5 must-see paintings at the Art Museum's new watercolor show

John Biglin in a Single Scull-21022017-0006
John Biglin in a Single Scull, 1873. Thomas Eakins, American, 1844 1916. Watercolor on paper, Image and sheet: 16 7/8 × 23 15/16 inches. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Paul Mellon, B.A. 1929, LHDH 1967, in honor of Jules D. Prown, the first Director of the Yale Center for British Art.

Like the Broad Street Run, the new blockbuster watercolor show at the Art Museum is a distance event.

With 175 paintings on display, you're going to need to pace yourself for "American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent" if you hope to make it to the show's big finish – a gallery packed with a full wall of Winslow Homer paintings and another wall of John Singer Sargents – with any stamina left to take in all those treasures.

Pause and refresh during your tour of the exhibition with a good long stop at these five extraordinary highlights along the way. (And, of course, seeing them here is no match for seeing these works in living color.)

Exhibition curator Kathy Foster singled them out for special notice during a preshow press opening (along with some surprises we aren't naming here that you'll meet on your included-with-admission audio tour).

Read more: Watercolor show of a lifetime opening at Philadelphia Museum of Art

1. Thomas Eakins' "Perspective of Lathe" and "John Biglin in a Single Scull"

Painted when the great Philadelphia master was just a senior at Central High, Eakins' Perspective of Lathe is important art-history-wise because it shows you how some of the leading American watercolorists started out: as humble tradesmen. Eakins was training at the time in industrial design.

Phillywise, the lathe painting is a chance to enjoy the very early art of a local hero. Eakins' lathe, in quiet shades of gray, black, and brown, is spare, modern, masterly. The dude’s genius was showing, even then.

A little farther along, behind a curtain protecting the fragile work from the light, the painting John Biglin in a Single Scull catches up with homeboy Eakins just after he's finished art school in Paris. The rippling reflection of sun on water suggests he paid attention in class.

Every single second of exposure to light degrades a watercolor painting, so as you draw back the curtain to look at Eakins' painting of the rower on the river, Foster said,  consider that "It's dying for you."

2. Edwin Austin Abbey’s “The Sisters”

This showstopper by another watercolor master outta Philly is like a Victorian costume drama, minus Kate Beckinsale. “This is Jane Austen come to life,” Foster said during the press tour.

Abbey was the first bona fide American watercolor superstar, in the 1880s, and his meteoric success – this painting sold for $2,000 when the going rate had been more like $200 – got other serious artists of the day thinking, "Hey, maybe I'll try watercolors, too."

We called the work a showstopper – and it is, for the artist's astonishing watercolor technique – but in a sense Edwin Austin Abbey is a showstarter, too. When show curator Foster was a student at Yale, Abbey's were the first American watercolors she fell in love with. 

3. John La Farge, “Peonies in a Breeze”

Yes, it's drop-dead gorgeous. And yes, La Farge is one of the undisputed American masters of watercolor painting, with six paintings in the show. But what's extra special about this La Farge flower painting is the drop-dead gorgeous La Farge stained-glass window hanging next to it. 

The painting was a study for the window, called Peonies in the Wind, so make it a point to spend some time glancing back and forth to compare and contrast. 

You might notice that some of the flower petals in the window look suspiciously painterly, with streaks of variegated color that mimic the properties of watercolors. La Farge invented a special type of glass to make that so.

4. John Singer Sargent's “Muddy Alligators” 

These hungry-looking reptiles hang next to Winslow Homer's lively Black Bass in the first of several paired paintings in the gallery of the two masters' work.

Both of the critter paintings were painted in Florida, and because both painters traveled widely, the watercolors in this gallery are like a travelogue of all the places you'd rather be than Philadelphia in March: Bermuda, the Bahamas,  Venice, Spain ...

Showgoers are asked to walk through the room considering which of the two celebrated painters was the best American watercolorist. (Consider carefully: There's a visitors' log at the exit where you'll be asked to weigh in.) Inquirer critic Tom Hine prefers the gators in this particular matchup, for their "complacently lethal grins," as he wrote in his review of "American Watercolors."

5. Watercolor box belonging to Winslow Homer

Surprise: One of the most spectacular items in the Art Museum's blockbuster show is the humble paint box that Winslow Homer used while creating masterpieces in the show.  This is a photograph of it, not a painting.

If one of the reasons you go to art exhibits is to swoon over seeing the "hand" of the artists in their brushstrokes, you'll be floored to see the depressions in the little pats of paint where Homer swirled his brush around, and the doodles he left behind in the wells.

Eakins' paint box and Sargent's tubes of watercolor are on display, too.


"American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent," through May 14, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy., $5 surcharge above standard museum admission (adults: $20; ages 13-18: $14; children under 13 free), 215-763-8100 or philamuseum.org.

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