American Watercolors and Pastels, 1875­1950, at the Fogg Art Museum

essay by Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr.

 



 

In 1928, the museum turned to John Marin, at the time the most popular painter from the Stieglitz circle. Stieglitz had regularly exhibited and touted Marin's watercolors since 1909, and the fact that Marin worked primarily in watercolor did not prevent his reputation from soaring during the 1920s. The contemporary German critic and art historian Julius Meier-Graefe went so far as to say "Marin can pass today as the representative of art in America." [2] The Fogg acquired its first three Marins in 1928, including two purchases: Mt. Chocorua No. 5 (1926), bought with the Bettens Fund, and Mt. Chocorua No. 1 of the same year. Interestingly, on this occasion Forbes and his colleagues deliberately acquired two watercolors made at the same time of the same subject: they recognized the particular usefulness to a teaching museum of such closely comparable works, showing as they do the artist working in a relatively realist, heavily layered mode in one, then turning to a more open and abstract manner in the other.

During the same few years Forbes and Sachs also recognized the strength of Edward Hopper's work. Though not a member of the Stieglitz circle, being far less self-conscious in his modernism than they and not possessing a natural "touch" in the watercolor medium, Hopper nonetheless ranks as one of the most powerful artists of his generation. The Fogg in 1927 purchased both Manhattan Bridge (1925) and Libby House, Portland, Maine (1927); by 1934 it had added the iconic Highland Light (1930) and the boldly geometric Cold Storage Plant (1933). The Fogg acquired a fifth major Hopper watercolor Harvard in 1982, when The Jenness House, Truro (1934) came as the bequest of Virginia Jenness.

Surprisingly, neither Sargent nor Whistler -- now two of the mainstays of the collection -- held much interest for Forbes or Sachs. After the purchase of the watercolor Sunday at Domburg in 1917 and the collector Philip Hofer's 1929 gift of a fine chalk drawing, Tillie (1870­73), there were no further Whistler additions until the Winthrop bequest of 1943. The lack of interest in Sargent's watercolors seems even more surprising, given Forbes's earlier purchase of the oil Lake O'Hara. One wonders whether the Museum of Fine Arts purchase of forty-five Sargent watercolors in 1912 was a factor here. It was only in 1927 that the first Sargent watercolor came to Harvard, in the form of the splendid Group in the Simplon (1911, the gift of the legendary art dealer Joseph Duveen.

A hallmark of the Fogg's collection has always been its commitment to certain artists, and its depth and strength in specific areas. The museum's directors set an early example for this strategy in pursuing Homer, Marin, Demuth, and Hopper so energetically, and by not being satisfied with just one or two examples by each. Unfortunately other modernists equally celebrated for their work on paper, including Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur G. Dove, and Stuart Davis, were not collected with the same diligence, and to this day are not adequately represented in the collection. Thus we are immensely grateful for the loans of some superb works by each of these artists, which temporarily fill several of our major gaps.

The museum's holdings of nineteenth-century American watercolors and pastels were greatly enriched with the bequest of the Grenville L.Winthrop collection in 1943. Winthrop is best remembered for his magnificent collection of Asian art, especially for his rich holdings of archaic Chinese jades and bronze ritual vessels, and for his extraordinary holdings of French and British paintings and drawings, especially of Ingres, Moreau, Blake, Burne-Jones, and Rossetti. [3] However, Winthrop was also drawn to the work of a quartet of American masters -- Homer, La Farge, Whistler, and Sargent -- and he collected each in depth. Winthrop's gift of 136 American drawings, watercolors, and pastels, along with 57 paintings and 35 sculptures makes him Harvard's most important donor in the American field. To put his gift in context, without Winthrop the Harvard Art Museums would have only the two watercolors and pastels by Whistler described above, rather than the thirty-three we presently own; similarly ten of our fourteen La Forge watercolors, and ten of our twenty-five watercolors by Homer, along with seven of our best Sargent watercolors, all came from Winthrop. [4]

 

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