June 10 – September 10, 2023
Winslow Homer, Crab Fishing, 1883, watercolor and opaque watercolor, over graphite, with scraping, on moderately thick, slightly textured, cream wove paper, Bequest of Grenville H. Norcross, 1937.13
This summer, the Worcester Art Museum will present Watercolors Unboxed, an exploration of 75 years of watercolors—from 1880 through the 1950s—through exceptional examples of the medium. Drawn from WAM’s internationally renowned collection of watercolors, the exhibition will begin with a selection of 19th-century European watercolorists who influenced what would become a favored American art form, and will feature 50 works, including highlights by Childe Hassam, Winslow Homer, Rockwell Kent, and John Singer Sargent. The exhibition will also feature drawings by artists lesser known for their work in watercolor and gouache, including Amedeo Modigliani, Gustave Baumann, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Because watercolors are especially susceptible to damage from overexposure, Watercolors Unboxed is a rare opportunity to see some of the most prized works in the Museum’s collection, many of which have not been on display at the Museum since the 1980s.
Watercolors Unboxed will explore significant themes in the American watercolor tradition, demonstrating how American artists embraced watercolor as a way to elevate the landscape genre. Works by American artists will also allow visitors to consider the challenges of working with this unforgiving medium. Treatment of paper and the careful application of the watercolor typically leave little to no room for mistakes, as the colors can easily muddy, and the paper can become soggy or even tear if overworked. These challenges only make these works more worthy of celebration, such as those by the intrepid Sargent, who fearlessly applied watercolor with a nod to his Impressionist roots, resulting in masterworks like his tour-de-force, Muddy Alligators (1917). The exhibition will also include a series of graphite concept drawings of this subject matter, inviting audiences to dive deeper into the artist’s process. Other artists, like Homer, developed an extraordinary understanding of how to manipulate the medium and make adjustments, sometimes even scraping the paper to create spatial depth. Featured works like Homer’s Old Friends (1894) and Crab Fishing (1883) illustrate the artist’s renegade status within the medium.
Offering an expanded look at the American landscape tradition, the Museum will debut examples from its collection of watercolors from the San Ildefonso school as part of the exhibition. A collective of artists working in the Southwest during the first half of the 20th century, this group is often credited as the first self-identified Native American modern art movement in the United States. In addition, the exhibition will feature a significant selection of European watercolors by artists including Modigliani, Emile Nolde, and Oskar Kokoschka. Works like Kokoschka’s Savoyard Boy (c. 1912) express a uniquely European subject matter and sociopolitical landscape, providing an interesting contrast to the featured American landscape works.
In conjunction with the exhibition, a selection of contemporary watercolors by past and current WAM Studio Class students and faculty will be on display in a community gallery space outside the exhibition entrance. These local artists have formed deep relationships with WAM’s collection while building skills like underpainting, drybrush, and color blending. Rolling seasonal registration for the Museum’s Studio Classes for youth and adults is available on WAM’s website.
Watercolors Unboxed is organized by Nancy Kathryn Burns, WAM’s Stoddard Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs.
This exhibition is generously supported by the Fletcher Foundation.