In nineteenth-century Britain, the versatility and availability of watercolor paints made it an ideal medium for professional and amateur practitioners alike to contemplate and explore the simple pleasures and profound wonders of the natural world. Balancing an empirical desire for “naturalism” and virtuosic attention to detail with intensely expressive visions, practitioners distinguished themselves by specializing in particular compositions or objects. They experimented with a broad range of contrasting techniques, from light translucent washes of color to opaque strokes of pigment augmented by gouache. Especially striking is stippling, the application of minute dots of color close together, which creates a diaphanous chromatic effect.
As portable as watercolor paints were, close observation in the studio was more common than accidental encounters in the wilderness. Some works were meticulous studies meant to be teaching aids, but most were intended for private consumption. From elegant simplicity to elaborate compositions, the works assembled here are meant to challenge the eye and inspire a greater understanding of the natural world.
Due to the remarkable generosity of an anonymous donor, The RISD Museum has one of the finest collections of 18th- and 19th-century British watercolors in this country. Rotating exhibitions of watercolors from this rarely-seen collection are on view in the Museum’s Porcelain Gallery, home to an outstanding group of 18th-century figural ceramics donated by Miss Lucy Truman Aldrich in 1937. Now on view are works by British artists who specialized in painting flowers, fruits, birds and their nests. This subject matter appealed to both professional and amateur watercolorists, including a number of female artists.