In the realm of art, three primary mediums dominate the popular sphere: oil, acrylic, and watercolor. The lattermost is the oldest, as well as being best known for its distinctive qualities of transparency and fluidity. Despite its ancient origins, watercolor reached the height of its popularity in Britain and the United States from the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century, advanced by painters such as J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Moran (Barker). The medium’s spontaneity and portability inspired Impressionists and explorers both (Monroe). Watercolor had widespread popularity that is sustained even in the twenty-first century, as evidenced by the Tate Gallery’s dedicating an entire exhibition to it. At the same time, though, watercolor struggled to compete with the well-established medium of oil for a place in art galleries. Watercolor’s discreditation by the greater artistic community during its peak, despite its many contributions and abilities, serves as an example of artistic elitism in which establishments attempted to maintain the periodic conventions of “what ‘fine art’ is” by excluding an art form they saw as lower and plebian.
The popularity of watercolor coincided with an era of travel and exploration. With the tradition of European “Grand Tours” for young men and the westward expansion of the United States, travelers were eager to survey the new lands and their wildlife (“British Watercolours”). Simultaneously, as Elizabeth Barker of the Metropolitan Museum of Art notes, the “shilling color box,” an affordable and portable carrying case for paint, became “commercially available [during] the 1830s,” making watercolor accessible even to amateur artists. In this way, watercolor grew as medium well-suited for tourists, topographers, and naturalists. Barker goes on to list William James Müller, John Robert Cozens, and Thomas Girtin as British artists who used watercolor to depict the landscapes of their travels, but American watercolorists were emerging around this time as well. John James Audubon and Thomas Moran, who had ties to and admirers in Europe, both practiced watercolor in their stunning, widely-viewed wildlife and landscape paintings, bringing the medium additional acclaim (Monroe). By no means, then, was watercolor an underground art.
In terms of usage, watercolor was most notable for its transparent quality. Since acrylic did not exist during the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, watercolor was unmatched in this capability. As independent artist and writer for International Artist magazine John Lovett explains, distinctive luminosity and brilliance could be achieved by juxtaposing transparent watercolor with opaque gouache, adding depth and dimension to the piece. Moreover, instead of having to build up color to produce a desired effect, watercolorists could easily create intensity by leaving areas white and simulate darkness by mixing less water with the pigment (Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica). Therefore, watercolor also changed the way that artists conceptualized and composed their pieces.
Watercolor’s speedy application and easy reactivation set it apart from other media even more so, making it a choice of convenience. Large areas could be washed in color very quickly with minimal pigment, and it dried relatively quickly in comparison to oil paint. Furthermore, watercolor “cakes” could be compactly and cleanly stored for portability and be reactivated for use just by adding water. For these reasons, watercolor lent itself well to the practice of painting en plein air, or outside, because it swiftly captured the movement and essence of its subjects. Similarly, Barker explains that the medium became popular because it was ideal for depicting the fleeting spontaneity of light since scenes could be produced speedily. Because of this quality, watercolorists, like J.M.W. Turner, even inspired many Impressionists, such as Monet, informing their style (Monroe; Art Gallery of Ontario). In these ways, watercolor both revolutionized and influenced the artistic landscape of the period.
Watercolor eventually became so popular that several British watercolor societies were established in the mid-1800s, yet a divide between watercolor and other popular media, like oil, still existed. Such groups, like the Society of Painters in Water Colors, not only aimed to share techniques among artists, but also to promote and exhibit watercolor artworks. As the Victoria and Albert Museum recounts, most watercolorists feared that their art being discredited in comparison to oil paintings since those done in oil were “more numerous, larger and more highly colored,” as well as being more “prestigious” and well-established. Such worries were not unfounded, given that, in early exhibitions, watercolors were presented as “‘drawings’ which had been ‘stained’ or ‘tinted’” (“Watercolour Societies”). In relation to other painting media, watercolor does have some disadvantages. As Daniel Grant, an art writer for several publications including ARTnews magazine, explains, watercolor is not as durable as oil: “The colors fade, the paper rots,” even when handled carefully. Moreover, watercolor does not have the same capability for texture or color intensity that thick, heavily-pigmented oil does.
At the same time, such weaknesses may not have been the sole reasons why watercolor faced challenges in the gallery community. Throughout history, art museums have been accused of elitism since they were originally curated by wealthy nobility, and such prejudices could still have been influential in the mid-nineteenth century. As previously mentioned, watercolor was a medium that was accessible to a wide range of people from all different classes. Therefore, gallery curators may have considered watercolor to be too common, unsophisticated. Its historical associations with tourism and topography likely did not help either. Through this lens, watercolor appears commercialized and shallow, simply a tool for mapping and “tinting,” and not a medium that stands on its own and creates artwork of depth.
