Walters' watercolor exhibit of American work is watery indeed

Art review

February 25, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Is water waterier in Venice? Or does it just inspire artists to do something special with it?

The water in John Singer Sargent's "Venetian Canal, Palazzo Corner, Contarini" (about 1880) and on Maurice Prendergast's rain-soaked street in front of "The Porch With the Old Mosaics, St. Marks, Venice" (1899) doesn't necessarily look more like water than the water in, say, George Howell Gay's "Surf at Northampton, Long Island" (about 1890) or Frederick Schiller Cozzens' "Breakwater at Low Tide" (1895). But somehow that Venetian water feels more like water. The artist, of course, could have a little something to do with that.

These are among the 75 works in "Contemplating the American Watercolor," an exhibit that occupies the Walters Art Gallery's temporary galleries -- space not currently being used for the Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema show. A traveling selection from the collection of the Transco Energy Co. of Houston, it constitutes something of a traveling commercial for the company.

One should not expect a history of American art; but there are certainly many familiar names, from Thomas Sully to Andrew Wyeth. And while not all of these works are up to the same mark, the best of them are extremely fine.

Among the best is William Trost Richards' "Fishermen on the Shore" (1879), with its superb greens, browns and grays of cliffs and sky, its play of light and vastness of scale.

In his two little works, "Seascape -- Dieppe" (1884/1886) and "Note in Opal -- the Sands, Dieppe" (about 1866), James Abbott McNeill Whistler creates a world disappearing into its own atmosphere with astonishing economy of means.

The solid monumentality of Winslow Homer's "Daughters of the Sea" (1883) is emphasized by the insubstantiality of water and sky against which they are shown, and as well by the tiny ship in the far distance. Inasmuch as some artists (Mr. Whistler, Mr. Sargent, Samuel Colman, Joseph Pennell) are represented by two works, one could wish for a second by such a master of watercolor as Mr. Homer.

The grandness of the female figures in Max Weber's "Sleep" (1916) is only reinforced by the play of light across them; "Still Life With Tulips (Three Potted Tulips)" (1917) shows the delicate mastery of Charles Demuth; Thomas Hart Benton's "Blast Furnace, Western Pennsylvania" (about 1928) captures the energy of industry, while Reginald Marsh's brooding "Grain Elevator" (about 1930) and Everett Shinn's "Fleishman's Bread Line" (1900) present more negative views of industrialization.

One could mention more high points. On the other hand, the collection becomes more conservative as the 20th century progresses -- do we really need Norman Rockwell? The catalog is stolidly written and, in at least a few places, incorrect.

The exhibit continues through April 5 at the Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St. Call 547-9000.

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