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Watercolor movement, American


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Samuel Colman (1832—1920)

William Trost Richards (1833—1905)

Thomas Moran (1837—1926)

Winslow Homer (1836—1910) American painter

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Designation for a surge of interest in watercolors among serious artists and collectors during a period from the mid-1860s through the mid-1880s. Previously, watercolor had been widely considered a minor medium, suitable for sketches, amateur work, and documentary purposes, such as scientific illustrations, topographical records, and architectural renderings. Anticipated by increasingly frequent harbingers in the previous two decades or so, around 1860 attitudes toward watercolor shifted for several reasons. The popular writings of English aesthetician John Ruskin promoted the medium and drew attention to J. M. W. Turner's brilliant achievements. After the Civil War, American artists traveled abroad in greater numbers than previously, encountering Continental and English watercolor practice. More important, many absorbed a new, anti-academic aesthetic that promoted qualities well served by watercolor, including greater intimacy, technical freedom, fleeting perceptions, and personal expression. In addition, many approved of watercolor's presumably democratic character. Because it was already well established as a polite accomplishment, watercolor painting was often regarded as an unspecialized activity open to all. Moreover, the expansion of taste for watercolors opened new markets, appealing to middle-class audiences with a less expensive product. In 1866 Samuel Colman, the organization's first president, along with three others founded the American Society of Painters in Water-Colors (renamed in 1877 the American Watercolor Society and still in existence). The most prominent of many organizations devoted to watercolor nationwide, it sponsored an energetic exhibition program that validated watercolors as finished works of art. William Trost Richards and Thomas Moran numbered among artists who enthusiastically and expertly embraced the medium. After the mid-1880s, interest in watercolor as such diminished somewhat. Yet, the movement left an important legacy of taste among artists and collectors alike. Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, for instance, produced great numbers of technically and conceptually distinguished examples.

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