Women’s access to the upper echelons of the art world was long limited by the gatekeepers, with rare exceptions. American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, celebrates a time in which the gates came crashing down.
Until the mid-19th century, watercolor was dismissed as a hobby for “ladies” who painted genteel floral subjects and portraits. It is no coincidence that Winslow Homer had a part in the tearing-down of those gates: He was first taught how to do watercolor painting by his mother, Henrietta Homer, whose art appears in the exhibition. Similarly, John Singer Sargent learned watercolor technique from women in his family.
However, it wasn’t merely the acceptance of watercolor as a legitimate medium by renowned male artists like Homer and Sargent that turned the art world on its head. It was the establishment of the American Watercolor Society by a group of New York artists. They did the unthinkable: They welcomed commercial illustrators, including women. Their first exhibition, in 1867, was nothing short of revolutionary. It broke down barriers that had kept women artists and illustrators outside museums. Considering that the emancipation of slaves had just occurred and pressure for the emancipation of women was starting to simmer, the gender inclusivity of the American Watercolor Society was groundbreaking.
Fourteen women artists are featured in the Philadelphia Museum exhibition, many of whom had been book, newspaper, and magazine illustrators or worked in the decorative arts, including textiles, stained-glass, and ceramic design. They include: Elizabeth Shippen Green, the first staff artist at Harper’s Magazine; Violet Oakley, a muralist; Jessie Wilcox-Smith, a children’s book illustrator and one of the highest paid women artists in the country; Boston socialite Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose painting recorded her travels in Egypt and whose museum would later purchase the works of Sargent.
Perhaps the most exciting paintings are two by Georgia O’Keeffe, Evening Star II and Evening Star VII, which are startling in their modernity. Painted in 1917, these paintings test the abstract and expressive potential in watercolor. O’Keeffe fans will enjoy an oversized photograph of the artist taken in 1918 by Alfred Stieglitz.
Organized around the history of the American watercolor movement, the exhibition starts with British-influenced paintings heavy on detail and traditional compositions. The paint is opaque, the brushstrokes are all but invisible, giving little indication of watercolor’s potential as a transparent, spontaneous medium. Hints of Impressionist influence are evident in works by Spanish and Italian artists. I all but ran through these rooms until I reached the looser approach taken by contemporaries of Homer and Sargent. This is where the fun starts.
Suddenly, subject matter is no longer static or serene. Homer (1836-1910) gives us turbulent seas, crews wrestling sails, and threatening skies. His paintings reflect his love of travel, adventure, and nature.