observation must be interpreted to refer to matters of technique and artistic vision. Strand assessed other works in the exhibition using the directness and virility of Homer's watercolors as a touchstone. In Strand's opinion the long identification of Childe Hassam (see Pl. XVI) with impressionism weakened his artistic currency, since he had "not created out of his knowledge of impressionism something intrinsically his own and of the American milieu."(13) As for Maurice Prendergast (see Pl. II), Strand deplored his betrayal of the initial promise he had demonstrated in the Armory Show in favor of an "effete formula," which he judged to be the result of Prendergast's removal from the "hot flux of life around him."(14) Prendergast's urban parks and crowded beaches corresponded to the subject matter of his urban realist colleagues in the Eight, but ironically he failed to win the support of writers in search of the vitality they characterized as American.

In their efforts to certify the existence of an American watercolor tradition, Strand, Tyrrell, and most of their contemporaries nominated John Marin (see Pl. I) to be the principal figure. Matins art, mainly in watercolor, was seen as the dynamic bridge connecting Homer's nineteenth-century vision of landscape with the modernist wends of early twentieth-century American art. Needing to create a new hero of mythic stature to replace Homer, who died in 1910, the critics chose Marin, who, they felt, worked in a purely intuitive mode with no other influence but that of Cezanne, who had replaced J. M. W. Turner in the pantheon of watercolor forebears. The perception of Marin as an independent was fed by his abstention from organized artists' groups and his practiced avoidance of anything theoretical. These qualities fitted the stereotypical American profile in which individualism and action were prized over communal or intellectual activities. The connection between Marin and Homer was made stronger in the minds of viewers by the two artists' fascination with coastal Maine.

The fourteen Marin watercolors in the 1921 exhibition dominated critical commentary. His ability to synthesize avant-garde styles in order to express an identifiably American iconography - whether the coast of Maine or the Woolworth Building - led McBride to rhapsodize that Marin was probably the greatest living exponent of the water-color medium....The sweep and breadth of his eloquent water-colors are born of as deep emotions as are those discernible in the background of great performances by Winslow Homer, or Shelley, or even Beethoven.

McBride was not alone in his reliance on hyperbole. The majority of reviewers were convinced of Marins rightful succession to the status of America's leading watercolorist. The critic Herbert Seligmann asserted that "Marin is kin to Winslow Homer only he is greater."(16) Strand wrote: "He is seen to be one of the few contemporary workers in any medium who is contributing to what truthfully may be called an American culture."(17) Strand expressed his hope that the museum would stage more comparative exhibitions so as to clarify the condition of art in America.

The museum's biennial watercolor surveys, some international in scope, did on occasion include close to a thousand examples so as to put stylistic and technical trends in context as well as to feature the work of lesser known as well as established artists.The museum's purchases from these exhibitions kept it in the forefront as a collector of American watercolors. February Thaw, bought from the 1921 show, was the first work by Burchfield to be acquired by a museum.(18) Subsequent purchases included Edward Hoppers The Mansard Roof (Pl. XIV) in 1923, Milton Avery's Road to the Sea (PI. XVII) in 1943, and Mark Rothko's Vessels of Magic (Pl. XV) in 1947.

The Brooklyn Museum's 1921 exhibition was not solely responsible for the country's watercolor revival. Nevertheless it does appear that it was the central event that galvanized the critics into casting watercolor as a symbol of American culture. Thereafter it was the rule rather than the exception to read:

It is no accident that more American artists use water color more effectually to set down their reactions to the world about them than they do oils. The medium lends itself to native traits of spontaneity and haste and impatience with theorizing.(19)

This attitude persisted in varying degrees until the mid-1940s, when the art world began to focus on the works of the abstract expressionists as the new agents of a distinctly American spirit, and watercolor was relieved of the burden of proving a national cultural identity.

The works reproduced in this article are among the 150 that comprise an exhibition entitled Masters of Color and Light: Homer, Sargent, and the American Watercolor Movement, which will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art from May 8 to August 23.

1 For a detailed discussion of watercolor in the context of cultural naturalism see Linda S. Ferber and Barbara Dayer Gallati, Masters of Color and Light: Homer, Sargent and the American Watercolor Movement (Brooklyn Museum, New York City, and Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1989), pp. 143-169.

2 (Brooklyn Museum, New York, 1921), n.p. Wherever possible, works actually shown in the 1921 exhibition are illustrated in this article. In all other instances, works of comparable style and subject matter have been chosen.

BARBARA DAYER GALLATI is the associate curator of American painting and sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum of An in Brooklyn, New York.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Brant Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

Bibliography for "The American watercolor in the 1920s"
Barbara Dayer Gallati "The American watercolor in the 1920s". Magazine Antiques. March 1998. FindArticles.com. 15 Sep. 2006.


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