The Harvard University Art Museums will present American Watercolors and Pastels, 1875-1950, at the Fogg Art Museum from April 8 to June 25, 2006. The exhibition features 52 watercolors and pastels primarily drawn from the extensive holdings of the Fogg, as well as signiﬁcant works lent by friends of the Art Museums. This will be the ﬁrst showing of these treasures of American art since 1936, when the Fogg presented American Watercolors from the Museum’s Collection, and will give the public an opportunity to examine a selection of works that are rarely put on display because of their sensitivity to light. The exhibition focuses on works created during what scholars consider the medium’s “golden age” of experimentation and development.
The period from 1875 to 1950 saw the status of the watercolor shift dramatically. Works on paper until that time usually served only as studies or preparatory works for ﬁnished oil paintings, but beginning in the late 19th century, drawings and watercolors were exhibited more regularly in their own right. Artists such as Winslow Homer began painting complete scenes in watercolor and exhibiting them as ﬁnished works in commercial galleries. Homer pushed the medium formally, scratching into the surface of the paper to create highlights and experimenting with washes, opaque applications of paint. John Singer Sargent also helped to establish the merits of the medium, preferring watercolor for its portability, and utilizing it on his travels to make informal sketches that stood on their own and did not necessarily serve preparatory ends.
By the early 20th century, gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz introduced modernism to a skeptical New York audience with exhibitions of watercolors by John Marin and Charles Demuth, drawings and watercolors by Georgia O’Keeﬀe, and pastels by Arthur G. Dove. American modernism contributed signiﬁcantly to the evolution of the watercolor and helped to establish its status as an important American medium. O’Keeﬀe developed her signature style by exploring abstraction in watercolor and pastel, inexpensive and quick materials that lent themselves to experimentation. She and her contemporaries like Marin and Stuart Davis took advantage of this ease of experimentation to develop formal innovations, resulting in unique pieces that were displayed as ﬁnished works. Today, these watercolors are among the most highly valued objects of the American modernist period.
The exhibition was organized by Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., Curator of American Art, and Virginia Anderson, Assistant Curator of American Art. “The exhibition came out of our work on a comprehensive collections catalogue of American painting, watercolor, pastel, and stained glass at the Harvard University Art Museums,” said Stebbins. “As we compiled the list of objects for that catalogue project, it became clear that the Fogg’s collection from this period and in these media was particularly strong and deserving of an exhibition.” Anderson adds, “This is an opportunity to present to the public a wonderful selection of important American works, the majority of which are unpublished. Through this exhibition, we can bring these works to light so that they can receive critical and scholarly attention.”
The Fogg Art Museum has long been known for its collection of works on paper and a signiﬁcant portion of the collection includes some six thousand American drawings, watercolors, and pastels dating from the 18th through the early 21st century. This serious interest in American watercolors stems from the period of the 1910s and 1920s, a time when the medium was winning new levels of recognition in the U.S. The Fogg’s collection was driven by two former directors and by the generous gift of an important collector. The Fogg’s second director, Edward E. Forbes, who served from 1909 to 1944, was himself an amateur watercolorist of some ability, and his assistant director from 1915 to 1944 was the legendary drawings collector Paul Sachs. Together, Forbes and Sachs energetically built the collection, pursuing works by Homer, Marin, Demuth, and Hopper, and they exempliﬁed the Fogg’s commitment to depth and strength in a speciﬁc area by acquiring several pieces by each artist.
The Fogg’s holdings of 19th century American watercolors and pastels were greatly enhanced with the bequest of the Winthrop Collection in 1943. Grenville L. Winthrop is best remembered for his magniﬁcent collection of Asian art and for his superb holdings of French and British paintings and drawings, but he also collected extensively the work of a quartet of American masters of the late 19th century: Homer, LaFarge, Whistler, and Sargent. Winthrop’s gift of 136 American drawings, watercolors, and pastels, along with 57 paintings and 35 sculptures, makes him Harvard’s most important donor in this ﬁeld to date.
“Our collection of American watercolors and pastels is extraordinary, and it’s a pleasure for us to bring them to a new generation of students, scholars, and the public,” said Thomas W. Lentz, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums. “I am also particularly grateful to the private collectors who generously lent us some of their most treasured objects, which allow us to present this rich view of American art.”
The exhibition features a comprehensive presentation of American artists in this ﬁeld and includes a number of outstanding examples from the Fogg’s collection. Homer’s Mink Pond (1891), and Hunter in the Adirondacks (1892), Sargent’s Group in the Simplon (1911), and La Farge’s Chinese Pi-tong (1879) are signiﬁcant works from the 19th century. From the 20th century, de Kooning’s Reclining Woman (c. 1948–49), Demuth’s Fruit and Sunﬂowers (c. 1925), Hopper’s Highland Light (1930), two versions of Mt. Chocorua by John Marin from 1926, and Rothko’s untitled (1944–46) are all notable works. In addition to presenting these highlights from the Fogg’s collection, there are a number of signiﬁcant works on loan from private collections, including Chase’s Self-Portrait (c. 1884), Stuart Davis’s Study for Eggbeater #3 (1928), Georgia O’Keeﬀe’s Portrait—Black (1918), and Helen Torr’s Zinnias (c. 1929–35).
The exhibition will be accompanied by a brochure with 12 color reproductions, a checklist, and a short essay by curator Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. The brochure is made possible by the Bolton Fund for American Art, Gift of the Payne Fund.