Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on March 4, 2009 with permission of the author and the Greenville County Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at Greenville County Museum of Art, 420 College Street, Greenville, SC 29601 or through either this phone number or web address:


Waterworks: 150 Years of Watercolor

by Martha R. Severens


Several noted scholars have called watercolor "The American medium." Its evolution parallels that of American art, from literal realism to personal expression. Waterworks: 150 Years of Watercolor, drawn from the collection of the Greenville County Museum of Art, is an exploration and celebration of this complex medium. In addition to an historical survey, the exhibition also showcases a varied range of techniques, from finely drawn brushwork to broad sweeping washes.

Artists first used watercolor for preliminary sketches, especially for landscapes. As painters associated with the Hudson River School ventured forth on sketching trips they took along paper, small brushes, and cakes of watercolor. These materials are lightweight and easily transported -- ideal for taking on mountain trails to remote areas. These sketches became the basis for more finished oils when the artists returned to their studios.

Early American landscapes were topographical views meant to record specific places. The single most popular and oldest landscape image was that of Niagara Falls, and the earliest work in the exhibition is an 1820 watercolor of the site by Charles Fraser, of Charleston, South Carolina, who specialized in miniature portraits. Often intended to promote the commerce of an area or to document a noteworthy site, such topographical views frequently appeared as illustrations in books or periodicals. In keeping with this intent, Fraser's version is detailed and carefully rendered.

A similar preoccupation with documentary realism pervades a group of portraits by Victorian-era women. In her likeness of an unidentified female, Caroline Carson employed a carefully stippled technique to render skin tones and the details of her sitter's finery. A Southern belle and expatriate artist, Carson's life is a fascinating story of a woman growing up in a Unionist household in antebellum Charleston; she married an older man who was an alcoholic and she was plagued by persistent financial insecurity and illness. Like other women in similar circumstances, Carson used her charm, connections, and skills as an artist to see her way through. When the Civil War began, Carson moved to New York, took art lessons, and specialized in flower paintings, portraits, and tinting photographs. She often spent prolonged periods as the guest of Northern benefactors, and this portrait may have been a token of her appreciation. In 1872, at the age of fifty, Carson relocated to Rome, where she spent the next twenty years studying and making art and mingling with the expatriate American artist colony.

Maria Howard Weeden's motivation for her portraits was very different from Carson's. Her sitters were generally members of her community in Huntsville, Alabama, who were former slaves serving as cooks, nannies, and gardeners. At a time when many artists were caricaturing African Americans, Weeden preferred to render more dignified and uplifting portraits. After visiting the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where she encountered many caustic images of the Uncle Remus variety, she resolved to pursue a different direction. She later recalled: "Then and there I awoke to the realization that right around me was a subject of supremest artistic interest -- the old ex-slave, who henceforth became theme for my muse and model for my brush."[1]

By the end of the nineteenth century, when Impressionism and plein air painting were the rage, watercolor became an end in itself. The two artists credited with securing its place as a viable and collectible medium were Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. Watercolor was a perfect vehicle for the Impressionist style, which emphasized the shifting effects of light and spontaneous brushwork. Paul Sawyier, who lived in a houseboat on the Kentucky River, gained an intimate knowledge of the river's traffic, vegetation, and changing moods. His watercolors convincingly capture the sun's glare and surface reflections along the picturesque waterway.

Childe Hassam, a leading figure of American Impressionism, found watercolor sympathetic to his interests in light and color. Hassam was both peripatetic and patriotic, which might explain his interest in such southern cities as Charleston and Richmond. He visited both locales in the mid-1920s. Following impressionist doctrine, Hassam painted this scene of Robert E. Lee's temporary quarters in Richmond "en plein air." General Lee's House illustrates the artist's fascination with flickering light on the surface of buildings.

Like Hassam, American Scene painters appreciated watercolor's small scale and portability. In the 1920s, such painters as Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, and Anna Heyward Taylor employed the medium on their travels, both for preliminary sketches and finished works. In April 1929, Hopper and his wife, Josephine, also a painter, embarked in their new automobile for Charleston, South Carolina, a destination no doubt selected because of his interest in the Civil War. They spent about three weeks there, during which time Hopper produced eleven watercolors. The Baptistry of St. John's is his only painting of a church interior during his entire career.

During the summer of 1928, Benton and a companion drove through the South in an old Ford station wagon, exploring the region's characters and customs. They arrived in New Orleans by late August and decided to explore some of the old towns up the Mississippi River. Their quest focused on the steamboat, the Tennessee Bell, the last of the old river packets. Benton sketched the deckhands as they loaded cotton and then rested. In Crap Shooters he captured the quintessential game of chance and showmanship. To convey the excitement of the moment, he animated the contours of the figures with a curving, dynamic line, as if to suggest their activity and anxiety. Using the watercolor as a point of departure, Benton later incorporated the group into his mural, Arts of the South for the Whitney Museum of American Arts. (The work is now at the New Britain Museum of American Art).

While Benton eagerly traveled throughout the South, Charles Burchfield claimed that the seven months he spent stationed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, were the most unsettling period of his life. He preferred watercolor to oil, because watercolor allowed him to get his visions down quickly. Nature had always been Burchfield's preoccupation, but his work also abounds with analogies to music and sound. Trees became critical emblems for his personal expression. At times they are depicted as dead and rotting, contorted and suffering; at other times they are verdant and lush as in Ravine in Summer Rain. In much of his early work Burchfield pushed toward abstraction, borrowing from his experience as a camouflage and wallpaper designer.

