Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, on April 10, 2006, in Resource Library with permission of the author and The Harvard University Art Museums. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Harvard University Art Museums directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

American Watercolors and Pastels, 1875­1950, at the Fogg Art Museum

essay by Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr.

 



 

The Fogg Art Museum has long been famous for its extraordinary holdings of works on paper, especially for its Dutch, French, and Italian drawings and its British watercolors. Less well-known, but equally significant, is its collection of American works on paper, for the Fogg possesses some six thousand American drawings, watercolors, and pastels dating from the eighteenth through the early twenty-first century. This exhibition is devoted to watercolors and pastels by American painters from Winslow Homer, James A.M. Whistler, and John Singer Sargent in the late nineteenth century to John Marin, Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, and Mark Rothko from the first half of the twentieth century. It is drawn largely from the collection of the Fogg Art Museum, supplemented by a handful of important works lent by friends of the museum, several of which have already been promised as future gifts. The last such exhibition took place seventy years ago, in 1936, when the Fogg presented American Watercolors from the Museum's Collection. The present show does not include any of our watercolors by the American Pre-Raphaelites such as Charles Herbert Moore and Henry Roderick Newman, as we will devote a separate exhibition to them a year from now.

The Fogg Museum's serious interest in American watercolors stems from the period of the 1910s and the 1920s, just when the medium was winning new levels of recognition in the U.S. Despite the activities of the American Water Color Society, which after its founding in 1867 held annual exhibitions in New York of highly finished, elegantly framed works, watercolor was still regarded as a lesser medium. This began to change when Alfred Stieglitz introduced modernism to a skeptical New York audience. The works by Rodin, Picasso, Cézanne, and Matisse that he showed between 1908 and 1911 were their watercolors and drawings. During those years and after, Stieglitz also presented numerous exhibitions of the American modernists in whom he believed, again choosing works in what had been considered lesser mediums. He regularly showed the watercolors of John Marin and Charles Demuth, the drawings of Marsden Hartley, Abraham Walkowitz, and Georgia O'Keeffe, and the pastels of Arthur G. Dove. Thus Stieglitz contributed significantly to American acceptance of works on paper as finished, desirable works of art.

In a sense the modern discovery of the medium in this country dates from the 1921 landmark Exhibition of Water-Color Paintings by American Artists at the Brooklyn Museum and the publication of Albert Gallatin's pioneering survey, American Water-Colourists, the following year. Gallatin singled out Homer, Sargent, and La Farge as having been first to establish watercolor as an independent medium here, while pointing to Marin, Demuth, and the now less-highly regarded Dodge MacKnight as preeminent in their own day. The Brooklyn exhibition and Gallatin's book laid the groundwork for subsequent scholarship and exhibitions, including this one.

Harvard began to collect American watercolors during these early years. It surely helped that the Fogg's second director, Edward W. Forbes, who served from 1909 to 1944, was himself an amateur watercolorist of some ability, and that Forbes's deputy from 1915 to 1944 was the legendary drawings collector Paul J. Sachs. That American art was a secondary or tertiary interest for them makes their accomplishments in the field all the more remarkable. Their first important acquisition came in the form of gifts from the Harvard teacher and collector Denman W. Ross, himself a prolific watercolorist as well as a close colleague of the directors, and a frequent adviser on acquisitions. In 1917 Ross presented the Fogg with a particularly fine, small work in the Ruskinian tradition, The Peacock Feather, by the museum's first director, Charles Herbert Moore, and that year also gave two full-sized sheets by another American Pre-Raphaelite, Henry Roderick Newman.

A series of farsighted watercolor purchases followed during the next two decades. Many of these were made possible by a gift from Edward D. Bettens (1848-1920), Harvard class of 1873, who in 1915 established a purchase fund for contemporary art named in honor of his mother, Louise E. Bettens. Bettens was an interesting character who, though not a collector himself, was devoted to the idea of the museum buying works of art directly from the artists. [1] The Fogg's first two acquisitions with the fund were oil paintings: Lake O'Hara, bought directly from Sargent in 1916, and, surprisingly in view of Bettens's interest in the contemporary field, John Singleton Copley's large history painting Monmouth Before James II (c. 1795), purchased from a dealer in 1917. Bettens and Forbes then turned to watercolors, perhaps reasoning that their funds would go further if they pursued works in the lower-priced medium. The three works bought in 1917­18 were by La Farge, Whistler, and Homer, all then regarded as chief members of the founding generation of American watercolorists. On Forbes's recommendation, Bettens purchased La Farge's A Bridle Path in Tahiti (c. 1900) at auction in 1917 and then presented it to the Fogg four days later. A similar procedure was followed with the Fogg's acquisition of Whistler's Sunday at Domburg (1900) that same year, and of Homer's Fishing in the Adirondacks (1889) in 1918. Each of these works became the first by the artist to enter the museum's collection, and they were followed by many others, so that the Harvard University Art Museums now possesses superb holdings of watercolors and pastels by these three artists. After Bettens's death in 1920, the museum bought two more superb Homer watercolors with the Bettens Fund: Under the Coco Palm (1898) in 1920 and the famous Canoe in Rapids (1897) four years later.

In 1925 the museum began using the Bettens Fund in the way its donor had originally conceived, by buying the works of living painters. It began with Charles Demuth, a modernist and one of Stieglitz's circle of artists known as the "Seven Americans," who had already established a considerable reputation for his spare yet elegant cubist/realist watercolors. The museum bought two Demuth watercolors, Fruit and Daisies and Fruit and Sunflowers within months of their creation, and at the same time, using other funds, purchased a third one, Lily (1923).

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