Brushed with Light: American Landscape Watercolors from the Collection

One of the great challenges of working with the Brooklyn Museum’s large and important collection of American watercolors is determining how best to share it with our audience. Like most works of art on paper, the watercolors are vulnerable to light exposure—they can fade easily—and require careful limits on the amount of time they can be displayed in a gallery. Our conservators keep a detailed record of light exposure for each of these paintings.

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It is all the more exciting, then, when we have the opportunity to put them on view, both through loans to other museums and in the larger exhibitions, like Brushed with Light, that we organize here at Brooklyn once or twice a decade. Since our last large American watercolor exhibition (in 1998) was a survey selected from the entire collection, we decided to focus our efforts this time on American landscape subjects. Ranging in date from the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, the selected watercolors offer a fairly comprehensive survey of the evolution of American landscape art from its inception. At the same time, one can trace through these works the major shifts in watercolor practice. While it was an art practiced primarily by amateurs and illustrators well into the nineteenth century, watercolor gained tremendously in prestige in the latter half of the century, when it was embraced by many leading artists of the day.

In making our selections, we also tried to balance the inclusion of major works by famous artists (there are eight important works by Winslow Homer) with watercolors by some less familiar names. We also wanted to offer groups of works that are particularly indicative of strengths of the collection and highpoints in watercolor practice in the field of landscape. One of these areas is our modernist watercolors. A number of the leading American early modernists—John Marin and Charles Demuth to name two—did their most compelling work in the medium. The modernist works also offer the chance to consider how the unique aspects of the medium responded to the new modes of composition employed by these artists. Often favoring the use of partial or fragmented forms, they allowed large areas of unpainted paper to play a part in their compositions.

A slightly different version of Brushed with Light was exhibited at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, in Nashville, last spring. Another, slightly different version of the exhibition will go on view at the Taft Museum, in Cincinnati, in 2008.

Brushed with Light opens September 14, 2007. I look forward to hearing your responses to the exhibition.