Brushed with Light: American Landscape Watercolors from the Collection
Brushed with Light: American Landscape Watercolors from the Collection presents a selection of eighty American landscapes from the Museum’s extensive and highly regarded collection of American watercolors. Three distinct but interconnected stories in the history of American art and culture can be traced in this exhibition: the rise of landscape painting and its link to a national identity; the flowering of watercolor; and the growth of the Brooklyn Museum’s exceptional collection.
The arts of landscape and watercolor debuted and matured in tandem in the United States. As the idea of American landscape became more complex and varied from the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century, so too was American landscape imagery transformed—from the documentary to the evocative, and on to the abstract and newly realistic. Watercolor practice also evolved, as artists mastered and moved beyond painstakingly detailed execution toward the freedom of Impressionist-inspired styles and modernist innovation. The status of watercolor simultaneously shifted from being a medium associated with illustrators and amateurs to one fully embraced by leading artists.
The Brooklyn Museum acquired its first American watercolor in 1906 and went on to lead institutional collecting in the field for much of the twentieth century. Seminal purchases of caches by John Singer Sargent (European subjects that fall outside the parameters of this exhibition) and Winslow Homer were made in 1909 and 1912, respectively. The groundbreaking 1921 Exhibition of Water Color Paintings by American Artists launched a series of biennial exhibitions that ran until 1963, providing the opportunity for forty years of purchases (works that were purchased from biennials are noted here by the symbol on the object labels). Throughout recent decades, purchases and gifts have continued to enhance the collection.
Brushed with Light extends an invitation to experience the vibrant and luminous effects that have long drawn artists and viewers to watercolor. Rendered with a combination of expertise and intuition, the watercolors on display are rather intimate works that draw us close to consider the descriptive powers of their transparent washes, the vivid clarity of their colors, and the light that seems to emanate from within them.
Teresa A. Carbone, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art
Karen Sherry, Assistant Curator of American Art
A Closer Look
Mid-Nineteenth-Century Nature Studies
Attitudes toward watercolor began to change dramatically in the United States in the late 1850s. A major catalyst was the 1857 Exhibition of English Art, which traveled to several American cities and included works by leading British watercolorists. This momentous exhibition heightened the visibility of watercolor as a fine art (rather than a reproductive or amateur one) and inspired American painters in oil to experiment with the medium. Newly formed professional organizations—most notably the American Watercolor Society (first established as the American Society of Painters in Water Colors in 1866)—provided members with exhibition opportunities and generated enthusiasm for their efforts among critics, patrons, and the public. By the late 1860s, the so-called American Watercolor Movement was under way.
One artists’ group devoted to both watercolor and landscape subjects was the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art (also known as the American Pre-Raphaelites), organized in 1863. Like the British Pre-Raphaelites, these artists embraced the theories of the critic and writer John Ruskin (1819–1900), whose espousal of absolute truth to nature as the underpinning of edifying art led his followers to depict the natural world with painstaking exactitude. The American Pre-Raphaelites in turn influenced less-doctrinaire colleagues to record landscapes in more precise detail.
Surveying the Scene
The Debut of American Landscape Watercolors
During the colonial period, watercolor performed an important role in familiarizing European settlers and visitors with the American landscape. Some of the earliest practitioners active in North America were trained draftsmen who used this easily portable medium to document the terrain for colonial governments.
About 1800 American landscape imagery gradually began to be reshaped, with a transition away from panoramic topographical views to scenes formulated according to British theories of the Picturesque. In this mode, artists sketched natural motifs in situ, and subsequently recombined individual elements into ideal “compositions,” based on the lines and tonal patterns of seventeenth-century classical landscape paintings.
The leaders of the Picturesque landscape movement in antebellum America worked largely in watercolor, considered an artistic practice distinct from oil painting. Many of these artists collaborated with printmakers to reproduce their scenic views in books or portfolios. Such reproductions significantly advanced the broad popularity of landscape imagery—a phenomenon that coincided with the rise of the Hudson River School of landscape painting.
Impressions in Watercolor
Led by innovators like Winslow Homer and the American Impressionists, American watercolorists broke new ground beginning in the 1880s as they began to explore and exploit the potential of this essentially liquid medium. Many of these artists were members of a younger generation that had been exposed to progressive realist styles during study in Europe. Accustomed to working outdoors (en plein air) and committed to an aesthetic of spontaneity, these painters employed a new freedom of approach in their watercolor practice, recording immediate visual impressions with lively strokes of pure, bright color.
As never before, the primary subject of their work became natural light—the way it flickers across landscape forms and changes with shifting weather conditions. The transparency of watercolor washes proved especially well suited to this new concern. Most painters diminished the degree of pencil work that had formerly preceded putting brush to paper, demonstrating a more exuberant directness and a determination to exceed the limits of traditional watercolor techniques.
Modernist Visions in Watercolor
In the early twentieth century, watercolor practice in the United States took divergent paths. While a significant number of painters continued to employ Impressionist techniques that suggested visual immediacy, modernists began to experiment with abstract modes that referred, analytically or intuitively, to the formal structures or essences of their landscape subjects. Watercolor provided an opportunity to create abstractions in which bare paper played as vital a role as the dynamic components of fragmented forms. Some leading American modernists, including John Marin and Charles Demuth, were known primarily for their watercolors, in which they employed transparent washes to enhance the spatial play and animation of partial forms. Transcendent modernist landscape watercolors led many critics to suggest that this first American artistic avant garde achieved its greatest originality in the watercolor medium.
New American Scenery
For the artists associated with the American Scene movement, which emerged in the 1920s, the art of watercolor, long regarded as a practice accessible to all, seemed a perfect complement to their new democracy of vision. Rejecting most nineteenth-century modes of landscape composition as well as modernist ideas and devices, they privileged unvarnished typical American subjects and recorded them with a new and deliberate informality and an exaggerated sense of plainness that could verge on caricature. Drawn to rural regions and the dated forms of small-town settings, artists known as Regionalists sought to embody an essential simplicity that was at times deceptive, given the skill required to describe it. Edward Hopper executed some of the most notable twentieth-century American watercolors, distinguished by a new directness and clarity of vision.