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

essay by Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr.



Pastel had been employed by American artists since the time of John Singleton Copley and well before, but its modern rediscovery stems from its use at mid-century by Jean François Millet in France, then by its being adopted by many of the French impressionists, including Degas, Morisot, and Renoir, and their American colleague Mary Cassatt. The medium flourished in the hands of Whistler in 1879­80, and was quickly taken up during the 1880s by a number of other highly gifted practitioners, most of whom can be loosely characterized as American "impressionists." Interestingly, there was a second pastel revival during the first decades of the twentieth century, when the medium was brilliantly employed by members of the group of American artists known as the Eight, including Everett Shinn and Robert Henri, and by some of the Stieglitz artists, including Dove, O'Keeffe, and Morton Schamberg.

Aside from the splendid Whistler pastels of Venice and other subjects that came in 1943 with the Winthrop bequest, Harvard was slow to collect works in this medium. Fortunately, Winthrop also gave the Fogg Museum a delicate pastel drawing, Standing Woman, by Thomas W. Dewing. His taste, however, did not extend to Childe Hassam, Maurice Prendergast, or William Merritt Chase, all of whose work was only rediscovered by collectors in the 1960s, and thus we lack pastels by those masters. Fortunately we have been able to borrow for this exhibition what is perhaps Chase's most stunning pastel, the Self-Portrait of around 1884, which was included in the 1884 inaugural exhibition of the Society of American Painters in Pastel in New York. In addition, through the years the Fogg has acquired several important pastels by other artists, including a splendid pair of views of Niagara by the multitalented Sarah Wyman Whitman, a 1939 gift, and more recent purchases of pastels by William Morris Hunt and J. Frank Currier.

The Fogg collection, driven as it was by the purchases by Forbes and Sachs during the twenties and thirties and by the Winthrop gift of 1943, is marvelously idiosyncratic. Its strengths greatly outweigh its weaknesses, though in retrospect one wishes that the museum's directors had pressed on to the work of O'Keeffe and Hartley once they started collecting the Stieglitz circle, and that Winthrop had developed a taste for such turn-of-the-century artists as Chase or Shinn, among others.

After 1943, and for the rest of the century, the Fogg was relatively inactive in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century American field. However, during these years the museum's collection of mid-twentieth-century works on paper grew exponentially, both through individual donations and purchases and through the arrival of another highly important, idiosyncratic collection, the gift of Lois Orswell in the years 1994-98. Many of Orswell's works on paper by David Smith, Gaston Lachaise, Arshile Gorky, and many others fall outside the scope of this exhibition, but in just one example included herein, Reclining Woman by Willem de Kooning, this great collector's eye is evident.

Watercolor never lost its popularity, or its usefulness to even the most progressive artists. At mid-century, the abstract expressionists put it to good use in their studies, as can be seen in this exhibition in a dazzling sheet from around 1945 by Mark Rothko, or the powerful image made by Richard Poussette-Dart during the same period. Even more surprisingly, one finds Ad Reinhardt -- whom we think of as a painter of austere, monochromatic work -- in the mid-forties taking up watercolor in order to experiment with a new abstract style notable for its rich colors sensuously applied.

The collection of American watercolors and pastels at the Harvard University Art Museums offers extraordinary opportunities for examining the varying ways these mediums have been employed by some of the greatest masters in our history. These works provide a unique case history in the way a great collection has been built by collectors and curators, aided by good fortune. For the present custodians, these fragile objects inspire our dedication to safekeeping and conservation, research, and teaching; to continuing to build the collection; and to the simple pleasures of contemplation.


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