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Behind the Scenes with Opera Philadelphia featuring Tancredi. Video by Jose F. Moreno/Gannett

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Some may nostalgically recall using metal watercolor sets with foldable covers and thin brushes. So there is understandable appreciation for the requisite talent to produce imagery with strokes of pigment dissolved in water and absorbed into the paper.

Watercolor is an unforgiving medium that doesn’t easily allow for corrections. It captures the moment with transparent washes of color.

“American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent,” on view in the Dorrance Galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through May 14, is both visually delightful and a major curatorial accomplishment. This comprehensive exhibition covers the period from the late 1860s through the 1920s to celebrate the golden age of American watercolor painting and its “top-notchers of fame.”

Kathleen A. Foster, the museum’s senior curator of American Art and director of its center for American art, worked on this show for five years. She has been involved as a scholar with the American watercolor movement since her graduate school days several decades ago. Foster also wrote a formidable and fully illustrated catalog (494 pages and weighing just over seven pounds) to accompany the exhibit.

Given conservation issues, it was quite a challenge to secure loans of watercolor paintings. Thus, the exhibit with some rarely seen works is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and should not be missed.

Speaking at the press preview, Timothy Rub, the museum’s director and chief executive officer, described the display as “a congregation of masterpieces.” There are exquisite examples by a diverse group of artists depicting a range of subjects with clarity, light, and atmosphere. Though some names may not be familiar, they are no less talented.

This exhibition brings together more than 170 works on paper (including nearly 40 watercolors by the medium’s highly esteemed practitioners, Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent), borrowed from numerous public and private lenders. The show also coincides with the 150th anniversary of the inaugural exhibition organized by the American Watercolor Society, which was founded in New York to promote the medium. It successfully took watercolor painting from “under a cloud in America” and turned it into the “toast of the town,” attaining “national artistic identity.”

“Every artist of every significance will work in watercolor,” Foster declared.  In the catalog, she added:  “Within fifty years, many of the most lauded and adventuresome American artists were watercolorists.”

In 1900, 34 years after the American Watercolor Society had been established, the Philadelphia Water Color Club (renamed Philadelphia Water Color Society in 2000) was founded by a group of painters; its distinguished members included John Singer Sargent and other artists who are included in this show.

The New Jersey Water Color Society was organized a while later in 1938. Nonetheless, today there are 261 members of the NJWCS, attesting to the medium’s sustained popularity in the Garden State.

Prior to 1866, watercolor had been marginalized in the fine art world and even disparaged as a “ladies’ medium.” Yet all practitioners regardless of gender or professional specialty — commercial artists as well as traditional oil painters — were welcomed in the annual shows sponsored by the American Watercolor Society.

Foster stated that this is “a single story about a neglected second-class medium that was brought to prominence.” It initially was used for either vocational purposes or preparatory studies but became worthy of a finished painting being dubbed the “American medium.”

Unlike most museum exhibits, the galleries may seem a bit dark here. For the protection of the work, conservators determined the low-light level.  Foster explained: “Every minute in light slowly fades this work.”

Interestingly, Yale University Art Gallery required that Thomas Eakins’s “John Biglin in a Single Scull” and Edwin Austin Abbey’s “The Sisters” must be covered to secure the loans, so these two works are displayed with curtains. Yes, you must draw back the drape to view these two handsome and major 19th-century pieces.

“The work is dying for you,” the curator remarked with a bit of hyperbolic flair.

The exhibit is arranged chronologically to reveal “the special charms of the medium.” As a visitor passes through its 13 sections, there is a mounting crescendo of beauty from a “ragtag collection of artists” using watercolor for many practical reasons to its acclaimed practitioners. Beginning with an incredibly detailed mechanical drawing by Eakins done when he was a 16-year old senior at Central High School in Philadelphia to Edward Hopper’s  “Haskell’s House,” an impressive Victorian home illuminated by bright afternoon sunlight at Gloucester, Massachusetts, there is a broad sweep spanning six decades.

