Muscarelle Museum of Art

College of William and Mary

Williamsburg, VA



American Twentieth-Century Watercolors from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute


The Muscarelle Museum of Art will present American Twentieth-Century Watercolors from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute from March 3 - April 29, 2001.

The exhibition is comprised of fifty watercolor works dated 1902 to 1962 that study the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute's rich and distinguished watercolor collection. It features a wide array of approaches to subject matter and technique, including examples of traditional techniques as well as combinations of unorthodox materials.

American Twentieth-Century Watercolors from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute features the century's most gifted practitioners of the medium. Artists include Edward Hopper, Will Barnet, Charles Demuth, Maurice Brazil Prendergast. Reginald Marsh, Everett Shinn, Adolf Dehn, Charles Burchfield,, and others. The exhibition was organized by the Museum of Art, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York. A fully-illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition.

One of the watercolors in the exhibition is Skyline near Washington Square by Edward Hopper. Gail Levin, in her catalog essay on Skyline near Washington Square, revealing the personality of the artist, notes: "Skyline near Washington Square portrays an austere Manhattan rooftop behind which rises a single gaunt narrow building that dominates the sky. When first shown, this work bore the title Self-Portrait, an ironical and self-referential joke in the form of a visual pun on Hopper's own great height, which had long been an object of caricature and comment by himself and his friends. The original title, which also appears in the artist's record books, must have puzzled any viewer unfamiliar with Hopper's lanky figure. For this watercolor Hopper's wife Jo noted in the record books she kept of his work as it left the studio. 'Self-Portrait. Roof & top of higher house sticking up behind. Skyline near Wash. Sq.' By the rime he sold the work in 1927 he had renamed it, concealing the self-reference with the purely descriptive title." (left: Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Skyline near Washington Square, 1925, transparent watercolor over graphite on wove paper, 15 1/16 x 21 9/16 inches, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Edward W. Root bequest, 57.161)

Two gallery talks will be offered in conjunction with this exhibition. Ross Merrill, Chief of Conservation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., will present a gallery talk at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 12, 2001. Dr. Joann Moser, Senior Curator at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., will present a gallery talk at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 19, 2001.


Excerpt from introductory essay of the exhibition catalogue American Twentieth-Century Watercolors from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute by Mary Murray, Curator of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute:

During the first half of the twentieth century critics characterized watercolor as "the American medium," its spontaneity and quick expression a perfect metaphor for the driving, modern spirit. of the United States.[1} "It is no accident that more American artists use water color more effectually to set down their reactions to about them than they do oils," wrote Helen Appleton Read. "The medium lends itself to native traits of spontaneity and haste and impatience with theorizing. It is the most direct means of setting down a visual impression:." [2] Similarly, artist Jacob Getlar Smith wrote, "Perhaps this twentieth century of ours, an era of streamlining, speed and impatience does not lend itself to relaxed contemplation and protracted effort." Getlar further noted, "Perhaps, too, our national temperament, an energetic one that equates time with money, considers brevity a virtue and cooling the heels a nuisance, should be interpreted by an art that best mirrors these qualities."[3]

The association of watercolor with American dynamism reveals, however. only part of the story. Alan Burroughs captured the spectrum of approaches to twentieth-century watercolor in his catalog essay for the 1942 Whitney Museum of American Art's exhibition A History of American Watercolor Painting. Citing John Marin and Charles Burchfield as the preeminent watercolor artists of the day, Burroughs argued that the two "appear to have chosen the medium for opposite reasons." In Marin, Burroughs saw "quick visualization." while in Burchfield he found a "slow manipulation." "Between them," Burroughs declared, "they sum up the scope of modern watercolor techniques... infinite variations are possible between these modes of painting."[4] Burroughs' formulation encapsulates the inherent contradictions in trying to categorize the practice and reception of watercolor in the United States during the past century -- the fuzzy lines that have divided "amateur" and "serious" practitioners, traditional and novel approaches to materials. technique, and subjects, and the perception of the medium as metaphor for national identity. Twentieth-century American watercolor is, in short, a medium fraught with contradictions.

