Rare display of 100+ American watercolors at Harvard University
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Rare display of 100+ American watercolors at Harvard University
Winslow Homer (Boston, MA 1836–1910 Prouts Neck, ME), Returning Fishing Boats, 1883 Transparent and opaque watercolor over graphite on off-white wove paper; 40.9 × 63.3 cm (16 1/8 × 24 15/16 in.) Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Anonymous Gift, 1939.233. Image: Courtesy of the Harvard Art Museums.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.- This summer, the Harvard Art Museums present over 100 years of dazzling and imaginative artistry through the medium of watercolor. American Watercolors, 1880–1990: Into the Light showcases more than 100 watercolors by over 50 well-known and historically underrepresented artists selected from the museums’ deep and diverse holdings—a rare opportunity because of the light-sensitive nature of these works. From Winslow Homer to Richard Foster Yarde, from stunning natural landscapes to delicate still lifes and bold abstractions, there is something for everyone. The exhibition is on display through August 13, 2023, in the three adjacent University Galleries located on Level 3 of the Harvard Art Museums. An accompanying illustrated catalogue—designed to generate conversation about the watercolor movement—includes personal reflections on the medium and introduces new scholarship to the field through contributions from curators with specializations in historical European and American as well as contemporary art, a conservator of works on paper, and artist Richard Tuttle.

Into the Light was organized by a collaborative group of Harvard Art Museums curatorial and conservation colleagues: Joachim Homann, Maida and George Abrams Curator of Drawings; Margaret Morgan Grasselli, Visiting Senior Scholar for Drawings; Miriam Stewart, Curator of the Collection, Division of European and American Art; and Elisa Germán, former Emily Rauh Pulitzer Curatorial Fellow in Contemporary Drawings (now Lunder Curator of Works on Paper and Whistler Studies, Colby College Museum of Art); with contributions by Penley Knipe, Philip and Lynn Straus Senior Conservator of Works on Paper and Head of the Paper Lab, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies; and Horace D. Ballard, Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. Associate Curator of American Art.

For generations of American artists, watercolor was a medium of innovation and experimentation. This challenging form of expression allowed practitioners to let loose their imagination and reflect on process and perception. While the visual vocabulary of American watercolors changed dramatically over the century—from vibrant floral still-life compositions and radiant summer landscapes to surrealistic fantasies and immersive abstract works—the medium’s unique ability to capture light fascinated artists throughout.

“This is a different presentation of watercolors and an unusually broad one,” said exhibition co-curator Joachim Homann. “There are the masterpieces by Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and John La Farge that have endeared the medium to us, but there are many artists over subsequent decades who have engaged with watercolors, who came to the medium from different angles, different backgrounds, some of them with academic training and others as amateurs, who are also included.”

The installation’s three galleries present an astounding versality of watercolor in roughly chronological order. Beginning with rarely seen works by 19th-century artists such as Winslow Homer, John La Farge, John Singer Sargent, and Fidelia Bridges, the exhibition extends to the generation of celebrated modern artists, including John Marin, Edward Hopper, Jane Peterson, and Charles Burchfield. Mid-century experiments by Mark Rothko, Beauford Delaney, Philip Guston, and Dorothy Dehner attest to the potency of the medium for artists working in an abstract mode. The overview concludes with provocative and powerful works by Sol LeWitt, Richard Foster Yarde, Hannah Wilke, and Richard Tuttle, among others. Along the way, watercolors by Bill Traylor and Zelda Fitzgerald demonstrate that artists did not have to be trained professionals to do important work. Pavel Tchelitchew, Alfonso Ossorio, Eva Hesse, and George Grosz are some of the many artists born abroad who immigrated to the United States in the 20th century and went on to change the face of American art.

A display case in the first gallery offers a glimpse into the preparations, materials, and practices behind the watercolors on view and includes examples of pigments (raw sienna, cadmium yellow, rose madder, cobalt blue, and others), gum arabic, watercolor papers, and other tools that an artist might use, including a recently acquired complete watercolor kit, c. 1863–81, from Winsor & Newton, famed purveyors of artist tools. John Singer Sargent’s own watercolor tubes, brushes, and a scraper as well as sealing-wax sticks from Alfonso Ossorio’s studio are also included.

Said Homann: “Watercolor is a medium that allows us to tell a richer and more complex story of American art, and we are very proud to present a cross-section through a collection that is very dynamic and that has grown in the process of preparing this exhibition.”

Built over a period of more than 100 years with the purpose of studying and supporting contemporary practice, the Harvard Art Museums’ collection of watercolors embodies the museums’ long-term engagement with the art of the present. Through gifts, bequests, and purchases, many watercolors have been added to the museums’ collections in recent years, including works by Thomas Pollock Anshutz, Romare Bearden, Charles E. Burchfield, Dorothy Dehner, Beauford Delaney, Sam Gilliam, Edward Hopper, Maurice Brazil Prendergast, Hannah Wilke, and Richard Foster Yarde. Visitors may further explore the watercolors collection by scheduling a visit to the Art Study Center, where works not currently on view can be requested for close looking and personal study.

“Until now, this area of the museums’ celebrated collection of works on paper had not been comprehensively studied nor published, despite the visual appeal and continuing allure of watercolor,” said Martha Tedeschi, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard Art Museums. “We are excited to showcase the sense of experimentation that so many artists have discovered when working in watercolor, beginning in the 19th century and still today.”

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