Watercolor show of a lifetime opening at Philadelphia Museum of Art

It is the exhibition of a lifetime.

Certainly, it’s the exhibition of Kathleen A. Foster’s lifetime. She began working on it – unknowingly at the time – during her graduate school years at Yale in the early 1970s.

And now, after a distinguished career as curator, first at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, then at the Indiana University Art Museum, and for the last 15 years at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Foster’s decades-long effort bears fruit with Wednesday's public opening of “American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent.”

Not in memory in Philadelphia, and probably nowhere else in the United States, has such a rich and comprehensive show of works in this fragile medium been brought together.

Through May 14, visitors will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see masterful watercolors by Edwin Abbey, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, John La Farge, Thomas Moran, William Trost Richards, Maxfield Parrish, Jessie Willcox Smith, Violet Oakley, Georgia O’Keeffe, and a host of others. The exhibition will be only here, in Philadelphia. 

Even getting these works to the Art Museum was no mean feat. Watercolors are fragile, very light-sensitive, and curators are loath to lend them.

But Foster, who has been at the top of the field for years and is one of the most respected scholars of Eakins in the country, was able to rely on trusted friendships with many colleagues to persuade  them to part with their delicate masterpieces, at least briefly.

"I go in there," Foster recounted recently, "and I say, 'You know me. I've been working on the topic a long time. This is the great show. Finally we're pulling this together.'

"And they say, 'You're right! If we’re ever going to lend this picture, this is the moment.' So I think I've gotten loans on the strength of people recognizing this is a once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-generation moment, and that I've been working on the subject a long time."

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

The list of artists reads like a Who’s Who of American art. And that’s perhaps the most interesting part of the story. Foster has created an exhibition that traces the rise of watercolors from being the domestic products of finishing schools and drawing rooms and workshops to the point when they out-muscled oil paintings at salons and museums.

“American Watercolor,” in fact, identifies and traces a sea change in American art history. Foster shows how it happened and  why -- perhaps the trickiest part of a curator's  task.

“I’m excited,” said Timothy Rub, Art Museum director, who noted that Foster “has kind of reframed for us a very important aspect of the history of American art.”

At the same time, Rub said, “this is a kind of a congregation of masterpieces." About 70 lenders have contributed to the exhibition, which features 175 works and one palm-studded gallery room -- echoing the theatrical ambiance of late 19th-century watercolor exhibitions. 

David R. Brigham, head of the Pennsylvania Academy and a former Foster student, said  that “watercolor is sometimes dismissed as a hobbyist’s medium; Kathy’s show will blast that idea right out of the water.”

The show has had a long fuse, Foster says. She began thinking about it while in graduate school in New Haven working with the collection of Edwin Austin Abbey.

“Abbey is a Philadelphia kid who went to the Pennsylvania Academy and then went to New York and worked at Harper’s Magazine alongside Winslow Homer,” she said. “He became very famous as an illustrator and watercolor painter in the 1870s and '80s.”

Foster fell for him, too.

Camera icon eD HILLE / Staff Photographer
'American Watercolor': Curator Kathleen A. Foster talks about the exhibit while standing in front of Edwin Austin Abbey's 'The Sisters,' painted in 1882.

“But also in that moment of research I realized there was this big thing going on in New York about watercolors and that Abbey was actually vaulted into stardom because of his watercolors,” she said. “They were the thing people loved. They got him his big reputation. That’s the moment I went, ‘Whoa. Something’s going on here. People are so excited about watercolor around the early 1880s. What is happening?’ ”

More than three decades, later, Foster's show delivers the answer. Watercolor in the United States, she says, was definitely a second-class medium before  the Civil War. Oil paintings were always kicking sand in its face. But in 1866, painter Samuel Colman founded the American Watercolor Society; its first annual exhibition was held the following year.

It was, you might say, the right idea at the right time. Women, illustrators, decorative artists, architects -- all familiar with watercolor from use in their daily lives -- found a creative and potentially lucrative outlet. Homer’s mother began showing at the Watercolor Society. Her son was stunned, and then he showed as well.

Philadelphia, with its concentration of art schools and publishers, became a center for the burgeoning watercolor movement.

“Philadelphia was a significant place for it to flourish,” said Michael Leja, professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania. “A lot of major painters took it up in a serious way.”

The burgeoning interest in watercolor reached full flower by the 1880s, and the most dramatic gallery of Foster’s exhibition reflects that: A long line of Homer’s work runs down one side of the room, and John Singer Sargent’s runs down the other.

“What I wanted to do in this gallery was put them side by side and think about them both as being fine flowers of this watercolor movement here at the turn of the century,” said Foster.  “And what is fun for Sargent, although he’s coming behind Homer and most of his watercolors are later, he goes to some of the same places that Homer painted. He goes to Florida. He goes to the Rockies.”

Some of the fruits of these painting expeditions, acquired by museums around the country practically before the paint was dry, are now gathered in Philadelphia.

“These are amongst the hardest things to secure for loan for exhibition,” said Rub. “So for us to be able to do that is really quite a coup. … But Kathy is an enthusiast and an advocate, and a very effective one. She loves the history of American art. She remains excited about it, not only about the things she’s working on but the things other people are working on. ... It’s something she does immensely well and I value a great deal.” 

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

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