Who do I consider some of most influential watercolorists?
I narrowed it down to the 19 Most Influential American Watercolorists in a 75-year time span that basically coincides with the Gilded Age.
First some Background
What is Watermedia?
One of my palettes. I typically arrange my palettes in a color wheel.
This is how it frequently looks, when I'm in the middle of a painting.
Watermedia, broadly defined, includes pigment mixed with water. The most well-known forms of watermedia are:
Watercolor - water and pigment. Usually contains a binder such as gum Arabic or honey to aid in the flow of the solution, and in its ability to adhere to the surface. Whether you use it from tubes or pans, it's all watercolor.
Egg tempera - pigment with egg yolk and water. First used in Egypt from the 1st C BCE to the 3rd C AD. It has been used continually ever since. Vermeer painted in egg tempera as well as Andrew Wyeth. It is unusual to see it used by today’s artists. The tempera paint in public schools is opaque pigment and water. Basically it's egg tempera without the egg.
Frescoes - art created with dry pigment worked into wet plaster. Frescoes have to be divided in fairly a small work area because the plaster has to be wet and for the chemical reaction to fuse the pigment into the plaster. At the beginning of the workday, the artist anticipates how fast they will paint and they spread on enough fresh plaster for the day’s work.
- Acrylic Paint - pigment mixed with a synthetic resin. It was invented in the 1950s. The artist dilutes it with water, and it cleans up in water. But once dried, it is permanent. Many contemporary artists, such as David Hockey, use acrylic paint.
All Sorts of New Products
There are a bunch of hybrid paints available such as oil-based watercolor, or water-based oils, and one-offs such as the types of materials used by Abstract Impressionist artist, Mark Rothko.
Rothko modified “…the properties of [his] oil paints to achieve the flow, drying time and colours he needed. He used synthetic substances such as oil-modified alkyd and acrylic resins alongside traditional materials, including egg, glue and dammar resin... Resins increased the viscosity of the mixtures so the paints could be diluted without losing their coherence. Rothko also applied phenol formaldehyde to prevent layers from blending into one another.”
“Rothko’s methods revealed,” Nature, 26 November 2008. By Jane Qui.
Untitled (Black on Gray), by Mark Rothko.
In the collection of the Guggenheim Museum, NYC.
Why Has Watercolor Gained Popularity Since the Impressionists?
Keep in mind that I love watercolor so I am inherently biased toward it. A person passionate about oil painting could dismiss these attributes as unimportant – or assets for the oil painter, or pastel artist, or photographer, etc. And, that’s fair.
Portability. Watercolor artists only need to have paper, a surface for mixing, a couple brushes, a small container of water, and paint. Oil painters require larger brushes, a liquid such as turpentine for thinning paint, rags, an easel, and several individual canvases. They also need a system to keep the surfaces of the wet canvases from touching each other. John Singer Sargent had a porter to carry all his gear.
The portability was appealing to American artists who were beginning to embrace travel as not only a way to see the artwork of the world, particularly in Paris, but to capture the world in art.
Advances in Materials. From about 1840 metal tubes for paint became available and were used by many artists, such as John Singer Sargent.
The Winsor & Newton paint tube, 1840 - 1911
Manufacturers were also working to improve the lightfastness of pigments. This has historically been perceived as a major negative factor for watercolor as opposed to oil paintings. With current technology, professional watercolors are rated with the highest lightfast ratings and are expected to last for centuries if kept out of direct light and away from excessive moisture.
Creative Freedom with Watercolor
The young, rash, defiant Impressionists (1870-1900) took a stand that the old ways need no longer be the only way.
May Cassatt was the only American to be included in the Impressionist exhibits. But other America watercolorists, including Sargent, and Whistler, were influenced by the break-out freedom of Impressionism, and that influence continues today.
Watercolor paintings can be created in a very few paint strokes. Observe this painting by Georgia O'Keefe, Blue Nude (Leah) from the Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, Nebraska, on the campus of the University of Nebraska.
Blue Nude (Leah), watercolor by Georgia O'Keefe,
from the collection of the Sheldon Art Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska.
Another minimalist watercolor painting. This one by John Marin, Sketch of a Mountain, 1910. For more information on John Marin, see my blog post.
Sketch of a Mountain, watercolor on white paper, by John Marin. 1910.
