The Fascinating 150-Year History of the American Watercolor Society

Turning Darkness Into Light

One of our fellow members of the Artist’s Network and editor of The Artist’s Magazine, Maureen Bloomfield, had the honor of speaking at the recent 150th Anniversary celebration of the American Watercolor Society. Her speech was so moving, we wanted to share it with those of you who could not attend the event.

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American Watercolor Society, Speech, 150th Anniversary, Artist's Network

Cave of Lascaux

Lascaux | 15,000 B.C.

In a valley in Southern France, in September 1940, four boys were wandering in the woods when their dog vanished. Mystified, they ran to the spot where he’d disappeared. The oldest boy described what happened next.

“Suddenly we found a hole. We moved a few stones to make the opening wider. And because I was the strongest, I was the first to climb into the darkness. I slipped, tried to hold onto some stones, but slid [downward]. When I finally came to the bottom, I was amazed to see the strangest pictures on the walls.”

American Watercolor Society, Speech, 150th Anniversary, Artist's Network

Wall Art in Lascaux Cave

 

What he had discovered were the caves of Lascaux and the more than 2,000 paintings that date from 15,000 BC; those works consist of pigment rubbed onto limestone with blood and water.

A thousand years later, other anonymous artists worked pigment into wet plaster, creating for the Palace of Knossos in Greece, the first frescoes—and this labyrinthine city once the dwelling place of the mythical Minotaur was discovered in 1878, 11 years after the American Watercolor Society’s first exhibition.

American Watercolor Society, Speech, 150th Anniversary, Artist's Network

Decorative Border from Hall of Knossos, Crete

Hall of Knossos | Crete, 1500 B.C.

From Crete to another island (Ireland), variations on those decorative motifs recur in 800 AD; Columban monks drew designs and ornaments on vellum to illustrate the Four Gospels and, of course, the medium was watercolor.

A writer in the 12th century describes the experience of inspecting the Book of Kells.

American Watercolor Society, Speech, 150th Anniversary, Artist's Network

Book of Kells, 800 A.D.

 

“You will make out intricacies, so delicate and so subtle, so full of knots and links, with colors so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this were the work of angels, and not of men.”

I have to amend that last phrase, as women—nuns and abbesses— also illumined manuscripts. In fact, in the Claricia Psalter of the 12th century, we find the earliest self-portrait of a woman artist, who drew her own figure, clothed in a nun’s habit, as a diagonal line that differentiates the letter Q from the letter O.

Luminosity

For the past few weeks, I’ve been brooding about watercolor; I’ve come to the conclusion and, alas, it’s not an original one, that its rarest quality and the one hardest to describe is luminosity, from lumen the Latin for light. To illumine is to light up, to shed light on.

I’m not an artist but I spent my childhood and adolescence taking private classes in oil and pastel. Although my mother believed that all lessons were good lessons, I never took a class in watercolor. I think, in retrospect, I knew even then that it would be too hard.

American Watercolor Society, Speech, 150th Anniversary, Artist's Network

Sheherezade by Betsy Dillard Stroud

 

As Betsy Dillard Stroud told me, “You have to be spontaneous—you have to react with alacrity because watercolor is always moving.”

 

American Watercolor Society, Speech, 150th Anniversary, Artist's Network

Apple Blossoms by Joseph Raffael

 

Joseph Raffael explains why: “The flow of water is emblematic of a vital force. Watercolor expresses flow, life as transparency, the ineffable, the transient air, motion, life moving. Watercolor itself is a force of nature.”

From the 1800s to the 2000s

Tonight we celebrate the AWS that has been so influential in promoting this medium and in educating artists and collectors of its range and worth since 1866—a year after the conclusion of the Civil War that claimed 620,000 lives.

American Watercolor Society, Speech, 150th Anniversary, Artist's Network

Bayonet Charge by Winslow Homer

 

Winslow Homer was embedded in the Union Army and did drawings on site; his true-to-life etchings, one showing an amputation on the battlefield, appeared in Harper’s Magazine. In that war, New England bled as copiously as the South, and artists were not alone in wanting to escape the tragic waste (the Battle of Antietam alone resulted in 22,700 casualties; so devastating were the losses at Antietam that neither side could claim victory). Given the carnage of war and the darkness of a divided country, it makes sense artists would want to pursue light.

 

American Watercolor Society, Speech, 150th Anniversary, Artist's Network

Hauling Anchor by Winslow Homer

 

So in 1866, a call went out to “all American artist and amateurs interested in forming a group devoted to watercolor painting.” To announce the first exhibition, 400 circulars were printed.

