Images courtesy of Harvard Art Museums

Arts & Culture

American stories in watercolor

long read

Exhibition goes beyond idyllic landscapes to cramped apartment, 19th-century wardrobe malfunction, cancer-defying self-portraits

It’s early in the morning at Harvard Art Museums and Joachim Homann is pacing through the watercolor exhibition that he co-curated. The museum is not yet open and his voice echoes in the hushed gallery as he selects a handful of pieces to highlight from the exhibition of roughly 100 works representing some 50 American artists. The idea is that he’s going to informally chat about a few of the paintings, to provide readers with some context. He’s having a hard time deciding which ones.

Watercolorists on view range from the well-known, such as Winslow Homer, to the historically underrepresented — self-taught freedman Bill Traylor painted his featured portrait of a plowman and mule on the back of a cigarette advertisement. There are Edward Hopper’s tributes to a less touristy side of Cape Cod; John Singer Sargent’s take on a shoulder strap that so scandalized Paris, it drove him to London; Richard Foster Yarde’s vibrant remembrance of a Roxbury apartment, which he set askew to convey the psychological tension within; and in the exhibition’s earliest entry, precise renderings of daisies by Fidelia Bridges, the first American woman to earn her living through watercolor painting.

Once the difficult choices were made, we recorded Homann, the Maida and George Abrams Curator of Drawings, musing on these and several other works from the show. Listen to the audio clips below.

American Watercolors, 1880-1990: Into the Light” is on view in the University Galleries on Level 3 through Aug. 13.

Joachim Homann.

Curator Joachim Homann in the gallery.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Daisies in a Meadow (1870-79)

Fidelia Bridges


Joachim Homann: Fidelia Bridges is the first work in the show that people are going to see. And her beautiful little flowers that are stretching into the sunlight are an homage for us to the many women who practiced watercolor already in the 19th century. Many of them were self-trained or trained at home by tutors. And Fidelia Bridges was one of the first women to have a professional education at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and earned a living with watercolor. We are so pleased to have this work to remind people that watercolor was practiced by many women throughout the 19th century. And artists like Winslow Homer learned from women. The botanical arts were central to artistic pursuits of watercolor for a very long time.

"Daisies in a Meadow" by Fidelia Bridges.
By the time Bridges picked up a brush and palette in the 1860s, watercolor painting had long been regarded as a suitable pastime for accomplished young women — but only as a pleasant diversion, not as a profession. Bridges became the first American woman to earn her living through her work in the medium. She made her reputation with beautifully executed and precisely observed renderings of birds, plants, and flowers in open-air landscapes such as this one. Like her younger contemporary Henry Roderick Newman, she was an adherent of the “truth to nature” philosophy of art advocated by British critic, writer, and artist John Ruskin, who taught that the world should be rendered as realistically as possible.

Schooner at Sunset (1880)

Winslow Homer


Joachim Homann: Winslow Homer had a breakthrough moment in 1880 when he rented a little home on an island in the Gloucester Harbor and he experimented with watercolor like no American artist before. What you see here is a use of color that is very bold. The contrasts of the sunset on the harbor are very, very strong with almost an entirely black background set against the sunset and dark clouds hovering. What I find so special is Homer’s use of paper. He’s brushing on the paint without filling every single spot so the sparkle, the shimmer of the water surface is really beautifully visible. When this work was first exhibited in New York in a prestigious exhibition in 1881, it created a scandal because people did not know what Homer was trying to do. And he back-pedaled a little bit. This was one of his most radical works. But it freed him from anecdotal content in his work and he realized at this moment that he was going to be an artist who was going to make a difference with his watercolors in the canon of art history.

"Schooner at Sunset" by Winslow Homer.
Painted in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1880, the work caused a sensation when it was first shown at the annual exhibition of the American Watercolor Society in New York in 1881. Its bold colors and their fast application — which left sparkling flecks of the textured paper uncovered — signaled a turning point in the work of Homer. As Harvard Art Museum director and watercolor expert Martha Tedeschi has suggested, that summer he “internalized the connection between color, light, and water … to embody raw and undiluted feeling.”

Madame Gautreau (Madame X) (c. 1883)

John Singer Sargent


Joachim Homann: Looking at the portrait of Madame X, who was Madame Gautreau, a professional beauty in Paris of American birth, married to a banker, is a lot of fun. This is only one watercolor out of the preparatory work that Sargent did for a big oil painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art today that Madame Gautreau and Sargent planned out for the salon, the big contemporary art exhibition in Paris. And they tried to be a little bit more daring than Parisian audiences were accustomed to. So the strap on her shoulder with this very deeply décolleté dress is very loosely painted and a little ambiguous and it almost seems like it would come off at any time. When Sargent translated this from his watercolor into the oil painting and exhibited the work, people got really scandalized and he was forced to repaint the strap to more securely fasten the dress on the body of the sitter. [Laughter] And the responses were so controversial that Sargent decided to move to London and leave Paris behind.

