American Watercolors, 1880–1990: Into the Light

, University Study Gallery, University Research Gallery, University Teaching Gallery, Harvard Art Museums

A watercolor seascape featuring strokes of color in shades of blue, green, yellow, red, pink, and gray, over a white background.

John Marin, “Seascape,” 1914. Watercolor over graphite on white wove paper. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of James N. Rosenberg, 1950.48. © Estate of John Marin/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

University Study Gallery, University Research Gallery, University Teaching Gallery, Harvard Art Museums

Discover how American watercolorists from Winslow Homer to Hannah Wilke leveraged the imaginative and experimental capacity of the medium to create marvelously diverse works over more than a century.

Into the Light presents 100 compelling and rarely seen watercolors by well-known and historically underrepresented American artists selected from the Harvard Art Museums’ deep and diverse holdings. Built over a period of more than 100 years with the purpose of studying and supporting contemporary practice, the collection embodies the museums’ long-term engagement with the art of the present. For generations of American artists, watercolor was a medium of innovation and experimentation, a challenging form of expression that allowed practitioners to let loose their imagination and reflect on process and perception. While the visual vocabulary of American watercolors changed dramatically over the century—from vibrant floral still lifes and radiant summer landscapes to surrealistic fantasies and immersive abstract works—the medium’s unique ability to capture light fascinated artists throughout.

Often regarded as a quintessential American medium, watercolor has proven its capacity to render the full range of the American experience, including moments of adversity. In fact, as artists increasingly looked inward and away from European models, many encountered unsettling and disorienting moments of unrest in the United States that inspired new aesthetic and conceptual approaches to watercolor. Expanding the canon and including many new acquisitions on view for the first time, this exhibition seeks to inspire conversations and enrich today’s practitioners. The unique challenges and rewards of watercolor are highlighted throughout with the help of historical materials, discussions of technique, and close-looking exercises that reveal artists’ creativity and inventiveness.

Staged across three adjacent galleries, the exhibition presents works by roughly 50 artists, including Romare Bearden, Charles Burchfield, Alexander Calder, Dorothy Dehner, Beauford Delaney, Charles Demuth, Lyonel Feininger, Zelda Fitzgerald, Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Jasper Johns, John La Farge, Sol LeWitt, John Marin, Alfonso Ossorio, Maurice Prendergast, Mark Rothko, John Singer Sargent, Bill Traylor, Richard Tuttle, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Hannah Wilke, Richard Foster Yarde, and many others.

A sumptuously illustrated print catalogue includes contributions from curators and conservators, as well as an original essay by artist Richard Tuttle, sharing personal reflections on the medium and introducing new scholarship to the field.

Curated by Joachim Homann, Maida and George Abrams Curator of Drawings; Margaret Morgan Grasselli, Visiting Senior Scholar for Drawings; Miriam Stewart, Curator of the Collection, Division of European and American Art; and Elisa Germán, former Emily Rauh Pulitzer Curatorial Fellow in Contemporary Drawings (now Lunder Curator of Works on Paper and Whistler Studies, Colby College Museum of Art); with contributions by Penley Knipe, Philip and Lynn Straus Senior Conservator of Works on Paper and Head of the Paper Lab, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies; and Horace D. Ballard, Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. Associate Curator of American Art.

Support for this exhibition is provided by the Alexander S., Robert L., and Bruce A. Beal Exhibition Fund, the William Amory Fund, the Rabb Family Exhibitions Fund, and an anonymous donor. Related programming is supported by the M. Victor Leventritt Lecture Series Endowment Fund. The accompanying catalogue was made possible by the Andrew W. Mellon Publication Funds and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art.

Online Resources

Watch related videos—including explorations of watercolors by Zelda Fitzgerald, Edward Hopper, and John Marin, and a timelapse of the installation of a monumental work by Sol LeWitt—on the museums’ dedicated Vimeo channel or YouTube playlist.

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