Rarely on view due to their fragility and sensitivity to light, the Art Museum’s extensive holdings of American watercolors are notable for their breadth and quality as well as for the institution’s historical commitment to the collection’s growth. Assembled over the course of nearly a century, from before most museums accorded the medium serious notice, the collection today affords a comprehensive overview of American artists’ sustained engagement with watercolor painting.

This summer the Art Museum presents its first-ever exhibition devoted solely to American watercolors. Painting on Paper: American Watercolors at Princeton comprises highlights from the Museum’s rich collection, supplemented by loans from the University’s Graphic Arts, Rare Books and Manuscripts, and Western Americana collections housed in Firestone Library and from several alumni and patrons. The diverse works on view reveal watercolor’s distinct character, in which line and color combine to produce effects of unparalleled nuance and subtlety. Arranged in eight chronological sections, the exhibition illustrates the medium’s evolution in this country while offering insight into broad trends and abiding themes in American art across two centuries.

Painting on Paper opens with early 19th-century landscape watercolors, which, while meant to be pleasing aesthetically, were also intended to function as literal depictions of specific localities. Such precision provided information about the growing nation in several guises: urban, rural, and frontier. Their descriptive orientation stands in contrast to that of the slightly later Hudson River School, whose first practitioners were more concerned with portraying the sweeping grandeur of nature than its particulars. Watercolors of figural subjects were also widely produced at the start of the 19th century, in significant part by folk artists, whose clientele valued figure painting’s capacity for narrative and portraiture’s ability, in an era of high mortality, to record likenesses for posterity. Most of the exhibition’s early figurative works are drawn from the Museum’s esteemed Edward Duff Balken, Class of 1897, Collection of American Folk Art, among the first of its kind.

American watercolor painting entered its period of greatest popularity during the mid-19th century, due in part to technical advances: brighter pigments packed in portable metal tubes. In 1850 the first professional organization of American watercolor artists was formed, marking the beginning of a new era of increased exposure and respectability. Originally known as the Society for the Promotion of Painting in Water Color, the group is still active as the American Watercolor Society.

An evolution in style paralleled the midcentury changes in the medium’s appeal and stature. Responding to the influence of the British art critic John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites — an artists’ group advocating a return to the highly detailed, richly colored, complex compositions of early Renaissance painters — many American watercolorists adopted a technique in which small, uniformly stippled strokes were applied to paper with a relatively dry brush.

Works produced in this manner by artists such as Charles Herbert Moore share a sharp focus and clarity of detail, reflecting Ruskin’s beliefs that nothing in an image should be vague and that all parts of nature are equally worthy of attention.

Following the Civil War, a fundamental shift occurred in American art and culture. The publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” in 1859 undercut long-held spiritual and religious beliefs about nature, and the war and its aftermath brought traumatic disruptions to American political and social life. Whereas American watercolors had tended toward increased detail and realism — products of a carefully observed conception of the world — a new generation of watercolorists produced work that was more personal, generalized, and loosely treated. The war had tainted Americans’ notions of their pristine land, causing many artists to abandon the celebration of the nation’s physical splendor and turn inward instead.

In keeping with this shift toward introspection was an enhanced focus on imagery of the human figure, above all in the work of Winslow Homer. Beginning in the 1870s, Homer revolutionized American watercolor painting with his thorough understanding of its distinctive properties, evolving a style in which broad washes increasingly replaced line in rendering mass and atmosphere.

While Winslow Homer was perfecting his watercolor technique in New England, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, scores of American artists continued to flock to Europe, where a period of study had long been deemed essential to a serious artist’s education. Regularly recording their travels in watercolor, they created a substantial body of images depicting European subjects. Perhaps the most virtuosic of all American watercolorists, the expatriate John Singer Sargent turned to the medium with increased frequency around 1900, often while on extended European trips. He brought to these works on paper the same technical mastery and spontaneous, bravura style that characterized his oil paintings. Others such as John La Farge similarly capitalized on watercolor’s ease of use during travel, creating both finished works and notational sketches of exotic locales that conveyed the allure of distant lands and diverse cultures.

Around the turn of the 19th century, many American artists adopted in varying degrees the style of French Impressionism — though only Childe Hassam worked extensively in watercolor, producing images characterized by a vibrant brushstroke whose interest is often independent of its descriptive function. Work such as this underscored the tensions between abstraction and realism, which contested and paralleled one another in American art throughout much of the 20th century. At the same time, artists of the so-called Ashcan School demonstrated a commitment to portraying the gritty actualities of contemporary city life with a relative realism. Although their urban-focused, figurative orientation lost much of its force during the 1920s, the other major thrust of the modern movement, that of the abstractionists, continued to flourish. In contrast to their counterparts in Europe, American abstractionists used the watercolor medium with unprecedented frequency, with Charles Demuth and John Marin making it the primary component of their artistic practice.

Artists of the mid-20th century turned to watercolor less regularly, although when they did it was often with significant results. Edward Hopper brought to his watercolors the arid, unpeopled realism of his oil paintings, filling them with a similar sense of loneliness and his peculiarly airless, mysterious light. Charles Burchfield produced ambitiously evocative landscapes in a more mystical vein, working in watercolor almost exclusively throughout his long career. Social Realists such as Ben Shahn imbued their more politically minded images with the expressive human forms and emotional intensity that characterized their work in other media, painting topical watercolors addressing themes of injustice during the years of the Great Depression, World War II, and beyond.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, fewer avant-garde artists employed pure watercolor, opting instead to execute their works on paper in gouache — an opaque variant of transparent watercolor — or one of the drawing media more suited to their often linear and muscular styles. Yet, as postwar artists embraced a range of media and practices, watercolor remained a vital technique for many, including the painters Richard Diebenkorn, Sam Francis, and Jacob Lawrence and the Pop artist Claes Oldenburg. Later employed by figures as dissimilar as Bill Jensen and William Wylie, watercolor continues to be explored in a range of often unorthodox ways, amply reflecting American artists’ persistent investigation of the medium’s varied uses and distinctive esthetic rewards.

Karl Kusserow is the John Wilmerding Curator of American Art. Laura M. Giles is the Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970, Curator of Prints and Drawings. Reprinted from the Princeton University Art Museum Magazine.

Painting on Paper: American Watercolors at Princeton, Princeton University Art Museum. Saturday, June 27, through Sunday, August 30. artmuseum.princeton.edu.

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