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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Nineteenth-Century American Drawings

The evolution of watercolor is probably the most significant phenomenon in the history of American drawing in the nineteenth century. In the early 1800s, the use of watercolor was largely confined to art instruction, cabinet portraits (such as the beautiful example of Allan Melville, the father of the novelist, by John Rubens Smith), and topographical urban and country scenes intended for reproduction in engravings. The latter is well exemplified by View of South Street, from Maiden Lane (54.90.130), by the English émigré William James Bennett, who was primarily an aquatint engraver who made prints from other artists’ watercolors and paintings as well as his own. John William Hill, the son of another English-born engraver responsible for a popular portfolio of prints of views on the Hudson River, learned the topographical style of watercolor from his father. However, in middle age he became a devout adherent to the prescriptions of the English critic John Ruskin. Ruskin preached a strict and minute fidelity to nature and, to achieve it, promoted the stipple watercolor technique. Hill and several other American artists embraced the standard and technique, finely evinced in Hill’s Plums of 1870 (82.9.1). They formed in New York a Ruskinian association, for which watercolor was the primary medium. Just a little earlier, other New York artists who practiced watercolor started a short-lived club or society. The interest in the medium engendered by these developments led, in 1866, to the founding of the American Society of Painters in Water Colors (later the American Watercolor Society). With its annual exhibitions, the society created a market that stimulated many artists, including some already known chiefly for their oils, to commit more of their energies to the medium.

Conspicuous among them was the landscape painter William Trost Richards of Philadelphia. During the Civil War, Richards was a member of the American Ruskinian group. With the founding of the Watercolor Society and the encouragement of several patrons, he began a steady production of works that were among the stars of the annual exhibitions in the 1870s. Pictures such as Richards’ Lake Squam from Red Hill (80.1.6) are the small-scale watercolor equivalents of the work of the then-reigning New York, or Hudson River, school of painters. Rendered with generous admixtures of gouache, Richards’ watercolors both reflect contemporaneous English “body color” techniques and show how, in America, the very manipulation of watercolor at first was guided by an aspiration to the status of oil painting. Even modernist-spirited artists such as Winslow Homer, as his 1873 Basket of Clams (1995.378) illustrates, practiced a gouache-enriched technique much tighter than his mature transparent style. Far more remarkable for its rich and extensive gouache application is the expatriate Mary Cassatt’s casually oblique self-portrait (1975.319.1), which was shown at the Watercolor Society in 1880. Thomas Eakins, in watercolors such as John Biglen in a Single Scull (24.108), avoided body color, yet his rendering of the human figure is no less painstaking and sculptural than that in his oils. Unlike Richards, Homer, and Eakins, George Inness never actually exhibited his lively, experimental watercolors, such as Olive Trees at Tivoli (1989.287), yet the coincidence of his involvement with the medium and the annual exhibitions of the Watercolor Society in the 1870s suggests the influence they exerted.

The last quarter of the century witnessed the true vindication of watercolor, not merely in popularity but in its nature—as a fluid and transparent medium. Gouache retained a role in many artists’ execution, but overall results became more—well—watery, undoubtedly in accord with the taste for sketchiness in late nineteenth-century painting. Suggestiveness was central to the aesthetics of the expatriate James Abbott McNeill Whistler, for example, and he achieved it in a mature oil technique that approximated Asian watercolor or ink painting in its transparency. Thus, when Whistler worked in watercolor, such as in his striking Lady in Gray (06.312), his efforts can seem indistinguishable from his oils except for the size of the image, which is usually diminutive. With a brighter palette informed by a fascination with nineteenth-century color theory and interior design, John La Farge evolved a summary and lyrical watercolor style well exemplified in Wild Roses and Irises (50.113.3). It is the kind of image that probably functioned in a creative dynamic with the modulated color saturation of the opalescent stain glass that he invented.

Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent probably accomplished more than any artists to realize the full potential of watercolor, and to wield it in a way that seems to embody what the medium is or at least should be. Yet they had astonishingly contrasting aims and results. Homer was always a composer in broad planes of value and color, at first informed by his work as an illustrator but later reinforced by his admiration for Asian prints and paintings. In his late watercolors of the American tropics such as Fishing Boats, Key West (10.228.1), great zones of wet-on-wet blue and gray washes—some sponged in passages to variegate the color plane—are interrupted by large areas of white reserve and opaque black and red accents to convey both the bleaching light and simmering heat on the tropical sea. Homer also successfully wielded techniques such as rocking the paper to distribute wet pigment, and scratching or rubbing the paper support to reserve small white passages or highlights.

Sargent was even more various in his palette and techniques, partly because his mature watercolors were informed by Impressionism, with its premise of optical perception of light and color challenging traditional fidelity to objective form. Since Sargent was foremost a portrait and figure painter, his watercolors disclose a remarkable tension between those conflicting standards, as in the masterful In the Generalife (15.142.8). There, a marvelous succession of three female faces, from one highly articulated in the shadows to one dissolved by sunlight and its reflection, gives due regard to both modes of perception. As in many of his watercolors, Sargent reserved passages of dappled sunlight not only by working around blank paper but by applying, then removing, wax crayon and (more occasionally) a masking fluid, as well as by scratching. But he also created some highlights additively, with gouache.

Childe Hassam translated the language of Impressionism into watercolor even more literally than Sargent, as in the startling and imposing Brush House (17.31.1), whose cacophony of shadows verges on Cubist fragmentation. Perhaps no American worked with the medium at once more authoritatively and decoratively than Maurice Prendergast, for whom watercolor assumed primary status in his oeuvre. Watercolor was ideally suited to Prendergast’s Post-Impressionist taste for tapestry-like designs of public places animated with brightly garbed strollers, exemplified by magisterial images such as Piazza di San Marco (52.126.6).

Pastel, like watercolor, was more a late nineteenth-century manifestation, except for its occasional use in portraiture stemming from eighteenth-century tradition. Its appearance in the hands of Eastman Johnson by the 1870s, in works preparatory to paintings such as Feeding the Turkey (46.47), is an indication of its rising status, culminating in the founding of the Society of Painters in Pastel in 1885. Undoubtedly, too, the popularity of Whistler’s pastels, which he produced only briefly but in quantity about 1880, contributed to the growing enthusiasm. Pictures such as Note in Pink and Brown (17.97.5), with its redolent evocation of a Venetian dwelling conveyed by a few choice strikes of charcoal and pastel sticks on gloomy brown paper, demonstrated for his contemporaries how so very little could go so far. It was a lesson scarcely lost on stylistic successors such as Thomas Dewing, who coaxed elegant female figures, such as the one in The Evening Dress (66.157), into haunting visibility by the same economical application of the medium on brown paper. By far the most graphic and, at the same time, most painterly wielding of pastel was Cassatt’s in Europe, where she had worked closely in the medium with her mentor Edgar Degas and vigorously captured familial moments such as the one revealed in Mother Playing with Child (22.16.23).

Draftsmanship in charcoal and graphite always played a chiefly preparatory role in the formulation of paintings and, in the mid-century period dominated by landscape painting, drawing was used mainly to record field data to be incorporated into finished work. Less frequently, designs for paintings were composed in pencil. Such was the case in the drawing by Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole titled The Fountain (1977.182.7), a vigorously wrought sublime conception for a never-realized painting based on a poem by his friend William Cullen Bryant. With figure painting reemerging into the foreground in the late nineteenth century, academic studio drawing in charcoal assumed greater importance and visibility. Yet Continental-trained master stylists such as Sargent could wield a simple pencil with thrilling fluency to seize at once placement, attitude, and likeness, as in one of his numerous brilliant “rehearsals” for the daring portrait, Madame X (16.53).