Tradition and Innovation in American Watercolors
Along with Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent has been considered for generations as one of the great American masters of watercolor. Although known throughout his career as an extremely popular society painter in oils, his work on paper, to which he turned as a break from the rigors of portraiture, is regarded by many to be his most creative artistic endeavor. As in his oils, he emphasized the effects of light and shadow, but here he turned much of his focus to landscape and architecture. Although he used watercolor all of his life, it was not until after the tum of the century that he held this work in high enough regard to exhibit it. His watercolors mark an important transition in American art, combining impressionist concerns with a more modem and vigorous approach to painting. Their effortless and spontaneous qualities, which Sargent cultivated, belie much study and preparation. Unlike Homer, whose approach to the medium evolved throughout his career, Sargent's technical repertoire was varied and experimental from beginning to end. He combined -- sometimes in one sheet -- wet, bleeding washes with thick impasto; masked-out areas of white; and rough scraping to create what one critic called "a rare and exquisite balance between painterly freedom and discipline."
Winslow Homer is often considered the quintessential American artist. He lived almost his entire life in the United States, in contrast to most other artists of his time, who flocked to European academies after the Civil War. His illustrations for Harper's Weekly and other periodicals and publications gave him entry into the art world in the 1850s. In 1873, Homer began seriously pursuing watercolor. Without intending to minimize his work as a draftsman, printmaker, and painter, Homer's oft-quoted statement bears repeating here: "You will see, in the future I will live by my watercolors."