Artists working in water media during this century can be placed. at some level, in two general camps.[5] The more traditional one emphasized technique and relied upon familiar subject matter. Emulating American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), this group has been comprised of purists who tended to identify themselves as watercolorists, belonged to organizations such as the American Watercolor Society, the New York Water Color Club, or regional societies and participated in those groups' large annual exhibitions.·[6] Founded in late 1866 as the American Society of Painters in Water Colors, the American Watercolor Society was organized to promote the practice and acceptance of watercolors at a time when such works were perceived as minor or preparatory for oil paintings. Since its inception the society has held an annual exhibition of works by its members at the National Academy of Design (now the National Academy Museum), exhibitions that were instrumental in spawning the American Watercolor Movement, which flourished between 1870 and 1885. The New York Water Color Club was founded in 1890 as an organization more inclusive of women watercolorists, and the two groups merged in 1941.

The annual group exhibitions of these two organizations were consistently reviewed by the art press until 1958, although critics did not necessarily praise them. In its critique of the 1912 American Water Color Society's exhibition, The Art Review stated chat the work had devolved into "a boarding school diversion for girls."[7] A 1914 notice characterized the Twenty-fourth New York Water Color Club exhibition as "cloying." "Many of the works are triumphs of technical skill and true representations of what the artists saw," this newspaper critic noted, "but they are all seeing the same things, and there is no more inspiration than the 'Oh, isn't it beautiful' of the Sunday school Picnic."[8] Similarly the New York Tribune, reporting on the New York Water Color Club exhibition for 1921, Found that most of the artists bestowed commendable technique "upon miscellaneous and rather unimportant subjects."[9] Twenty-five years later Judith Kaye Reed, writing for The Art Digest about the Watercolor Society's Seventy-ninth Annual Exhibition, observed somewhat blandly that technical fluency prevailed over creative interpretation: "Familiar subjects -- wet streets, snowy streets, tumble-down houses, bright landscapes, rugged coasts, flowers -- are largely painted in much the same alert, descriptive manner."[10] Art News was harsher in its critique. "The show was, of course, conservative, but perhaps on the whole things were carried a little too far. Pictures with a touch of imagination were few and far between. The general background was one of last century leftovers, hackneyed themes, and sentimental color."[11]

The other camp of American twentieth-century watercolorists has been composed of artists, often ones who might be considered primarily oil painters or sculptors, who used watercolor primarily as it suited their needs. In his slim but prescient 1922 survey American Water-Colourists, A. E. Gallatin eschewed an encyclopedic approach in favor of a examining a select group of artists (Winslow Homer. Maurice Prendergast, John Marin. Dodge MacKnight, Charles Demuth, and the youthful Charles Burchfield) whose work, he felt, "reveals a personal expression, as well as at least something of the spirit of modernity."[12] It is to their credit, he suggested, that these artists were not members of the American Watercolor Society. Gallatin singled out painters who were not married to technique. Charles Burchfield, one of the century's most celebrated watercolor artists, was very unconventional in his methods (cat. nos. 7, 8, 24, 39). In 1927 his friend Edward Hopper wrote, "Gouache, the medium that is used in most of [Burchfield's] pictures has been so long the pet medium of commercial art, and so long scorned by the purists of water color, that it has been almost dismissed as a means of aesthetic expression. Burchfield has used it with such frankness and daring that he has overturned all our old notions of it."[13] As a mature artist Burchfield mixed several media in a single painting so that gouache and transparent washes were extensively interwoven with crayon. graphite, and other drawing materials. His pioneering use of gouache enabled later artists to choose it for its body and quick-drying properties (this is the era preceding acrylic paints). In the 1942 International Exhibition of Watercolors at the Art institute of Chicago, for example, Frederick Sweet could observe that "opaque mediums continue to be popular, while transparent tones are often used in conjunction with pen and ink, more in the nature of a wash drawing than of a pure water color in the conventional Sargent tradition."[14]

Endnotes 1-14

Related articles in this magazine:

rev. 12/21/00

Read More in Resource Library Magazine about Muscarelle Museum of Art .

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/27/11

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.