These days, watercolor artworks are a major draw for visitors to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), but the medium hasn’t always enjoyed such fanfare.
American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent — a new exhibition at the PMA — tells the story of how the genre went from existing in the shadows of the professional art world to becoming a veritable movement.
Winsome watercolor artworks by masters like Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent take center stage, highlighting how a new generation of artists used the medium to depict the world in bold and beautiful new ways.
- See American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent March 1 through May 14 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
- The collection includes rarely seen masterpieces by Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent.
- Take part in a host of complementary events, including special tours and a free watercolor sketching workshop.
American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent Overview
Though practiced widely in America before the Civil War, watercolor as an art form didn’t become popular with mainstream artists until the formation of the American Watercolor Society in 1866.
American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent begins there and goes through the first few decades of the 20th century, featuring 170 representations of how watercolor was used to create intricate landscapes, thoughtful portraits, stained glass and finely detailed architectural renderings.
While the exhibit centers on two of watercolor’s most influential devotees, Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, you’ll also see rare works from artists like William T. Richards, Thomas Moran, Louis Comfort Tiffany and even Homer’s mother, Henrietta Benson Homer, who the artist credits with teaching him how to paint.
Works to Look Out For
Funny enough, the exhibition begins with Winslow Homer’s last dated watercolor, Diamond Shoal. The realist scene shows two sailors struggling to tame their ship on a turbulent sea. The work — painted five years before Homer’s death — shows the artist’s adventurous side, which plays out in a series of fantastic paintings located elsewhere in the exhibition that will awaken your inner travel bug.
Captivating gems like A Garden in Nassau and Bermuda were inspired by Homer’s seabound excursions to the south, while works like Building a Smudge represent sojourns to the Adirondacks, one of his favorite forested idylls.
John Singer Sargent was a bit more prolific in the types of artworks he created, and American Watercolor brings out everything from portraits and natural landscapes to city scenes.
One of his more unique pieces is Muddy Alligators, painted in 1917 when he was taking a break from the mural and portrait commissions that made him famous. The work is praised for its masterful technique, depicting a den of mud-caked gators sunbathing near a reflective pool. The beasts are in clear focus in the foreground while the background is a loosely painted array of swampy flora and fauna.
As important as Sargent and Homer were to the watercolor movement, their works only scratch the surface of what else you’ll find in American Watercolor.
For something closer to home, seek out Nicolino Calyo’s View of the Waterworks at Fairmount, a serene depiction of the shore and hillside along the Schuylkill River that would later play home to Philly landmarks Boathouse Row and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
A selection of decorative arts, like a stained glass window by John La Farge called Peonies in the Wind, greets guests before they enter a room transformed into a replica of a watercolor salon, with plants, chairs and other accoutrements that would have decorated these types of parlors at the turn of the century.
Vibrant floral paintings complement the Philadelphia Flower Show, taking place during the run of American Watercolor. Standouts in this realm include Fidelia Bridges’ stunning Milkweeds and Caroline Townsend’s Lotus Flower Design.
Programs and Events
A schedule of special tours and events at the PMA offer a more personalized watercolor-peeping experience.
Put your brush to work at the free Watercolor Sketch workshop on opening night, March 1. From 5 to 8 p.m., gather in the Great Stair Hall with other Sargent wannabes to try your hand at drawing flowers. The event takes inspiration both from the exhibit and the Philadelphia Flower Show’s Holland: Flowering the World, which opens March 11.
Those who want a deeper look at the exhibition can take a one-hour guided tour before the museum opens to the public. Those take place at 9:30 a.m. on select days, and comes with admission to the exhibition.
Two other ticketed events, called Watercolor Salons, invite in guests for conversations about the exhibit and related topics. On March 4, a Women and Watercolor program delves into female contributions to the art of watercolor; and on April 6, Painting With Light explains the connection between stained glass and watercolor.
For the full schedule of events, go here.
Tickets and More
Tickets to the exhibition includes admission to all of the Museum buildings. Admission to this special exhibit is $25 for adults, $23 for seniors, $19 for students and youth ages 13 through 18 and free for members and children 12 and under.
Pro tip: Arrive early when crowds are at their lightest. You’ll want to have these intricate beauties all to yourself.