"Madame Gautreau (Madame X)" by John Singer Sargent.
Sargent was bewitched by Virginie Gautreau, an American “professional beauty” who married a French banker. Endeavoring to capture her “unpaintable” good looks, Sargent made many sketches of her in different poses before settling on the large full-length portrait now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here, Sargent roughly sketched her figure in graphite, filling in the composition with watercolor. Gautreau was admired — and disparaged — for her intensely pale skin, which she emphasized with cosmetics containing potassium chlorate. Sargent described her complexion as “lavender or blotting-paper colour all over” (curiously, a phrase that could just as soon refer to watercolor). He evoked these tones with pale washes around her face and décolletage. The rosiness of her delicate ear may also be artificial — she was known to paint her ears with rouge.

Mink Pond (1891)

Winslow Homer


Joachim Homann: The work “Mink Pond” is a real visitor favorite, and I’m coming back to it again and again. Homer is changing the perspective here. He’s almost looking from a frog-eye perspective on his favorite fishing pond in the Adirondacks, which he showed many times in the more human perspective. But here you have a close-up view of the frog and the fish as if they’re having a conversation. It’s very deeply darkened and the most glowing part of it is this beautiful water lily in full bloom that’s also reflected on the pond water. It gives you a sense of the artistic inspiration that might be behind this. At the time — this was from 1891 — Bostonians, New Englanders were very enthusiastic about Japanese art. And Homer, often considered the most American of all artists, was not averse to applying a Japanese inspired aesthetic to a work like this that he created practically in the wilderness in the Adirondacks while he was on a fishing vacation.

"Mink Pond" by Winslow Homer.
Many of Homer’s most effective watercolors dramatize the subject with suggestive details and disorient the viewer’s sense of scale. Mink Pond was Homer’s favorite fishing spot in the Adirondacks, where the artist summered regularly. Although he portrayed the site many times from a more conventional, human perspective, this “frog’s-eye” view of the pond offers another surprising and playful shift of scale.

Seascape (1914)

John Marin


Joachim Homann: John Marin’s “Seascape” from 1914 signals the arrival of modernism in the watercolor world. This was Marin’s first trip to the coast of Maine — midcoast Maine and the Georgetown area. And he was completely inspired by the arrival of modern art and the famous Armory Show in New York in the previous summer and showed off his work with colors, with spontaneous paint application. He was able to experiment with application techniques like no one else. So you see his fingerprints forming a little tree in the foreground in dark colors. Some of the stripes of the deep rose set in the front of the picture might also be created with his fingerprints. He wipes off in the distance the kind of misty appearance. Some wet colors he sponges off and that creates mist. And then when you look carefully into the water, you see that he took the back of his brush and scraped off, drew with the back of the brush, some waves into the water color as well. So it’s a very experimental, very direct work that is incredibly freshly preserved. It’s so bright in the galleries, it makes everybody happy who sees it. And it hadn’t been even photographed in color before we photographed it for the catalog. So we are happy to showcase it and and celebrate it in a way it hasn’t been celebrated ever since it came to the museum.

"Seascape" by John Marin.

Marin pushed the limits of landscape art throughout his life. His watercolors of the Maine coast, which he visited for the first time in 1914 still surprise today with their bold colors, rhythmicality, and diversity of marks. His 1914 “Seascape,” for example, includes traditional brushwork but also the artist’s fingerprints, scratches, and scrapes with various tools.

© Estate of John Marin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Cold Storage Plant (1933)

Edward Hopper


Joachim Homann: We have a fantastic wall of four Edward Hopper works, watercolors that he created in the early 1930s when he was summering in Truro on Cape Cod. One of the most unexpected works from this group is the “Cold Storage Plant” from 1933 that shows a plant that was built right on the water on the bayside with the view of Provincetown in the background jutting almost into the water from the dunes. It’s a very dramatic, very modern-looking structure with red brick that’s gleaming in the sun and Homer is just unbelievably skillful in rendering the bright summer light that shines on the structure illuminating and shading in different ways every single aspect of it. I’m pointing this one out because it’s the only of the structures represented in these Edward Hopper watercolors that doesn’t stand any longer. It was taken down when it was obsolete in the 1960s, I believe, so there’s nothing there at this point. But Edward Hopper’s interest as a modernist to see a different side of this tourist destination, to show the modern angle, I think is really noteworthy. And it’s a glorious work that I feel is one of the strongest works in the exhibition. So I picked this one rather than the lighthouse for this selection because it’s so unexpected and maybe a different side, that we don’t usually see of the working waterfront, of the Cape.

