A Medium for the Masses and Masters Alike

brochure essay by Alexander J. Noelle

for the exhibition The Great American Watercolor


"You will see, in the future I will live by my watercolors." (1)


- Winslow Homer


Many of America's most esteemed masters have a substantial portion of their best works hidden from public view. Rarely exhibited due to their fragile nature, watercolors demonstrate the talent necessary to produce a successful work in this simple yet intricate medium. While the materials needed to create watercolors are easily transportable, inexpensive, and minimal, the resulting artworks can be unpredictable, require a substantial amount of spontaneity, and are unforgiving. The moment that pigment touches the paper, there is no going back and the artist has no room for error. Every drop of paint and brush stroke is visible in the finished painting, making a successful watercolor difficult to produce and a detailed or large-scale one almost impossible. Oil painting, on the other hand, is relatively expensive, requires a good amount of paraphernalia, and can be reworked for years to complete perfection. Nineteenth century artist and art theorist A. F. Bellows agreed, saying that, "for certain luminous qualities, for purity of tint and tone, for delicate gradations, especially in skies and distances, watercolor has decided advantages over oil." (2)

Unfortunately, watercolor is a medium that is largely anachronistic today. Difficult to preserve and exhibit due to its unstable nature and fragility of the vivid colors, watercolors occupy little wall space in museums. This disassociation of watercolors with public exhibition spaces has led many viewers to consider them domestic or second-rate. While most are small and intimate works, their exquisite freshness and sense of impulsive reaction deserves attention beyond the homes of private collectors. Many watercolors were studies for larger oil paintings and gave artists a medium in which they could quickly and judiciously explore an idea. Windows into the minds of some of the most celebrated American artists, these lively works on paper reveal personal nuances and techniques obscured in the laborious process of completing an oil painting.

While watercolor was a choice medium for amateur artists due to its simplicity in preparation and application, it was also a favorite among the established masters who sought to explore its full potential and versatility. John Ruskin believed "there is nothing that obeys the artist's hand, nothing that records the subtlest pleasures of sight so perfectly" (3) as watercolor. Celebrated for its ability to capture a fleeting moment, watercolor became a medium known for its sense of intimacy and improvisation. Every brushstroke and thought of the artist was laid instinctively onto the paper, and the uniquely translucent lighting effects made the artworks come to life. Artists from every major American art movement from the 1800s to the present have experimented with and explored this multifaceted medium to create their own spontaneous visions on paper.

In its simplest form, watercolor dates back to cave painting when pigment was mixed directly with water and applied to the walls. The civilizations of Egypt, Etruria, Rome, India, Persia, and the religions of the Middle East have rich histories of watercolor. However, the Chinese and Japanese established in the second century BCE the first major school of watercolor. In medieval Europe, this medium exploded in popularity with the growth of the paper industry circa 1500. Prior to this, paper was a luxury few could afford and even fewer could "waste" on the production of watercolors. Over the next 250 years, many European masters experimented and developed the medium. English artists completing the Grand Tour used a combination of sketching and watercolor to record their travels and works of art they encountered. In the 1780s, pure watercolors without underdrawings began to gain popularity among European artists. Renowned painters like J. M. W. Turner explored possible effects of light and shadow using watercolor's translucency, and sparked respect for the medium as a form of elite painting. By 1800, readymade and travel-worthy watercolors were mass-produced in England and exported to the United States.

Unlike Europeans, Americans immediately embraced watercolor as an independent, established, and respected medium. Many American painters produced their best works in both media. Some, like Charles Demuth and John Singer Sargent, produced oils for money, but personally preferred watercolors. Demuth commented, "I'd rather do a watercoloroil paints are so messy." (4)

Americans inherited a mature technique of watercolor painting from England, but each artist made it uniquely his or her own. John LaFarge's enchantingly fragile and translucent details that "seemed to be made of a breath or a blush,"(5) Winslow Homer's profound and sobering themes, Maurice Prendergast's impressionist and pointillist visions, John Marin's distinct and dynamic fragmented style, and Edward Hopper and the American Realists' objective view of life all utilized inherited techniques, but took watercolor in extremely different directions. Commenting on the adaptability of the medium, Charles Demuth said, "John Marin and I drew our inspiration from the same sources. He brought his up in buckets and spilled much along the way. I dipped mine out with a teaspoon but I never spilled a drop."(6) Watercolor played a vital role in the development of these and many other movements. This explosion of approaches was uniquely American, for no such exploration of the medium's potential and flexibility had occurred in Europe.

