Watercolors by the American Pre-Raphaelites
Of special appeal because of its immediacy and intimacy, watercolor is also admired for its unique property of transparency. The Brooklyn Museum’s collection of American watercolors is extensive, but owing to the medium’s vulnerability to light, the paintings can be displayed only infrequently, in relatively short “rotations.”
Through the mid-nineteenth century, the watercolor medium was accorded only a marginal status in the United States because oil painting was deemed the prime exhibition medium for the professionally trained artist. Although in England watercolor enjoyed a more established artistic tradition and popularity, in this country it was primarily associated with the preparatory sketch and with topographical printmaking, illustration, and other applied arts.
The medium’s rise in status in America was largely a result of the influence of the English critic John Ruskin, himself a masterly amateur watercolorist and a champion of watercolor as both a field of study and an exhibition vehicle. In the early 1860s a group of American painters adopted Ruskin’s program, which stressed detailed study from nature in oil and, particularly, in watercolor. The approach of these artists, known as the American Pre-Raphaelites or Ruskinians, is admirably demonstrated in this selection of intricately detailed landscapes and botanically correct still-life paintings.
The Sketchbooks of William Trost Richards
The Museum has a large collection of paintings and watercolors by the landscape and marine painter William Trost Richards (American, 1833–1905) ranging in date from 1855 to the 1890s. Enriching these holdings are some twenty-five of the artist’s sketchbooks containing drawings that served as the basis for many oils and watercolors. A selection of these easily portable volumes is displayed here. Together with comments from Richards’s own letters, the sketchbooks form a diary of travels in the United States and Europe over five decades. Some subjects are recorded with precision, carefully annotated and dated, and other images are quick sketches. Most are executed in pencil; occasionally Richards used pen and ink, chalks, or watercolor. The artist also used his sketchbooks to develop compositions for paintings or watercolors, drawing on memory and imagination rather than on-site experience.