An exhibition of British watercolors and drawings at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg from the BNY Mellon Collection is a seriously beautiful show. Meaning it's beautiful but also academic. That cerebral element may make it a challenge for some viewers, because what you see in a casual stroll through the show is a parade of soft landscapes that can begin to blur and merge into one big celebration of scenic vistas. How many do we need to get that point?
The better points to make of the show are the important differences among all that loveliness, which spans two centuries, with about 70 examples from the mid 1700s to 1935.
Most of the works, all on paper, were created between the mid 18th through 19th centuries, which are often called the golden age of British watercolor. This show illustrates the reason for the description. Social, cultural and political currents all began flowing together to create an atmosphere that encouraged the rise of the watercolor as medium of choice for many artists.
Historically, watercolor (always on paper) was considered a lesser form of painting, far below oil (on cloth or panel). Its common subject matter was landscapes and still lifes, also less important than historical or religious subjects. They were mostly thought of as charming amateur daubs by well-born ladies.
The value of watercolor technically is that it dries quickly and it's portable, qualities not possessed by oil paint. Brits in the 18th century were traveling all over the place, the traditional Grand Tour becoming a more mass-market cultural exchange than the purview of the wealthy nobility with the confluence of a new, affluent middle class and steam-powered transportation, especially railroads. Tourists wanted mementos of their journeys and snapped up (and then rolled up) the scenes watercolored on paper. Watercolors were invaluable, too, for the many scientific expeditions undertaken; artists always went along to record the specimens found along the way. And, yes, war was good for the watercolor business until photography edged it out.
British artists were especially receptive to watercolor because it was such a fine partner in a genre that made Great Britain internationally famous, landscape painting. Most of the works here are from the 1800s. The handful from the 1700s include View of Exeter Cathedral by Thomas Girtin. Girtin was a friend and friendly rival of Joseph Mallord William Turner before Girtin's death in 1802 at 27. In his brief career, he elevated the status of watercolor landscapes as a romantic interpreter of them, though Exeter Cathedral isn't one of his more mature works — an imprecise word for such a young man who never reached his artistic maturity. Like Turner's early landscapes, it is more "topographical," meaning straightforward. Compare it to Turner's Barnard Castle painted in 1835. Turner had redefined the landscape genre and become one of its greatest proponents and a precursor of impressionism. Though Turner's greatest work was in oils, this small watercolor, probably just an informal sketch, has Turner's hallmark explosion of emotive color in the leaves of a tree while the ostensible subject matter, the castle, is a ghostly imprint behind it.
Turner was ahead of his time; his contemporaries and even those who followed him hewed to the more traditional expectations of watercolor landscapes. Compare Turner to John Constable, a contemporary, who was also a giant of the English landscape tradition. Hampstead, painted in 1833, blooms with the color and lush reality of the English countryside.
Still, as time marches forward, you can see in the handling of the material a growing looseness. The scenes often become more intimate, less panoramic. A foreground view doesn't necessarily yield to a far-as-the-eye-can-see sweep.
And then — whoa! — the 20th century arrives and upends everything. As in David Jones' The Garden Path, Ditchling (1924), which looks to be a bit of landscape turned on its side, then compressed by gravity. It isn't a depiction of a physical phenomenon, of course. We're seeing the aesthetic collision of an old genre and medium (landscape, watercolor) with new ideas (modernism, cubism, post-impressionism et al).
This show is rich with such comparisons. Most are subtle; only a few will smack you in the face. There is a lot of written information on the walls to accompany the show. One of the most fun is a large panel that shows photographs of specific landscape scenes next to the artists' interpretations. You will fully appreciate the idea of realism — purportedly how most of the works in this collection are painted — with the concept of creative license.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.