Furthermore, as Barker confirms, watercolor was often used by the Romantic artists. According to Dr. Stephanie Forward, a lecturer on English literature, the Romantics rejected the rationalism of the Enlightenment, critiqued “the elitism of earlier poets,” and “denounced the exploitation of the poor.” All of these aspects considered, it is not surprising that there was friction between the previous “generation” of oil painting and the new “generation” of watercolor. In many ways, the brevity and spontaneous nature of watercolor, which reflected the Romantics’ emphasis on emotions, challenged the prior notion that painting was an extensive process of waiting and layering. Therefore, the emergence of watercolor to the international stage might have felt like an encroachment on the galleries’ elite establishment.
In addition, some residual stigma surrounding watercolor still exists in the twenty-first century. In another article by Grant, he argues that the teaching of watercolor is given less attention than other media: “Most independent degree-granting art schools, as well as college art departments, don’t teach watercolor classes.” Grant goes on to propose that this oversight is not due to an inadequacy of the medium itself, but due to the disproportion between its difficulty and its reputation. As Karen Wirth of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design puts it, “when you say ‘watercolor,’ ‘amateur’ is what immediately comes to mind” (qtd. in “Art Schools”). In this way, the preconceptions about watercolor that plagued art galleries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries still underlie the attitude of modern fine arts establishments, even education.
Like many art forms, watercolor afforded artists with certain abilities, such as its speed and transparency, that other media cannot. Consequently, watercolor reinvented artists’ conceptualization of painting, led to the creation of novel styles and techniques, and even influenced several different art movements. On the other hand, this innovation did not occur without some pushback. In the case of watercolor, however, this resistance did not come from a dubious public, but from a skeptical fine arts establishment as a whole. Although watercolor was popular and well-established among the public, this acclaim actually hurt its reputation with art curators. These experts questioned the refinement and maturity of a medium that was both so extensively well-liked and practiced by the senseless Romantics. Such a contradiction between public and professional approval speaks to the trend of fine arts establishments towards elitism and exclusion that may still have implications today.
- Art Gallery of Ontario. “Impressionism: Turner, Whistler, Monet Exhibition.” Museums and Exhibitions of Impressionist Paintings. Accessed November 7, 2017. http://www.impressionniste.net/turner_whistler_monet_tate_britain.htm.
- Barker, Author: Elizabeth E. “Watercolor Painting in Britain, 1750–1850.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, October 2004. Accessed November 2, 2017. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bwtr/hd_bwtr.htm.
- “British Watercolours 1750-1900: The Landscape Genre.” Victoria and Albert Museum, April 23, 2012. Accessed November 9, 2017. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/b/british-watercolours-landscape-genre/.
- “British Watercolours 1750-1900: The Watercolour Societies of the 19th Century.” Victoria and Albert Museum, November 19, 2013. Accessed November 9, 2017. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/b/british-watercolour-societies-19th-century/.
- Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica. “Watercolour.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1998. Accessed November 7, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/art/watercolor.
- Forward, Dr. Stephanie. “The Romantics.” The British Library, May 15, 2014. Accessed November 9, 2017. https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-romantics.
Grant, Daniel. “In Art Schools, Watercolors Don’t Get Any Respect.” The Chronicle of Higher Education: Arts & Academe, June 30, 2011. http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/arts/in-art-schools-watercolors-dont-get-any-respect/29613.
- Grant, Daniel. “Watercolors Can Be a Fragile Medium for Artists and Collectors.” Huffington Post, November 14, 2012. Accessed November 9, 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-grant/watercolor-art-preservation_b_2121125.html.
- Lovett, John. “Watercolor Transparency.” Watercolor and Mixed Media Instruction. Accessed November 8, 2017. https://www.johnlovett.com/watercolor-transparency.
- Monroe, Laura. “From Cave Paintings to Modernists: A History of Watercolor Painting.” ArtMine. Accessed November 2, 2017. http://www.art-mine.com/for-sale/paintings-submedium-watercolor/history-of-watercolor-painting.
- “Watercolour Documentation.” Watercolor.net. Accessed November 8, 2017. http://watercolor.net/british-watercolours/watercolour-documentation/.
- “Watercolour Painting: Techniques, Origins, History.” Accessed November 2, 2017. http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/watercolour-painting.htm.