From the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
All of this coalesced into what I consider the dominance of American artists in Western watercolor art during the Gilded Age (1865-1920). There are definitely separate traditions of watercolor in other countries beyond the US and Europe. This essay is limited to American watercolorists.
Nineteen Important American Watercolorists of the Gilded Age
- John James Audubon (1808-1851) He is a little earlier than the Gilded Age, but I couldn’t ignore his talent.
- Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)
- Edward Demuth (1883-1935)
- Arthur Dove (1880-1946)
- Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)
- Childe Hassam (1859-1935)
- Winslow Homer (1836-1910)
- Edward Hopper (1882-1967)
- John Marin (1870-1953)
- Alice Neel (1900-1984) She became an adult at the tail end of the Gilded Age. I included her because she represents a transition in styles happening in America, and her work shows another side of watercolor.
- Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)
- Edward Potthast (1857-1927)
- Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924)
- Stella Roca (1879-1954) See the paragraph below for why she is included.
- John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
- Charles Sheeler (1853-1965)
- Jessie Wilcox Smith (1863-1935) Wilcox Smith is frequently excluded from lists because she was considered an illustrator.
- Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) Rockwell is also, frequently excluded from lists because he was considered an illustrator.
- N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) I didn’t include his son, Andrew Wyeth, because he was of the following generation; 1917- 2009.
More Details about the Women on my List
Arranged in birth order
Mary Cassatt, (1844-1926) was, among her other accolades, a sought-after watercolorist. (For more information on Mary Cassatt, please read my blog post.)
Cassatt brought us intimate scenes of mothers and children, along with portraits of ordinary women. Hers were quite different from the formal portraits of elegant patrons more typically painted by contemporaries of hers such as John Singer Sargent. Cassatt’s art benefitted from her independence, her point of view, and her inclination to experiment with a wide variety of materials.
Mary Stevenson Cassatt, Self Portrait, watercolor. 1880.
National Portrait Gallery, DC.
Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935) is included because she was extremely talented and prolific. She is never included in any "best of..." lists because she was labeled an illustrator. Even today that label suggests you are not a “real” artist.
It's an archaic and nonsensical label. She was known for her tender paintings to illustrate Mother Goose, and more than 60 other books including Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangeline; and Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. She also worked for periodicals illustrating editorial material.
Fairy Tales, illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith.
In the collection of the New york Public Library, NYC.
From a Mother's Day Series in Scribner Magazine.
December 1902. Chromolithograph published by L. Prang & Co.
Stella Roca (1879-1954) was born in Nebraska City, Nebraska. She was a prominent influencer in the development of the artistic style in Arizona. Roca was an early member of Tucson's Art Colony. She worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and exhibited her oils and watercolors throughout the United States.
Stella Roca is my Great-Great Aunt. I included her here because she is as an American watercolorist of the Gilded Age and was a huge influence on me. Additionally, it has been difficult to find detailed historical information on her. Perhaps by including her name in this post, someone may contact me with additional information. I don't own one of her watercolors, but here is a lovely scene of a flowering tree in Nebraska City in oil.
Nebraska City, oil painting by Stella Roca.
In a private collection.
Georgia O’Keeffe, (1887-1986), was sometimes called the “mother of American modernism.” It is hard to overstate the impact she had on art. O’Keeffe’s focus on creating the art that she wanted to create drove her to exploring subject matter and compositions that others were not imagining. From her flowers to landscapes to urban interpretations of buildings, she had a point of view that was unfettered from hobnobbing with critics, or being influenced by galleries or patrons.
O'Keefe lived to be 99 years old. Born in Wisconsin, she was an original thinker, and a strong-willed woman. Brava to her!
Red Splashes with Line, by Georgia O'Keeffe,
from the collection of the Sheldon Art Museum,
Lincoln, Nebraska. Watercolor. 1978.
Alice Neel, (1900 – 1984), was a pioneer in portraiture who painted her subjects in their normal, human form—which many critics found repugnant. Neel, as Roca, was employed for a period of time by the WPA. She held political views aligned with Communism. Her life seems filled with drama-- for example, one time, a lover of hers burned 350 of her watercolors, paintings, and drawings. In contrast to some of the tumult in her life, her work is straightforward and uncomplicated on face value.
Woman on a Train,
Watercolor painting by Alice Neel, 1940.
As you consider these varying styles of watercolor, along with many others that you probably are aware of, enjoy the unique perspectives of these artists.