Part art history tour highlighting changes in the landscape genre, part survey of a popular form, Brushed With Light: Masters of American Watercolor From the Brooklyn Museum, on display at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts through July 22, offers a rare opportunity to see a wide array of watercolor styles. The 82 paintings range from meticulously detailed forest scenes by American pre-Raphaelites to jazzy 1920s city views and dynamic abstract works.
Interestingly, these paintings are usually kept in storage, since they are susceptible to light damage (though they are sometimes shown to individuals by request). “The last time a large selection of our watercolors was on view was in 1998,” Brooklyn Museum curator Teresa Carbone says. Following its stay at the Frist Center, Brushed With Light returns to the Brooklyn Museum and then travels to Cincinnati’s Taft Museum of Art.
The pictures are hung more or less in chronological order. Albert Fitch Bellows’ “Coaching in New England” (ca. 1876) might be described as a watercolor disguised as an oil painting. It represents attempts to “equal oils in their seriousness,” Carbone explains, and it dates from a time when watercolors were considered mere preliminary sketches.
Before you get to that painting, however, you will likely have stopped to admire Winslow Homer’s Fresh Air (1878), which is strategically placed on a short wall directly across from the entranceway. (The image also appears as a large banner hanging from the building’s exterior.) It’s a deceptively simple scene of a young girl standing with sheep in a meadow.
This was one of Homer’s early watercolors, created when he was still applying all that he knew about oil painting to the medium. “If you look carefully, you’ll see that there are pencil lines and conventional technique in terms of shading and shadow,” Carbone says. The effect is impressive, with massive, billowing clouds caught on the wind. Clouds also add impact to another 1878 Homer painting, Shepherdess Tending Sheep, which has all the drama of his seascapes (examples of which are also in Brushed With Light).
Homer is considered one of the most influential of American watercolorists, and the Brooklyn Museum acquired a cache of his works after his death in 1910. Into the Jungle, Florida (1906) shows the evolution of his approach to the medium.
“He’s become a master at using loose washes that look easy but require an incredible amount of skill and intuition,” Carbone says. “It’s a very difficult medium to work in—you have to understand how the paper reacts to water, how pigment will soak in, how quickly to undo something you don’t like. And Homer really brought it to a new level of skill and intuition.”
Indeed, the deep, rich colors in the painting are a far cry from the delicate, ethereal quality commonly associated with watercolors. There are, of course, plenty of those sorts of images in Brushed With Light, including some of most beautiful paintings in the show, featured in a small room whose bright buttercream walls are the perfect complement to the impressionistic scenes.
Among them is John Singer Sargent’s “In a Levantine Port” (1905-1906), a wonderful glimpse of summer in which the angle of the boat suggests movement both horizontally (as though you’re passing by in another vessel) and vertically (as you can almost feel the boat bobbing in the water).
“What [Sargent] did every summer from about 1900 on was to travel to beautiful places and spend all his time painting watercolors,” Carbone says. “He, too, has taken watercolor to an entirely new level…he really talked with his brush and described things in a way that is a direct transmission of color.”
On an adjacent wall is Thomas Moran’s “Chicago World’s Fair” (1894), a breathtaking vertical painting that shows off the painter’s Hudson River School trademarks. Moran devotes significant space to a glowing sky and its shining reflection in a man-made lagoon, a narrow line of Columbian Expedition pavilions separating the two.
Other paintings not to miss in Brushed With Light include Edward Hopper’s “House at Riverdale (Gloucester, Mass.)” (1928); Edmund D. Lewandowski’s photorealistic “Industrial Composition” (1939); and John Wenger’s spirited “Coney Island” (1931) with its Ferris wheel.
There’s also Marguerite Zorach’s “Manhattan Landscape With View of the Queensboro Bridge—Brooklyn Landscape” (ca. 1937), a detailed name for a painting done in an airy style; and on the other end of the spectrum, the American pre-Raphaelite John William Hill’s “West Nyack, New York” (1868), which features a sprinkling of intricately rendered lilies reminiscent of those in Sargent’s “Carnation Lily, Lily Rose” (1885-1886).
“I find these works are really beautiful,” says Carbone. “I think you have to be quite close to watercolor to really see it... It doesn’t scream at you. I think there’s a wonderful kind of mood it creates between the art and the viewer.”It’s a calming mood, a perfect respite for a hot, hectic summer day.
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