Art: Review: From Winslow Homer to Edward Hopper

Taft Museum highlights American watercolor masterpieces

Apr 14, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Taft Museum of Art

Thomas Hart Benton "Lassoing Horses" is part of the Taft Museum's exhibition of watercolor masterpieces.

From Winslow Homer to Edward Hopper: American Watercolor Masterpieces from the Brooklyn Museum, now on view at the Taft, is a pleasure from start to finish. Despite the title (thought up by a marketing department rather than curatorial?), the start is not Winslow Homer and the finish is only obliquely Edward Hopper.

The Homer paintings are plentiful and welcome, freer and more masterful than much of what went before. The Taft shows them in the same area as three dazzling Sargents. What went before, however, is interesting and often appealing.

Watercolor, easily used out-of-doors, was the medium of choice for late-18th-century American draftsmen documenting the landscape for practical purposes. The exhibition opens with several of these works, all by artists you've never heard of. They employ watercolor with precision, often painting over graphite or ink. As landscape came to be valued for its picturesque self, watercolorists adopted the subject for reproduction and illustration.

From Winslow Homer to Edward Hopper, grouped by school and approach, moves on to the galvanizing effect of a mid-19th century exhibition from England in which watercolor mingled on equal terms with oils rather than as second-class citizens.

American oil painters gave watercolor a try, a society of watercolorists was formed and the natural world became a preferred subject. Thomas Eakins was among the oil painters lured into the medium. His "Whistling for Plover" (1874) is a virtuoso handling of transparent and opaque watercolors in a composition in which three-quarters of the page is given over to expressive sky.

Originally, all watercolors were transparent, pigments ground with a water-soluble binder and diluted with water. Lead white or zinc oxide, added to standard watercolor, produces an opaque paint. The two can work well together. An example of opaque watercolor is the curious "The Cotton-Tail Rabbit among Dry Grasses and Leaves" (1904), by artist-naturalists Gerald H. Thayer and Emma Beach Thayer, illustrating in impeccable detail nature's own camouflage.

It's interesting to see styles more familiar in oils translated into watercolor. Maurice Prendergast's distinctive touch is slightly altered in "Sunday on the Beach" (1896-98), recognizable at second glance if not at first. John Marin absorbed lessons from Cubism and so did Charles Demuth, while Reginald Marsh's "Girl on Fourteenth Street" retains her street smarts in watercolor as expertly as any of her sisters portrayed by the artist in oils. Who would have thought Thomas Hart Benton's scrappy figures would have the same energy in watercolor as oil? See his "Lassoing Horses" (1931).

The lone Hopper, "House at Riverdale" (1928), is in the final section. The wall label tells us Hopper first was noticed as a watercolorist, although this work doesn't have the authority of the oils we associate so vividly with him. Nearby is the marvelously alive "Gulls at Shipwreck Bay" (1927) by William Starkweather and a couple of works by Milton Avery, whose wonderful loosy-goosy style takes to watercolor without a blip.

The Brooklyn Museum, with its stellar collection of American watercolors, is one of the few institutions that could present such a show from its own holdings, and informative wall labels give the visitor an understanding of changing approaches and changing interest in the field. A nice addition to the exhibition's appearance in Cincinnati is a 19th-century watercolor paint box, made in England, lent to the Taft for the occasion. It's a neat and efficient outlay. The wonders that can come from such a box are seen throughout the show.