Penn State’s British watercolors exhibit bests medium’s shameful history

The new exhibit “British Watercolors from the Permanent Collection,” which features an array of notable artists such as Peter de Wint and John Varley, serves as an informational portal to the golden age of British watercolors.

“Watercolor is a magnificent medium that you actually have to build up, layer over layer. It’s very difficult and much more difficult than oil painting,” said Patrick McGrady, the Palmer Museum of Art’s Charles V. Hallman curator. “You build it up from one layer to the next creating these incredible, light-filled compositions that do rival oil in their quality and desirability. It is actually a medium that is very difficult to master at the higher levels.”

“We’re taking these really beautiful examples of these British watercolors and highlighting some of the best work from that time period by bringing out things that may not have been shown before,” said Dana Carlisle Kletchka, the museum’s curator of education. “Since paper is light sensitive, these works can only come out every so often, so we have the lights dimmed and can only show them for a short period of time. More than anything, I’m really excited that while we are seeing these works themselves and learning more about the Golden Age of British watercolors is the fact that we’re able to highlight parts of our collection that people may not have seen before, even if they’ve been coming here a long time.”

The “Golden Age,” roughly 1750 to 1850, saw an influx of British artists who championed the watercolor medium from a methodical standpoint and one in search of respectability.

“During this time people began to work very diligently in watercolor and these artists actually struggled with the exhibition societies of the day, particularly the Royal Academy of Arts, which was the only venue that artists had to show things,” McGrady said, “Of course the Royal Academy was like any other academy in Europe at the time, they had a very clear idea of what was high art and what was not so high, and watercolor was not that important. Although watercolors were shown at the Royal Academy exhibitions, they were only shown in disfavor. They didn’t receive the same type of attention that an oil painting or a sculpture would receive. Moreover, if you only wanted to show watercolor, then you couldn’t be a member of the Royal Academy.”

The petite, but powerful, collection presents a compelling and contemplative peek at a multitude of wonderful landscapes and even some beginner sketches from John Ruskin, a leading art critic of the time.

These pieces have left a strong and relatable component that makes for a lasting and even nostalgic notion, harkening back to elementary school and afternoon art classes.

“Amateurs and people who were interested in drawing at a beginner’s level took to watercolor very quickly because it’s easy to do: You’ve got a cake of paint, you dissolve it, put your brush in, get some water and some paper and there you go,” McGrady said. “John Varley would actually have students and patrons who would travel across the country doing all kinds of watercolors, including members of the aristocracy who wanted to learn how to draw and how to watercolor, and they would pay for the experience. You had a wide range ... working in watercolor because it just caught fire. It was easily transportable and anybody could work in it.”

Although professionals and novices alike were able to make a name for themselves, or at the very minimum, develop an exciting new hobby during this era of watercolors, those who come to gaze at these pieces need to be neither.

“For people who are familiar with art history, it will be something that adds a little bit more to their knowledge,” Carlisle Kletchka said, “And for people who aren’t familiar with art history, the exhibit is really just beautiful. This notion that you can create these incredible and picturesque scenes with a medium that is pretty temperamental is really impressive.”