In 1866, as American watercolorists broke into the art world and the new medium came of age, 11 painters founded the American Society of Painters in Watercolors in New York City. Their objective was simple: to promote the art of watercolor painting in America. They combated the residual sentiments of certain artists and viewers who thought that watercolor was a form of sketching, and not a stand-alone art form. Through annual exhibitions of the country's best examples, the Society demonstrated that masterpieces could be made in watercolor as well as oil.

In 1882, the American art world was rocked by a scandal that not only divided established artists, amateurs, and illustrators, but also definitively established watercolor as a true and respected medium on both a national and international level. The Society hosted in that year their most successful annual exhibition since the inaugural show in 1867. In response to complaints about overly packed annual exhibitions that displayed watercolors from ankle height to the cornices of the Society's gallery, in 1882 the Hanging Committee decided to opt for a sparser show, despite an increase in submissions. Although 850 works were accepted by the Board of Control and handed off to the Hanging Committee, the Chairman and two Committee members, at their own discretion, expelled over 200 accepted works of art in order to guarantee a less claustrophobic exhibition. They cut those artists who were not friends, established artists, or members of the Society. In the end, an elite 5% of the accepted artists dominated over 20% of the gallery space. (7)

There were allegations of corruption. The rejected artists organized their own exhibition. There were even talks of creating a rival society. The media reported on this American "Salon de Refusés" of over 300 watercolors and illustrations, and published stories about sabotage by the Society and the injustices of which the Hanging Committee was guilty. By comparing this exhibition to the first Salon de Refusés in 1863 that displayed masterpieces by Edouard Manet and James McNeill Whistler as well as the subsequent Salon of 1874 in which the French Impressionists gained international attention, the press put American watercolorists on the same level of world-famous artists.

The "victims" of this scandal were predominantly illustrators, women, and amateurs - all of whom were relatively unwelcome at the National Academy and Society of American Artists. Through the former openness of the Society's exhibitions, these minority artists were able to have works exhibited and sold. People were used to getting into the Annual Exhibition, no matter who they were, and the 1882 rejections hurt those who needed exhibition opportunities the most. Illustrators were the largest constituency in the Society. Exhibitions were the main route for them to become established artists and, more importantly, receive commissions for jobs. Women were also found in masses at these exhibitions. In the 19th century, it was common for women, such as Margaretta Angelica Peale, to learn watercolor as part of their education, along with music and dance. It was rare that a woman would seriously pursue art as a profession, yet the Society made no regulations of gender and gave many of these artists the first step towards a career. Amateur artists also benefited from the Society's enthusiasm for new works on paper, yet they too were cast out in droves. From that year on, the Society exclusively exhibited works by members and established artists.

The most important factor of this scandal was the international attention focused on watercolor as an established medium. Suddenly and decisively at the center of the art world, watercolor was revealed as a medium not only for established artists, but also for anyone who wanted to try their hand at painting. Inexpensive materials encouraged students, women, and amateurs to experiment, and the low price of finished artworks by the masters encouraged collectors to view these works on paper in a new and respectful light. A turning point in American art history, 1882 marks the establishment of watercolor as a respected and independent medium.

In less than 100 years since its arrival from England, watercolor saturated the American market. In Europe, it took over 500 years for watercolor to be developed, respected, and accepted as its own form of art. Inspired by the possibilities and nuances offered by this new and exciting medium, Americans embraced watercolor and made it their own. Since the 1880s, American watercolor art has been unmatched in substance, variation, and importance, and is second to none in its contribution to the development of the international watercolor tradition. The spirit of individualism and spontaneity achievable in a successful watercolor encourages artists to this day to engage the subtle medium. Sol LeWitt, Walton Ford, and Fay Ku are just a few artists who have continued the American tradition of exploring and experimenting with watercolor as a primary medium into the 21st century by using traditionally intimate techniques to create dramatic and monumental contemporary masterpieces.



1. John Howat, Victor Koshkin-Youritzin, and Stephen Rubin, American Watercolors from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: The American Federation of Arts, 1991), p. 13.

2. Kate F. Jennings, American Watercolors (Avenel, New Jersey: Brompton Books Corporation, 1995), p. 9

3. Howat et al., American Watercolors, p. 13.

4. Jennings, American Watercolors, p. 18.

5. Ibid., p. 12.

6. Ibid., p. 18.

7. Kathleen A. Foster, "The Watercolor Scandal of 1882: An American Salon des Refusés," Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1979): p. 20.


About the author

Alexander J. Noelle is Curator for The Great American Watercolor and Assistant Curator at the New Britain Museum of American Art.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above essay, included in the exhibition brochure for The Great American Watercolor, was reprinted in Resource Library on May 15, 2010, with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art, which was granted to TFAO on May 5, 2010.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Alexander J. Noelle and Claudia Thesing of the New Britain Museum of American Art for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above essay.

Return to The Great American Watercolor

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2010 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.