In the 18th and 19th centuries, many upper-class Britons traveled to ancient and Renaissance historical and cultural sites in France, Italy, and the Near East. Known as the Grand Tour, this journey was, for much of the educated elite, the culmination of a proper classical education. Artists comprised an important part of this traveling culture by participating in it as well as recording it for those back home. They carried with them easily transportable watercolor paints, ink, graphite, chalk, and paper for drawing monuments and landscapes.
Most of the works in this gallery were made by artists in the midst of their travels; others were created after the fact from sketches and memories of their journeys. Their functions vary, and reflect the circumstances under which they were created. Artists such as Richard Wilson and Joseph Paxton traveled abroad in the employ of aristocrats, charged with the task of depicting notable sites. On return, the artist’s works were pasted into albums for the enjoyment of the patron, to be perused much like a photo album today, or shown in small exhibitions at the patron’s home.
Other artists traveled independently, seeking subjects that would satisfy the 19th-century explosion of public interest in picturesque touring and illustrated books. Fashioning themselves as travel specialists who could bring the great and humble sites of the world to a broad public, artists such as Alfred Gomersal Vickers and John Frederick Lewis traveled with writers, translating their journeys into travel essays with illustrative lithographs or engravings when they returned.
Many watercolorists, also responding to the public appetite for travel imagery, envisioned their works on gallery walls for public exhibition. Hugh William Williams’s view of Athens (above the mantelpiece), painted from sketches and memories after his return to England, was intended to have a commanding presence on the wall of a large exhibition space. He employed a large piece of paper to approximate the scale of oil painting as well as opaque gouache in the foreground to create luminous, painterly effects.
Both highly detailed and sketchy, ephemeral interpretations of landscape appear in this gallery. The latter emerged in the early 19th century, as artists became engrossed in the effects of light and fleeting temporal experience. William Collingwood Smith’s view captures a sensation or impression of the Venetian canal rather than all its particulars. Such watercolors anticipated the Impressionist paintings of the next several decades.
This exhibition continues the rotation of works from the RISD Museum’s fine collection of British watercolors, numbering some nine hundred sheets.