" /> " Catching The Light: European and American Watercolors at Vassar College by Raymond J. Steiner June 09

“Catching Light: European and American Watercolors”
at Vassar College

The Checkered Dress (Portrait of O'Keeffe) by Hilda Belcher
Hilda Belcher (American 1881-1963)
The Checkered Dress (Portrait of O’Keeffe)

ART TIMES June 2009

SOME HAVE ARGUED — justifiably, perhaps — that painting has always been about ‘catching light’, that mysterious energy generated by our sun that science has discovered not only illumines but also limits life as we know it — or, rather, as far as we know it to date. Einstein’s work has shown that light and matter are intimately interconnected, in fact interchangeable in explosive ways, that light is matter but ‘caught’ at a different ‘speed’. All of which brings us back to my observation that painters — centuries before Einstein’s theories — have almost always intuited this, have struggled with bringing together the supposedly different properties of light and matter in a “readable” manner on two-dimensional surfaces. I devote a chapter to light in my novel The Mountain, attempting to show that painters — regardless of the depth of their scientific knowledge — have always struggled — and still do — with the phenomenon of light as it applies to their work. What a delight, then, to find that curator Patricia Phagan has mounted a themed exhibition of watercolors* from Vassar College’s Permanent Collection on just that precise subject.

Tomatoes by Jim Dine
Jim Dine (American b. 1935) Tomatoes, 1974

Although painters in all mediums struggle with light, watercolorists — as Phagan points out in her essay, “treasured the free-flowing, luminous qualities of watercolor for centuries, for the translucent medium’s usual supports of white and lightly-colored surfaces afford brilliant, glowing effects.” Watercolorists also have found — in addition to these positive qualities — that the medium is one of the most elusive, most unforgiving, and most demanding of their repertoire of skills. Unlike oils, for example, which allows for some hedging, some ‘painting over’ to hide mis-strokes or unwanted hues, watercolor practically dictates that you ‘get it right’ immediately, since its very ‘translucence’ reveals every mis-step along the way.

Legendary England: Tintagel, 1882William Trost Richards
William Trost Richards (American 1833-1905)"
Legendary England: Tintagel", 1882

Phagan has chosen the forty-seven watercolors that make up this show with astute sensitivity since they not only cover works from a wide roster of artists (ca. 1750 to 1950) and an extensive range of motifs, but also a wide spectrum of light-handling techniques developed by artists over the years. Furthermore, she has skillfully hung the exhibit to reveal maximum contrasts between motif and technique by hanging such dissimilarities side-by-side to point up the differences. Thus the ‘pairings’ of, say, Fidelia Bridges and Jim Dine, Hilda Belcher and Albert Sterner, or the ‘tripling’ of William Trost Richards with Nell Blaine and Oscar Bluemner on either side, which highlights not only the choice of subject matter by individual watercolorists, but brings to light (pun intended) how the use of light in painting has evolved through the years, an overview not always understood or noted.

J.M.W Turner Bacharach on the Rhine
James Mallord William Turner (English 1775-1851)
Bacharach on the Rhine, 1832-34

We know that not all artists “see” alike — numerous instances of artists painting side-by-side and “getting” different impressions of what lies before them have long been noted — but it is not always clear to viewers that the act of “seeing” itself has evolved — is still evolving, in fact. This is made manifestly clear in ‘Catching Light’ since Phagan had the foresight to cover those two-hundred years of evolution by choosing to show, for exmple, Charles-Louis Clérisseau’s “Temple of Venus and Roma” (done sometime in the late 1700’s or early 1800’s) and Jane Freilicher’s “Green and Yellow Flowers” (1963), the first clearly “object” oriented, while the second is almost entirely composed of color, (i.e. ‘light’). This movement of the artist’s eye from object — as seen in such paintings as highly-detailed church interiors (cf. James E. Buckley’s “Coronation of Charles VII, in Rheims Cathedral (1855) or (one of my favorites in the exhibit) Fidelia Bridges’ botanically-correct “White Azalea” (undtd) — to the interplay of diffused light and color where form becomes secondary  (cf. Jim Dine’s “Tomatoes” (1974)) is clearly traced, with an intermediary balance of concentration on object and color in a painting such as John Sell Cotman’s “Devils Den, Wiltshire”. A nice comparison of strict formal depiction dissolving into light is made vividly manifest by Phagan’s juxtaposition of the similar themes of Hilda Belchers’ “”The Checkered Dress (Portrait of O’Keeffe)” and Albert Sterner’s “Woman Seated at the Piano”. Common throughout these examples is a fairly consistent attempt — no matter the handling of light — at ‘realistic’ depiction of object/motif. This

Barns by Oscar Bluemner
Oscar Bluemner (American 1867-1938) Barns, 1924

slowly changes, however, as ‘modernism’ begins to take hold on artistic consciousness to move from painting objects surrounded or illumined by light to attempts at painting light itself, again made evident in Phagan’s choices beginning, for instance, with Oscar Bleumner’s “Red Soil” (1924) and ending (arbitrarily, I admit) with Stuart Davis’ “Flora’s Slip” (1933-35), where form/object becomes largely irrelevant and color and ‘movement’ take precedence — the shift from object to non-object ultimately resulting in a work such as Konrad Cramer’s “Synchronist Composition” (1916)). 

As visually engrossing as it is informative, “Catching Light” is a show well worth your time.

*“Catching Light: European and American Watercolors from the Permanent Collection” (thru Jul 26): Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY (845) 437-7690.