Oh Wow … Yes, Blown Far & Away!


Like most of us, as a teen, I was hard to impress. Chalk it up to: intellectual arrogance and rambunctious, an overly serious geeky nature, my faux jaded persona, or any other form of silly youthful naiveté that you can imagine. But back then, even before I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life making art,  I had figured out that art could floor me. Like science or music, art images were able to spin my head around and send me into reveries, into near stupors of joyous confusion and awe.

I had a hunger for seeing and knowing through seeing; drawing as a means of understanding the world became central to me. Perhaps because observation was developing into a key pathway, I began to hold Cézanne and Sheeler as exciting and fundamentally important heroes as Leaky and Cousteau were for me. Little did I know then, that instead of the archeologist’s, naturalist’s, or marine biologist’s adventures in scientific exploration that I had envisioned, I would end up in a life of visual investigation and creation. Once I started to move toward making art, my youthfully arrogant and ambitious ego somehow imagined I would be a great draftsman and an oil painter … the next Sargent, Homer, Hopper, Wyeth, or even Diebenkorn.

A Garden in Nassau, 1885. Winslow Homer

A Garden In Nassua, Winslow Homer

So, while still a teen, I began to study art more and more, even taking classes in drawing, painting, and classically based (dynamic symmetry) design with Betty Dickerson. She was a noted artist and art-educator who, along with her husband, the Regionalist era artist Bill Dickerson, had firmly establish the art school of the Wichita Art Association. Soon I began to fall in love with the late 19th and early 20th century American Realists and Tonalists, French Post-Impressionists and German Expressionists, and most especially … the Early American Modernists.

Apples and Green Glass, Charles Demuth

It was only later that I realize all of the artists that I really admired had experimented extensively with and had made major works in watercolor. These artists became formative in my artistic development. And, as many of you know while I adore the act of drawing and that I love painting in all of its many forms … it is the use of aqueous media, especially watercolor, that I intrigues me so very frequently .

Well, if I needed a reminder of what it was that pulled me into this particular version of optical overload and vision based thinking, this spring I need have looked no further than the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art.

You see, there is an exhibition up in Philadelphia for just a few more days that catalogues some of the very best of American watercolor art. The work runs the gamut of the 19th Century and even sneaks in a few of the best watercolor works from the first decades of the 20th century.

There are early artists that I didn’t know well … and even some that I had never heard of at all. One such artist, George Henry Smillie has a delicious small work in the exhibit.  It is a depiction of a beach and the low scrub brush just off the water’s edge. I remember trying to paint similar view when I lived in Florida and Georgia. This one seems effortless.  I know it can’t have been.

george+henry+smillie,+coastal+scene,+new+york

 Coastal Scene, New York, George Henry Smillie

There certainly are pieces that many will recognize as well as a few surprises too. There is one of Georgia O’keene’s Evening Star series and even Eakin’s John Biglin in A Single Scull. I had only seen reproductions of Fidelia Bridges, Milkweeds and Tiffany’s Peonies in the Wind; here they are!  Wonderfully idiosyncratic, both of them.

    MilkWeed                                Peonies in the Wind                                                                                                    Fidelio Bridges                           Louis Comfort Tiffany

I knew of Thomas Moran’s larger than life, heroically-scaled oil paintings. And knowing how artists of his day worked, I assumed he used watercolor as a study and sketching technique. Still his pieces in watercolor surprised me with both their subtlety and their power. While his figures are not always to my liking (a bit too fussy for my taste), the landscapes do not fair badly in comparison to Turner’s.

Big Springs in Yellowstone Park, 1872. Thomas Moran

If I were to have any reservations at all about this show, it is that it stops too soon. It is an understandable thing though. I saw a similar exhibit detailing the entire history of British watercolors (Watercolour, Tate, 2011) … if you want to read about that show, see my blog posts from August 18th and August 20th, 2011. That show ran on and on, and while I was in heaven, it was huge.

This show stops after giving us only a hint, a tantalizing foretaste, of the exquisite watercolors of the early and late 20th century in America. While I can hope that someone out there will put together a really extensive 20th C. American Watercolor show in the near future (please, please, please!), the PMFA exhibition is super

Edward Hopper, Haskell's House, 1924

Whether you are looking for an excellent reason to be in Philadelphia (besides Rodin, a cheesesteak, the Liberty Bell, to sip a Yards, to see all the construction going on) or you just want to take in some of the best watercolors 19th and early 20th century America offered up … check out the American Watercolor exhibit at the PMFA.  You only have a two weekends left!

PS: If you can’t make it … the catalog is excellent. A near rival to the big book detailing the whole history of American Watercolors by Christopher Finch back in 1986.

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2 Responses to “Oh Wow … Yes, Blown Far & Away!”

  1. perettipoems Says:

    Thanks for this!!! Fabulous!

  2. St Brigid Press Says:

    Wonderful — thanks, John!

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