In contrast to Burchfield's penchant for compressed all-over surface design, in Palm Trees, Florida Jane Peterson opened up her composition to create a sense of airy depth. She left her dark charcoal under drawing visible to contain her color forms, a method that has been compared to cloisonné enamel. This technique is sympathetic to the European post-impressionists who emphasized structure and solidity over fleeting glimpses of dappled light.

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, one of the leading figures of the Charleston Renaissance, felt that watercolor was the medium best suited to her romantic idiom. For her clients, who were frequently Northern visitors to Charleston, the small scale and relatively modest prices made her paintings attractive purchases. In Rector's Kitchen and View of St. Michael's the handling of the church with its erect and high style steeple is controlled, while the foreground with its lush vegetation and local color is more open and fluid. In addition to promoting the architectural treasures of her native city, Smith also celebrated the charms of the surrounding countryside. Cypress in Winter is a late watercolor, exemplifying her poetic and more abstracted response to nature.

In dramatic contrast to Smith's ethereal treatment of the southern landscape, Aiden Lassell Ripley emphasized narrative content. An avid sports enthusiast, Ripley specialized in hunting, fishing, and outdoor scenes. His art attracted numerous wealthy and prestigious clients who, in turn, underwrote his painting and sporting trips to the salmon rivers of New Brunswick and the quail and duck plantations of Georgia and South Carolina. More in keeping with the social realism of the Depression era, the Museum's watercolor is a brilliantly illuminated exception to Ripley's penchant for sporting imagery.

Like many Precisionists, painters whose machine-age aesthetic shaped their geometrically structured compositions, Edmund Lewandowski translated industrial scenes into objects of beauty. Chemical Plant was one of three paintings done by the artist to secure a commission from Fortune magazine. Working with photographs for certain details, he developed a variety of composite images. Rendered in a tightly controlled style that corresponds to the insistent regularity of its composition, the painting is dominated by a large funnel-shaped machine used to dehumidify chemicals.

The Greenville County Museum of Art boasts thirty-two of Andrew Wyeth's watercolors that display the full range of his facility, from very loose and wet to detailed drybrush, a technique in which he squeezes most of the water out of his brushes before he paints. The latest addition to the collection, Under the Live Oaks, was painted by Wyeth in 1937 on a trip to Cat Island, South Carolina. The setting consists of several small structures -- the far one probably a former slave cabin -- under live oak trees, the kind of scenery that appealed to the artists of the Charleston Renaissance.

The exhibition also features a few modernist works in which the painters used watercolor to indulge personal expressions. For example, by the mid-1940s Hans Hofmann, was creating landscape-derived abstractions, many rendered on paper with gouache or watercolor. Miracle demonstrates Hofmann's penchant for vigorous brushwork and vivid color. Dated 1945, Miracle may also be his exuberant response to the conclusion of World War II.

In contrast to Hofmann's abstract expressionist visions, Walter Anderson, a native of New Orleans, worked directly from nature, reducing his subjects to a visual shorthand of organic symbols. He suffered from severe bouts of mental illness, and was finally diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Nevertheless, he continued to paint, and his extended periods on Horn Island, near Ocean Springs, Mississippi, provided him the time, space, and imagery that allowed his art to be a form of therapy.

Anderson developed a patterning technique that hovered between the concrete and the abstract. Landscape, animals, and insects are subjected to a rigid stylization that is reiterated to create a dynamic, pulsating rhythm. In Garden, the repeated forms of trees, bushes, and hillocks are linked with one another in a systematic organization that is further enhanced by the complementary colors yellow and purple.

A post-war generation of realists is well represented by artists such as Mary Whyte, Hubert Shuptrine, Stephen Scott Young, and Henry Casselli. A transplanted Northerner, Mary Whyte found subject matter and solace along the South Carolina coast. At the Hebron Zion St. Francis Senior Center on Johns Island near Charleston she found willing models and life-affirming warmth after a bout with cancer. Significantly, Whyte elects to portray her sitters in their worlds, rarely bringing them back to her studio. In Steam Iron, one of Whyte's most recent paintings, she explores the expressive potential of rich darks and the ephemeral nature of steam. Contrasting the liquid handling in Whyte's Steam Iron, Shuptrine attained a precision in his rendering of Geechee's flesh tones that is reminiscent of Maria Howard Weeden's portraits of a hundred years earlier.

In its eclectic subject matter and variety of technical approaches, the exhibition Waterworks: 150 Years of Watercolor demonstrates the rich tradition of watercolor in this country. The forty-five paintings also mirror the history of American art, ranging from an early emphasis on portraiture to modernism, abstract expressionism, and contemporary realism.


1 As quoted in Mary Brabson Littleton, "Howard Weeden, Poetess and Artist," Confederate Veteran


About the author

Martha Severens has been curator at Greenville County Museum of Art for over 15 years. She has also been curator at the Portland Museum of Art (Maine) and Gibbes Museum of Art (Charleston, South Carolina). She holds a bachelor's degree from Wells College and a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Greenville County Museum of Art: The Southern Collection, The Charleston Renaissance, and William Halsey. She has also written about David Hare, Alice Smith, and Andrew Wyeth.


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on March 4, 2009, with permission of the author and the Greenville County Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on February 10, 2009.

This article appeared in the September - October 2004 issue of American Art Review and pertains to an exhibition that was on view at the Greenville County Museum of Art in the fall of 2004.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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