Exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center, Los Angeles, 19 July — 23 October 2011
Watercolor is one of the most challenging artistic techniques—capable of extraordinary luminosity but often resistant to control. Luminous Paper: British Watercolors and Drawings presents more than 25 works of the 1700s and 1800s by some of the greatest masters of the medium, many on view for the first time. Featuring the work of some of the most famous British artists, including J.M.W. Turner, William Blake, and Samuel Palmer, this exhibition reveals their multifaceted innovations in the field of drawing and watercolor painting. From Turner’s use of his thumbprint to roughen the texture of wash in a whirling seascape, to the reflected and re-reflected light built in layers by John Sell Cotman, the medium of watercolor was transformed beyond recognition. Other artists experimented with novel subject matter or new modes of representation, playing important roles in the development of European drawing and watercolor painting.
“Key works have been added to the Getty’s collection in the last few years as part of an ongoing initiative to build our holdings of British drawings and watercolors to better represent the wider European tradition,” said Associate Curator Julian Brooks, who curated the exhibition. “Many of these works have been recently acquired and we’re thrilled to be publicly displaying them for the first time in generations.”
Among the recent acquisitions is Durham Cathedral and Castle (about 1800) by Thomas Girtin, a dramatic view of a medieval cathedral and castle set on a rocky outcrop above the water, amid the moving light of a bright, cloudy sky. Girtin died of tuberculosis at the age of 27, two years after making this drawing. His rival J.M.W. Turner is reputed to have said “Had poor Tom lived, I would have starved.” Another is View of the Church of Our Lady of Hanswijk, Mechelen (1831) by Thomas Shotter Boys, a central figure in Anglo-French artistic exchange of the period, and one of the most sophisticated practitioners of watercolor. He excelled in capturing effects of atmosphere and mood.
In the early 1700s watercolor painting was seen as an amateur pastime unworthy of true painters, but toward the end of the century British artists started to make watercolors designed to compete directly with oil paintings. They were bigger, with strong colors and dramatic compositions. The “exhibition watercolor” attracted new audiences of collectors and produced some of the most technically complex and powerful works in the medium.
To gather motifs and material for their exhibited works, British artists of the 1700s and 1800s often made sketching trips. Equipped with sketchbooks and portable boxes containing dry cakes of watercolor pigment and, later, moist versions and tubes, artists could easily capture the elements and effects of nature in color. Luminous Paper: British Watercolors and Drawings includes a sketchbook filled on a tour of northern England and Scotland by artist William Bell Scott and a paint box of the era, in addition to other books and letters from the collection of the Getty Research Institute.
Complementing Luminous Paper: British Watercolors and Drawings is a loan installation of three contemporary watercolors by British artist David Hockney, bringing the tradition of the exhibition watercolor into the present day. His colorful and personal landscapes of the Yorkshire countryside of his youth show his ceaseless experimentation with artistic technique and demonstrate that watercolor as a medium is alive and well in the 21st
Curated by Julian Brooks