Catching Light: European and American Watercolors from the Permanent Collection

John Ruskin (English 1819-1900) Church of the Annunciation at Vico Equense on the Bay of Naples, 1841. Watercolor, graphite, black ink, ink wash, and gouache on wove paper

Catching Light: European and American Watercolors from the Permanent Collection will be on view at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center from May 8 to July 26, 2009. Curated by Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Center, the exhibition will celebrate the medium and history of watercolor with 47 works from the 18th through 20th centuries. With the exception of one work on loan from an alumnus, all the watercolors will be drawn from the permanent collection of the Art Center, many of which, according to Phagan, have not been on view for several years because of the medium’s sensitivity to light, while others have no modern exhibition record or are recent acquisitions.

Catching Light will also highlight some of the most popular subjects chosen by watercolor artists over the past three centuries. These will include works that celebrate: architecture, with John Ruskin’s sensitive, dramatic Church of the Annunciation at Vico Equense on the Bay of Naples (1841), J. M. W. Turner’s intimate, jewel-like Bacharach on the Rhine (1832-34), and Oscar Bluemner’s Barns (1924); landscape, with William Trost Richards’ lovingly rendered, atmospheric scene Legendary England: Tintagal (1882), John Marin’s dramatic, energetic Woods (1921), and Andrew Wyeth’s light-struck Camden Hills; still life, with Charles Demuth’s elegant Apple and Acorn Squash (1929) and Jim Dine’s Tomatoes (1974); figuration, with Gustave Doré’s delicately tinted Scene from “Gargantua” (1875), Max Beckmann’s humorous, voyeuristic Nachtmusik (1947), and Hilda Belcher’s The Checkered Dress (Portrait of O’Keeffe); and abstraction, with Konrad Cramer’s lyrical Synchromist Composition (1916).

“For centuries artists have treasured the free-flowing, luminous qualities of watercolor; however, only in the 18th and early 19th centuries in England did this medium flower and come into its own,” advised Phagan. Many of these watercolors in the permanent collection date from the initial gift by Matthew Vassar at the inception of the Vassar College Art Gallery. He acquired these from Vassar trustee Elias Lyman Magoon in the 1860s. “From this original gift, we have extraordinary works by many talented 18th and 19th century painters and topographical artists,” Phagan explained.

Some of the light-filled watercolors from the 18th and 19th centuries that will be featured in the exhibition are from this core collection, including works by Turner, Ruskin, John Sell Cotman, John Webber, Anthony Vandyke Copley Fielding, Joseph Gandy, and Augustin Pugin.

“These picturesque ruins, architectural views, and sun-cloaked landscapes form poetic documents to their makers’ creative talents and to the era’s insistence on keen observation,” noted Phagan. Many of these early watercolors served as studies for engraved illustrations in topographical publications and literary works, or as independent documentary records. Phagan cited Turner’s Bacharach on the Rhine as a study that was translated into a print, appearing in volume eight of The Works of Lord Byron published in 1832. However, artists also used watercolor to document private moments, beautifully evidenced, Phagan noted, by Ruskin’s Church of the Annunciation at Vico Equense on the Bay of Naples, with its sketchy rivulets of ink and graphite, beautifully recording a breathtaking view of the church and its environs.

During the latter 19th century, artists ushered in a new stage in the development of watercolor, moving away from its association with printmaking, to finished independent works. This change is evident in the works by William Trost Richards, a 19th century American landscape artist who, the curator notes, was “especially inspired by Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, creating highly detailed, ambitious watercolors with a seriousness and finish reserved for oil painting.” Sterling examples of Richards’ work in the exhibition include his Legendary England: Tintagel. Painted in 1882, this became one of several “water color drawings” commissioned by Magoon, who gave this and six others to the Vassar College Art Gallery the following year.

Catching Light will also celebrate modernists, including John Marin, Oscar Bluemner, and Stuart Davis, many of whom were championed by Alfred Stieglitz at his gallery, 291, in New York in the early years of the 20th century. Phagan has described Marin’s Woods, from 1921, as “thrashing color against color, line against shape, in an energy that jumps off the paper.” Konrad Cramer, a leader in the Woodstock Art Colony, will be represented by his abstract work Synchromist Composition (c. 1916), that the curator explained showed his early appetite for expanding the dynamics of cubism, and “pitched stroke against stroke in this lyrical, visual drama.”

The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is internationally known for its collection of European and American watercolors. Gifts, bequests, and purchases have built upon the strong foundation of English watercolors purchased from Elias Lyman Magoon and given to the college by Matthew Vassar in the 1860s. For instance, a gift in 1953 of 33 watercolors and drawings by Thomas Rowlandson from Mr. and Mrs. Francis Fitz Randolph deepened the college’s holdings of this seminal English satirist and cartoonist. In 1967, the bequest of Mrs. Arthur Schwab (Edna Bryner, class of 1907) provided a cache of 10 watercolors by John Marin. Throughout a range of years, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd (Blanche Hooker, class of 1931), gave 13 watercolors and drawings by 20th-century artists.

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Published in: on March 13, 2009 at 8:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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