Watercolor: The American Medium

Once considered a medium best suited to amateur artists or preliminary sketches, watercolor painting developed into a significant force in American art during the second half of the 19th century. By the turn of the century, watercolor painting had reached such a high level of popularity that many critics proclaimed it the “American Medium.”

Perhaps most famous today for designing the base for the Statue of Liberty, successful civil engineer and author Francis “Hop” Smith was also an accomplished watercolorist whose faithful approach to landscape resembled that of the American Pre-Raphaelites. He found his subject matter in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where he made regular summer sketching excursions. Smith’s pictures of trees earned him special praise from contemporary critics who admired his portrait-like, noble characterizations of these old forest dwellers.
Francis Hopkinson Smith (American, 1838–1915)
Forest Scene, 1874
Watercolor and graphite on paper, mounted on board
Chrysler Museum of Art, Gift of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. 71.2178
Thomas Moran (American, 1837-1926)
Shoshone Falls, Snake River, Idaho, ca. 1875
Watercolor on paper board
Gift of Mr. Hugh Gordon Miller

Working in a wide range of styles and motifs, amateur and professional artists produced watercolors of technical brilliance and captivating beauty that pushed the boundaries of the medium and positioned watercolor at the leading edges of American art.

Charles Ephraim Burchfield (American, 1893−1967)
Watering Time, 1921
Watercolor and gouache on paper, mounted on board
Chrysler Museum of Art, gift of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., 71.626

Many artists who achieved great fame for their paintings in oil such as John Singer Sargent, Thomas Moran, and John La Farge also devoted considerable attention to watercolors, producing some of their most spectacular and enduring efforts within this medium. Through the twentieth century, leading artists like Charles Demuth, John Marin, Maurice Prendergast, and Marguerite Zorach continued to embrace watercolor, which played a pivotal role in the progress of American modernism.

Charles Demuth (American, 1883−1935)
Pansies, 1915
Watercolor and graphite on paper
Chrysler Museum of Art, gift of an anonymous donor, 80.225
Best known as an illustrator of children’s books, Jessie Willcox Smith was a kindergarten teacher before beginning her art studies. She worked with the influential illustrator Howard Pyle at the Drexel Institute. His romantic imagination, rich coloring, and inventive sense of composition influenced Smith, who went on to develop a more delicate and fanciful manner of her own. Smith produced several suites of well-known illustrations for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Child’s Garden of Verses” (1914) and Charles Kingsley’s “Water Babies” (1916), both of which became classics of the genre. “With Thoughtful Eyes” is the sixth of seven illustrations for The Seven Ages of Childhood (1909) by Carolyn Wells, which shows the progression of the child from infancy to young motherhood. Smith’s work usually appeared first as black and white images in popular magazines such as “Ladies’ Home Journal” and “Good Housekeeping,” and only later as full-color reproductions in children’s books.
Jessie Willcox Smith (American, 1863-1935)
With Thoughtful Eyes, ca. 1909
Watercolor and white gouache over charcoal on illustration board, 21 7/8 x 15 15/16 in.
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
Gift of the Estate of Jessie Willcox Smith

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