"Cold Storage Plant" by Edward Hopper.
Hopper and his wife, the painter Josephine Hopper (née Nivison), liked to leave New York City over the summer. Beginning in 1930, they vacationed in Truro, on Cape Cod, where they built their own home in 1934. Jo had encouraged her husband to take up watercolor when they visited Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1923, more than 50 years after Winslow Homer explored the medium in the same town. Hopper’s watercolors, often of vernacular architecture, quickly became a commercial success. This allowed him to abandon his work as an illustrator and printmaker and establish himself as a painter. The watercolors he created in the vicinity of Truro illustrate Hopper’s growing familiarity with the area. The cold storage plant for fish and seafood on the bayside of the peninsula has since been destroyed. In Hopper’s rendering, it is an emblem of a working waterfront.

Mule and Plow (c. 1939-42)

Bill Traylor


Joachim Homann: It’s a gorgeous work by the artist Bill Traylor that I find especially striking in terms of its graphic power. It really bounces off the wall and holds its own in this exhibition that’s studded with masterpieces. Bill Traylor is the only artist in this show of American art who was born into slavery. He lived a long life in Alabama, and as a freedman living in Montgomery he was known to collect scraps of paper and cardboard like this one, which is the flip-side of an advertisement with a full-color image of a basketball player advertising whatever it is. And Bill Traylor in a really ingenious way used the irregular shape of the paper to envision the scene of a man leading a plow through the field drawn by this horse. And what’s fascinating about it is that the figure and the horse are both fit into this sheet of cardboard in a way that really enhances the dynamic. It gives you a sense of space, of realism that’s unexpected because his figures are so reduced, the formal language is very reduced. One detail that I want to point out is the legs of the farmer, which are so irregular — one is much longer than the other, and that’s not what you would do, if you draw a stick figure, you try to get the legs the same length because you know that the human body has approximately the same length of legs. But here he wants to show how the guy steps into this space and how the dynamic is, what this is all about. It’s a really wonderful solution that shows an artist who was very creative, very thoughtful, and knew how to look at things and use the materials and techniques he had at his command at the best effect.

"Mule and Plow" by Bill Traylor.

Born into slavery, Traylor led a hardscrabble existence as a sharecropper before ending up on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1930s. Completely self-taught, he began to create art on found scraps of paper and cardboard only when he was in his mid-80s. He had a natural sense of rhythm and design, and he made the most of the irregularities of his paper supports in his compositions. Here, the plowman’s horizontal hat brim and rather square head fit him perfectly into the upper corner, while the angle of the mule’s head conforms to the diagonal cut of the page at right. Even though the two main figures are presented in Traylor’s typical silhouetted style, they are clearly in motion through a palpable space. Helping define that space is the gray scrape across the sheet, which Traylor used to suggest a portion of the field being plowed.

© Bill Traylor Family Trust

Landscape (c. 1951)

Helen Frankenthaler


Joachim Homann: Helen Frankenthaler graduated from Bennington College where she took art classes. And a few years later came back to campus in Vermont with her boyfriend Clement Greenberg, who was one of the great art critics of the period. Both of them painted in the studio for much of their summer vacation but each day they would take the watercolor box out into the country and would paint the scenery in watercolors. It’s kind of hilarious to think of that because Helen Frankenthaler is known for enormous paintings on unprimed canvas that she, rather than painting it in traditional ways, stains with various colors. That staining technique that she developed in the winter of 1951 to 1952 actually has its roots to a certain degree in the watercolor practice from the summer, in the watercolors that she did like this one here on view. The use of wet-on-wet technique, of the application of wet watercolor on a wetted sheet of paper that creates these wonderful kind of enigmatic, abstract, floating forms and color sensations on the paper — this is something that when she was back in the winter in her studio, she recreated with the stain canvases. So it’s an indication of how watercolor is a process that challenges artists to come up with new ideas and to think outside of the box, how it then translates for many artists in this exhibition into breakthrough moments in their work in oil on canvas as well.

"Landscape" by Helen Frankenthaler.

