Watercolors by the Masters

February 8 - April 26, 2009


This exhibit of 24 master works from our permanent collection includes paintings by Romare Bearden, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth.

Watercolor was a popular medium in nineteenth century England; to paint in this medium was regarded as an accomplishment of cultivated men and women. Oil, however, remained the favored medium of the masters. While this was also true in America, many scholars have come to feel that our most original contribution to art history has been-and continues to be-in the watercolor medium. No other country can lay claim to such a long list of inventive and brilliant watercolorists, which includes Oscar Bluemner, Charles Burchfield, Charles Demuth, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, John Marin, Maurice Prendergast, and John Singer Sargent.

In the century following the Civil War, watercolor painting became a singularly important American medium, used with more freedom and imagination by American artists than anywhere else in the world. For example, Homer's expressive skills revealed the potential watercolors had on serious artistic expression, rivaling the work of his contemporaries committed to oil.

The battle for modern art in America was waged on paper. The reasons that so many American artists gravitated toward watercolor rather than oil are quite varied, residing for the most part as reflections of their unique personalities. Demuth's health was delicate, and he once complained to Alfred Stieglitz that painting in oils required too prolonged an effort. Marin's robust, athletic nature drove him to paint out of doors, often in rough, inaccessible places - much easier with a small box of watercolors than with cumbersome oil painting equipment. Hopper concentrated on watercolor in response to a favorable market; he had been unable to sell his work until he began painting in watercolor in the twenties.

These American masters brought a new dimension to watercolor painting, each one handling the medium in a purely individual way. The work of these artists not only elevated the status of the medium, but also established watercolor as a vehicle for the introduction of new styles. In their hands, watercolor contributed significantly to the advancement of progressive art in the twentieth century. Through their efforts, watercolor has become a truly American endeavor.