Landscape and Leisure: 19th-Century American Drawings from the Collection
From precise survey drawing to loose and vivid watercolor technique, American artists of the 19th century worked in a variety of styles—as seen in the more than 30 watercolors and drawings featured in Landscape and Leisure. Selected from the RISD Museum’s strong collection of works on paper are those by American artists James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Childe Hassam, and Eastman Johnson, among others, who captured landscape, leisure pursuits, and country life. A group of watercolors by Winslow Homer are on view together for the first time in nearly 15 years, including Hunting Dogs in Boat (Waiting for the Start), 1889—the first purchase of Homer’s watercolors by an American museum. Other works include early representations of Providence and coastal Rhode Island, and Thomas Eakins’ detailed watercolor of the developing professional sport of baseball.
Support for the RISD Museum provided in part by a grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts (RISCA), through an appropriation by the Rhode Island General Assembly, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and private funders.
The practice of drawing in 19th-century America was defined by change and innovation. American artists went from learning in relative isolation to a time of expansive educational prospects, including drawing schools and teachers, instructional manuals, and opportunities for travel abroad. Resources expanded with the introduction of readily available tube paints, prepared watercolor cakes, graphite pencils, steel-nib pens, conté crayons, and new fixatives and papers.
Topographic, folk, and academic traditions dominated American drawing before 1850. Today, these precisely drawn topographical views provide valuable records of places full of potential, before industrialization. Folk drawings highlight the importance of local traditions, portraiture, and religious and historical subject matter to American patrons.
Artists working after 1850, whose drawings dominate this gallery, were significantly influenced by the English critic John Ruskin’s manual Elements of Drawing (1857), which emphasized meticulous attention to the individual details of nature. A number of American artists traveled to Düsseldorf and Munich, Germany, where they too were trained in the close observation of nature via the practice of drawing.
Such emphases migrated naturally to the focus on landscape as a subject. Leisure pursuits, ranging from team sports to hunting to childhood amusements, many with landscape as a secondary theme, also dominated the scene. Artists showed their work in societies dedicated to drawing and especially to the medium of watercolor in New York, Philadelphia, and Providence. The evolution of watercolor as a versatile medium for reproducing the effects of nature—advocated by Ruskin, and others—stands as the most significant phenomenon in 19th-century American drawing of any subject. The fluid, transparent effects developed by artists working at the end of the century shaped a uniquely American style.