Many pictures do require close observation to notice and savor the artists’ impeccable and facile draftsmanship.

There are numerous gems to admire. For example, William Trost Richards’s “High Tide at Atlantic City” is a strikingly luminous view with its low horizon looking out to the ocean under a beautiful cloud-filled sky.

Or examine the careful and pristine rendering of milkweeds and monarch butterflies by Fidelia Bridges, working outdoors directly in the wheat field. Her painting with its close-up detail defies the fluidity of the medium.

A little more than midway into the exhibition is a gallery that has been installed to resemble a salon of the 1880s like the ones organized by the American Watercolor Society. Foster described the 19th-century concept as “a successful sales room,” a bit of “marketing brilliance,” staging the space with potted plants and ceramics to look domestic.

Thus, visitors could envision the art hanging in their own parlors. The wainscoted walls are painted to suggest the color of “young burlap,” which would have been placed on the walls to show off the works to best advantage. Like oil paintings, the watercolors are easel size and set in heavy frames.

When Winslow Homer debuted as a watercolorist in 1874, he raised the bar on what could be achieved with watercolor, soon becoming its undisputed master.

In “A Garden in Nassau,” he skillfully uses the bare white paper as a positive to create the diagonal wall that is a perspective thrust back in space. The rich translucent colors give clarity to the surrounding scenery as well as the fronds of the palms. It is a poignant subject of a little boy who is being observed while he longingly looks up at the coconuts.

Foster mentioned Homer’s watercolors sold for “about 50 dollars, a 10th the cost of an oil painting.” It spurred a middle-class market for original art at “every day prices that everyone can afford.”

Homer’s last watercolor, titled “Diamond Shoal,” dates from 1905 and is a full revelation of the artist’s brilliance as a virtuoso of the medium. With its delicate washes of blue, this powerful scene off the North Carolina coast near Cape Hatteras is a dramatic moment showing the crew trying to manage the sails during a squall. Out of sequence, this painting is a masterpiece hung at the entrance of the exhibit, as a model of excellence for all that will be subsequently seen.

Thirty years later, Sargent helped to sustain and propel the medium’s reputation taking over the mantle previously held by Homer. “Spanish Fountain” is another beautiful image of lush colors, resulting from the reflections of light on the water and the wet sculptural figures embellishing the fountain. Also notice “Muddy Alligators” where he takes full advantage of the light, water, and hues to convey the immediacy of the moment without forsaking any details.

Foster pointed out how Sargent had used the tip of his pocketknife’s thin blade to scratch the paper to render the two white teeth in the open mouth of the foreground alligator.

The show concludes with a presentation of artists’ materials. It is exciting to encounter three watercolor sets that were well used by Eakins, Homer and Sargent. They reveal how technology had changed from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century.

Eakins worked with hard watercolor cakes in a wood box, which were widely available between 1850 and 1880. Homer’s watercolor set is a three-part hinged metal case, dating from the first decade of the 20th century. Sargent used collapsible tubes of moist color, which are still a staple for today’s professional watercolorists.

In 1921, Henry McBride, the turn-of-the-century New York art critic, asserted: “We are beating the world in water-colors (sic), just now.” Four years later, after Sargent’s death, the emergent generation of younger artists, like Edward Hopper or John Marin, matter-of-factly used watercolor as their primary medium for art making; this bolstered its popularity and appeal.

All these watercolorists are not preaching any specific message; they revel in the sheer exhilaration of creating gloriously beautiful art.

“This show is a respite from controversy,” Foster said. “It is an exhibition of how America fell in love with watercolor.”

The love affair has not abated with communities of painters around the country who remain indebted to and influenced by the accomplishments of the medium’s leading masters. Watercolor painting is, indeed, delicious comfort food.

Fred B. Adelson is a professor of art history at Rowan University. Contact him at fbadelson@gmail.com

If you go

“American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent,” is on view through May 14 at the Dorrance Galleries in the Main Building, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. For more information, call (215) 763-8100 or visit philamuseum.org.

Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday and Friday until 8:45 p.m.

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