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Indepth Arts News:

"American Watercolors and Pastels, 1875-1950"
2006-04-08 until 2006-06-25
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard
Cambridge, MA, USA

The Harvard University Art Museums will present American Watercolors and Pastels, 1875–1950, at the Fogg Art Museum from April 8 to June 25, 2006. The exhibition features 52 watercolors and pastels primarily drawn from the extensive holdings of the Fogg, as well as significant works lent by friends of the Art Museums. This will be the first showing of these treasures of American art since 1936, when the Fogg presented American Watercolors from the Museum’s Collection, and will give the public an opportunity to examine a selection of works that are rarely put on display because of their sensitivity to light. The exhibition focuses on works created during what scholars consider the medium’s “golden age” of experimentation and development.

The period from 1875 to 1950 saw the status of the watercolor shift dramatically. Works on paper until that time usually served only as studies or preparatory works for finished oil paintings, but beginning in the late 19th century, drawings and watercolors were exhibited more regularly in their own right. Artists such as Winslow Homer began painting complete scenes in watercolor and exhibiting them as finished works in commercial galleries. Homer pushed the medium formally, scratching into the surface of the paper to create highlights and experimenting with washes, opaque applications of paint. John Singer Sargent also helped to establish the merits of the medium, preferring watercolor for its portability, and utilizing it on his travels to make informal sketches that stood on their own and did not necessarily serve preparatory ends.

By the early 20th century, gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz introduced modernism to a skeptical New York audience with exhibitions of watercolors by John Marin and Charles Demuth, drawings and watercolors by Georgia O’Keeffe, and pastels by Arthur G. Dove. American modernism contributed significantly to the evolution of the watercolor and helped to establish its status as an important American medium. O’Keeffe developed her signature style by exploring abstraction in watercolor and pastel, inexpensive and quick materials that lent themselves to experimentation. She and her contemporaries like Marin and Stuart Davis took advantage of this ease of experimentation to develop formal innovations, resulting in unique pieces that were displayed as finished works. Today, these watercolors are among the most highly valued objects of the American modernist period.

The exhibition was organized by Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., Curator of American Art, and Virginia Anderson, Assistant Curator of American Art. “The exhibition came out of our work on a comprehensive collections catalogue of American painting, watercolor, pastel, and stained glass at the Harvard University Art Museums,” said Stebbins. “As we compiled the list of objects for that catalogue project, it became clear that the Fogg’s collection from this period and in these media was particularly strong and deserving of an exhibition.” Anderson adds, “This is an opportunity to present to the public a wonderful selection of important American works, the majority of which are unpublished. Through this exhibition, we can bring these works to light so that they can receive critical and scholarly attention.”

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Group in the Simplon, 1911. Watercolor over graphite on white wove paper, 36 x 50.9 cm. Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Gift of Sir Joseph Duveen, 1927.7. Photo: Allan Macintyre, HUAM, © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

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