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Exhibition of Superlative British Watercolors at the Museum of Fine Arts, Saint Petersburg
John Constable (British, 1776-1837), Hampstead (1833). Watercolor over graphite. Collection of BNY Mellon.

ST. PETERSBURG, FL.- Romantics to Moderns: British Watercolors and Drawings from the Collection of BNY Mellon features approximately 70 works on paper by 49 of Britain’s most gifted artists from the mid-1700s through 1935. The exhibition will be on view at the MFA through May 1, 2011.

Represented artists include John Constable, Thomas Gainsborough, Samuel Palmer, John Ruskin, Walter Sickert, and J. M. W. Turner. The exhibition provides a nigh comprehensive history of 200 years of British watercolors and drawings—a first for the Tampa Bay area. Because of their fragility, these works are rarely exhibited.

British watercolors are among the most striking ever produced. The medium began to flourish in eighteenth-century England and was pursued by talented artists and amateurs. Watercolor was considered part of a genteel education. Due to portable materials, artists could also work outdoors, vividly capturing beautiful landscapes and architectural and historic sites. These specific geographical areas and buildings often resonated with a public eager to celebrate their country.

The landscapes in the Collection of BNY Mellon are especially impressive and range from pre-Romantic works by Gainsborough to those by modernists like Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell (author Virginia Woolf’s sister) of the influential Bloomsbury Group.

J. M. W. Turner’s ethereal Barnard Castle (late 1830s) is a rare find outside of museum collections, and Constable’s Hampstead (1833) reveals the artist’s almost scientific study of clouds. Turner and Constable are two of the most accomplished landscape painters in the history of art. Moreover, Francis Danby’s majestic View near Killarney (about 1818) epitomizes Romanticism, and John Sell Cotman’s luminous River Landscape (1806) anticipates the French Impressionists.

Romantics to Moderns encompasses a number of large-scale watercolors. David Cox’s mysterious Evening (about 1811) and Peter DeWint’s evocative Distant View of Lowther Castle, Cumberland (about 1836) are two of the most dramatic works in the exhibition.

The British landscape tradition and interest in pastoral subjects continued well into the mid-nineteenth century. Samuel Palmer’s A Farm near Prince’s Risborough, Buckinghamshire (about 1844) and Alfred William Hunt’s Ullswater at Midday (1863) are striking examples. John Ruskin, an influential critic, as well as artist, and Turner’s champion, is represented by two watercolors, including an exuberant view of Venice.

John Nash’s stylized and brilliantly colored compositions carry the British landscape into the modernist era. His works demonstrate the impact of French Modernism on British artists at the turn of the twentieth century.

Romantics to Moderns is the Museum’s first exhibition devoted to British art of the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries.

The Mellons
The Mellons are part of the fabric of American history and philanthropy. Banker and statesman Andrew Mellon (1855-1937) not only made a fortune, but also served as Secretary of the Treasury and ambassador to London. He became one of America’s greatest art collectors and founded the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He never saw his vision take form, however, dying only months before the museum had been approved by Congress.

His son Paul (1907-1999) took up his father’s mantle and nurtured the Gallery’s development for more than six decades. He and his second wife Bunny gave more than 1,000 works to the collection.

Paul Mellon was drawn to British art and culture throughout his life, having studied at Clare College, Cambridge University, while his father was ambassador. He founded the Yale Center for British Art at his alma mater and its affiliate institution in London, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. Inspired by the legacy of the Mellon family and Paul’s encouragement, BNY Mellon began building its collection of British art in 1980. The works on paper especially reflect Paul Mellon’s influence and interests and are highly respected in the art world.

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