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Mastering the Medium: American Watercolors from the Museum's Collection, 1870-1970
November 16, 2002 January 19, 2003
A new exhibition opening on November 16, 2002 reveals the depth and range of American watercolors in the San Diego Museum of Art's collection, publicly displaying many works for the first time ever. Titled Mastering the Medium: American Watercolors from the Museum's Collection, 1870-1970 , it is curated by SDMA curator of American art, D. Scott Atkinson, and is the fifth in a series of exhibitions organized by the Museum to highlight its collection of works of art on paper. With more than 70 examples, Mastering the Medium showcases works by such nationally renowned artists as Winslow Homer, Charles Burchfield, Mary Cassatt, and Charles Demuth, in addition to works by California artists who depicted the region's picturesque landscape and colorful people. (left: Charles Ephraim Burchfield (American), Trees and Houses, 1916, watercolor over graphite, © San Diego Museum of Art. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. James E. Lasry, 1983:31)
"We are pleased to be able to share this cache of hidden treasures from our collection. Due to their sensitivity to light, watercolors may only be displayed for short periods of time. With dozens of examples by artists from the San Diego area, this exhibition presents a unique opportunity for our community to explore an aspect of our cultural heritage and to witness how these works relate to broader, national developments in the fine art of watercolor painting," says the Museum's executive director, Dr. Don Bacigalupi. (left: Robert Gwathmey (American), Share Croppers, ca. 1941, watercolor, © San Diego Museum of Art. Museum purchase with funds provided by Mrs. Leon D. Bonnet, 1941:61)
Watercolor has become a popular form of expression, recognized for its versatility and unique visual effects. Pigments, suspended in water, flow easily from the brush and require rapid execution and penetrating observation. It is an unforgiving medium, and its mastery takes long experience and endless practice. Many of the artists represented in the exhibition produced hundreds of watercolors in their careers in order to master the technique. (right: Winslow Homer (American), Woman with a Rose, 1879, watercolor, © San Diego Museum of Art. Bequest of Eda Hurd Lord, 1938:183)
The earliest American watercolors were modeled on the English tradition established in the 18th century. The rise of the medium's popularity was due, in part, to its portability that allowed artists to make a landscape or portrait sketch anywhere during their travels. The earliest watercolors in Mastering the Medium followed the English manner of first making a preliminary sketch in pencil before applying the pigment. These paintings are small, detailed, and dark in color. The medium was slow to gain momentum in the United States, however, until the 1870s when Winslow Homer mastered the technique, resulting in the emergence of its use by his American contemporaries. (right: Honoré Desmond Sharrer (American), What, Another Still-life?, ca. 1940, watercolor, © San Diego Museum of Art. Gift of Paul Rosenberg, 1940:84)
Watercolors kept pace with the changing styles. The sparkle and quick finish of the medium enabled American impressionists to capture fleeting light effects. Others turned to its luminescence as a means of conveying the inner spirituality of a person or place. Still others used it for social commentary, modernist examination of the precisionist ideal, or as a means to explore pure abstraction.
American watercolor reached its high point in the 20th century, particularly from the 1920s through the 1950s. At the core of the exhibition are watercolors produced during this period in California where experimental artists created what became known as the "California style." Their works were typically less detailed, making use of brilliant opaque colors and broad strokes of transparent washes.
The California school quite naturally divided itself between north and south. The northern group, dubbed the "Berkeley school," adopted an opaque style that added calligraphic drawing and outlined imagery. Representing the Berkeley school in the exhibition are Dong Kingman, George Post, and Maurice Logan, who focused on the scenic aspects of the Bay Area's urban and rural environments.
In the southern part of the state, watercolorists were drawn to the mountains, deserts, and coastal communities like San Diego. Included in the exhibition are local artists Rex Brandt, who wrote 11 books and made six films on watercolor, and Charles Rieffel, whose landscapes of Southern California won him national acclaim. Special mention should also be made of Frederic Whitaker, known as "Mr. Watercolor," who won more than 150 awards for his mastery of the medium. The exhibition will present several works by Whitaker, including La Zinacanteca, recently donated to the Museum by the Whitaker Foundation. As an exhibition, Mastering the Medium is a panorama of the rich variety and quality found in a survey of American watercolor painting, on both a national and regional level.
The following related text is excerpted from the a recent issue of the Quarterly published by the Museum:
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