Two years after graduating from Bennington College in Vermont in 1949, Frankenthaler returned to the school’s bucolic campus for the summer with her boyfriend, art critic Clement Greenberg. In a letter to a friend, she described their daily routine: “We’re doing a lot of painting; usually go outdoors for a few hours morning or afternoon and do watercolors . . . and then in the evening we often go to the studio, where I work on all the wholesale canvas . . . and Clem works on Masonite.” Frankenthaler manipulated colors that she applied with dabs of the brush by wetting the paper and letting the colors dry in blotches. The following winter, she began to create similar effects in her paintings, working with diluted oil paint on unprimed canvas in a technique she called “soak stain.” She became one of the most prominent figures in American postwar art.

© Helen Frankenthaler / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Cunard Street, Interior II (1980)

Richard Foster Yarde


Joachim Homann: I’m so pleased to be able to present a more diverse, more interesting, and richer history of American art with this exhibition. We are thrilled about additions to the collection and one of the most spectacular is this watercolor by Richard Yarde, a Massachusetts artist. He had grown up in Roxbury and around 1980 he dedicated a series of large watercolors interestingly painted on several papers that are only loosely attached to each other. He painted the series to remember his childhood. And you see here a kitchen / bathroom, a very inconvenient setup for the two people who are shown here living side by side in really cramped rooms. But the way he is patterning the surface, the way he’s using the reserve, the white paper ground, to make the whole room sparkle and make it beautiful and engaging. Also the way that he suggests a psychologically intense situation with the figures that he places very carefully on two different sheets but in the same room. It’s just really, really wonderful and shows the full creativity of an artist who is counted among the greatest watercolorists of the later part of the 20th century.

"Cunard Street, Interior II" by Richard Foster Yarde.

Recognized as one of the foremost American watercolorists of the late 20th century, Yarde garnered praise in the 1970s and 1980s for his Apartment series of watercolors, which he based on memories of his upbringing in the Roxbury suburb of Boston. Yarde first encountered watercolor while helping his godfather hand-tint photographs. The wistful work shown here possesses the qualities of an intimate snapshot rendered in a bright color palette to capture the warmth and vibrancy of his former neighborhood. The dramatically skewed perspective and blue-green tones isolate the scene’s two figures, whose mutual estrangement is further intensified through the actual bifurcation of the support, relegating the ground beneath the young woman and the despondent man in the bathtub onto two irregularly shaped sheets. Through this intervention, Yarde heightened the psychological tension to convey the private challenges of residents.

© Estate of Richard Foster Yarde

Self-Portrait, B.C. Series (1990)

Hannah Wilke


Joachim Homann: Hannah Wilke was a feminist artist who made her own body, her own experience, her own place in the world the theme of her art. She’s working without reserve and it’s really raw and very engaging. Her late work, the series of self-portraits represented here with three beautiful examples was created in response to her mother being diagnosed with leukemia as far I understand. Hannah Wilke created on a daily basis as a routine of survival and self-affirmation, of demonstration of her physical prowess in the face of death, she created a series of these large watercolors on the floor of her studio with big bold brush strokes that are colorful and wonderful to look at. But the face that they seem to represent is as if it’s reflected in wavy water, it seems to fizzle away as you look at it. Tragically, as she was creating the series, she was herself diagnosed with cancer and then passed away afterwards. What I find important here is that watercolor in the context of this exhibition takes on a different dimension. It’s as much about mental health, it’s about the physical workout, it’s about a daily routine as it is about the subject or image that’s represented. And that’s a good reminder of the important place that watercolor as a medium plays for many of the artists in the exhibition, as a practice and not as a product.

"Self Portrait" series by Hannah Wilke.

Wilke channeled her life experiences into groundbreaking feminist video art, sculptures, photographs, and drawings. Following her mother’s death from breast cancer in 1982, she turned to watercolor to create a series in honor of their close bond. After the artist’s own diagnosis with lymphoma in 1987, she decided to continue the series of tripartite silhouetted portraits, (literally) drawing strength from herself, her mother, and her art until her death in 1993. Yet by distilling watercolor to rudimentary brushstrokes and primary colors, Wilke calls attention to the feeling of dislocation that accompanies cancer. Despite the apparent simplicity of her composition, Wilke’s process was anything but: she transformed the medium into a fully immersive and dynamic art form, placing the oversized sheet on the ground and using a broad paintbrush to create the spectral images. In this way, she exerted control over watercolor’s unpredictability, turning the medium into a compelling and self-affirming physical act as she worked through the disruptions in her own life.

© Marsie, Emanuelle, Damon, and Andrew Scharlatt, Hannah Wilke Collection & Archive, Los Angeles. Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York