In addition, the AWS members, fearful they wouldn’t be able to fill the walls of the National Academy of Design, canvassed local studios, commercial galleries and private collections. Of the 278 pictures in the first show, only half were watercolors.

The 46 regular members of the AWS contributed the bulk of the work, but 109 other nonmember artists were represented including about a dozen foreigners. The opening on December 21, 1867, the AWS secretary called “A brilliant occasion, full of the most exultant camaraderie.”

According to Kathleen A. Foster, the author of the catalogue for the exhibition “American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent,” now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: “The history of watercolor painting in the United States divides neatly into two parts: before the foundation of the AWS and after.”

Before 1866, watercolor painting was not considered a fine art medium and the perverse reason was that it was, in fact, the most popular medium in the country—for illustrators, engravers, architects, engineers, commercial artists, travelers, scientist and naturalists like Audubon, etc., and, not incidentally, for well-bred ladies, students and children. “That changed,” according to Foster, “with breathtaking speed after 1867. By 1881, watercolor was the toast of New York. Within 50 years, many of the most lauded and adventurous American artists were watercolorists.”

From that great crop of “most lauded and adventurous artists,” the first Golden Age, before this one so radiantly on display at this show, I’d like to single out three.

First, Winslow Homer, who was famously reticent but nonetheless managed to say something completely in the spirit of watercolor: “I like painting done without your knowing it.”

American Watercolor Society, Speech, 150th Anniversary, Artist's Network

Corfu, Light and Shadows | John Singer Sargent

 

Second, John Singer Sargent who had two ways of working: one with broad strokes in limpid colors and the other with tinges of pigment; the effect in both is startlingly evanescent.

 

American Watercolor Society, Speech, 150th Anniversary, Artist's Network

Up in the Studio by Andrew Wyeth

 

Finally, Andrew Wyeth, who countered Homer’s sensation of light with the most mesmerizing darkness, a darkness that is complicated but, paradoxically, transparent.

In addition to promoting watercolor, the AWS has been a progressive force throughout and before its history. Its precursor, the New York Water Color Society admitted women as members right from the beginning in 1850 (to put that in context: the U.S. didn’t ratify the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote until 1920).

Further, the AWS led the way in expanding the popularity of alternate media, such as charcoal, pastel and “painterly” etching, inclusively exhibiting all types of works on paper, generally until newer groups gained the strength to organize separate shows. “Throughout the 1870s and much of the 80s,” writes Foster, “the society mustered the country’s largest, most diverse survey of progressive work in all the graphic arts.”

Perseverance Through Art

One hundred and fifty years ago, in 1867, coinciding with the birth of this society, Walt Whitman published a new edition of Leaves of Grass and Emily Dickinson withdrew from the world, though she continued to tend her gardens. Both poets had been affected by deaths: Dickinson, having lost in succession her father, then her favorite teacher and then a nephew; and Whitman, having witnessed unbearable suffering as he tended soldiers, as a volunteer nurse, during the Civil War.

In 2017, we find ourselves in a similarly dark and divisive time. Just as the boys at Lauscaux stumbled into a cave, I feel sometimes it would be lovely to find a rabbit hole to descend into; but as artists and writers and lovers of the arts, we know that the only antidote to ignorance and darkness is art.

As Marcel Proust, who was confined to bed for most of his life, wrote: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

American Watercolor Society, Speech, 150th Anniversary, Artist's Network

Muriel’s Vase: Autumn by Joseph Raffael

It has been a pleasure and an honor to be with you tonight. I’d like to end by reading parts of two poems. The first is from “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” Walt Whitman’s meditation on the loss of Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated in April 1865, one year before the AWS was founded.

O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?

And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls,

To adorn the burial house of him I love?

Pictures of growing spring and farms and homes,

With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the gray smoke lucid and bright,

With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous, indolent, sinking sun, burning, expanding the air, …

And the city at hand with dwellings so dense, and stacks of chimneys,

And all the scenes of life and the workshops, and the workmen homeward returning.

Finally, a section of a canto by Ezra Pound:

What thou lov’st well remains,

The rest is dross

What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage.

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We hope you enjoyed Maureen’s touching speech in honor of AWS’ 150-year celebration. Love watercolor? Check out the June 2017 issue of Watercolor Artist, available now!


Book Cited:

  • American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent by Kathleen A. Foster, Yale University Press, 2017

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