From Cozens to Turner to Whistler, capturing the essence of watercolor

June 13, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Thomas Girtin's "The White House at Chelsea" (1800) sums up so much of what the art of watercolor is all about that it might be called the quintessential watercolor. A thin band of land separates a body of water and the sky, which together constitute about 95 percent of the surface of this picture. The fluidity of the medium and its ability to create light are perfectly captured in the golden sunlight pouring forth from behind billowing clouds and reflected in the water below.

The land and its few buildings exist as a foil, the solidity that anchors all this evanescence, the windmill sticking up into the sky and its reflection rippling across the water. The gleam of the small white house just off center acts as the focal point visually and symbolically, announcing that humanity's ability to appreciate all this beauty in a sense creates it, just as the artist creates the picture.

Girtin's great work stands out even among the superb company it keeps these days at Washington's National Gallery of Art. Though less ballyhooed than some other National Gallery exhibits (such as the concurrent show of French paintings from the Barnes collection), "The Great Age of British Watercolors 1750- 1880" is surely one of the finest shows that even that immense exhibit factory on the Mall has ever presented.

Conceived by Andrew Wilton of the Tate Gallery in London and shown only at the Royal Academy there and the National Gallery here, it brings us some 250 works from the greatest masters of British watercolor. But its purpose was not merely to assemble a group of masterpieces. It shows through them the British preoccupation with landscape and the larger meanings of that preoccupation, from the recording of specific places to the delight in nature's tiny corners to romantic immensities of space and intensities of emotion.

Unfortunately, the accompanying catalog is less than a complete success. Written by Wilton and his colleague Anne Lyles, its clarity of language to some degree obscures the fact that the text repeatedly leaves the reader with unanswered questions. It's frequently as if what appears is an elaboration on some essential point that the authors didn't bother to include.

The show itself, in its organization and accompanying didactics in Washington, makes matters some-what clearer, but it's installed in such a way that many may begin at the end and perhaps not even see the meat of this show.

The grandest and most accessible galleries of the West Building's ground floor are devoted to the show's final section, the large exhibition watercolors that tend to be more calculated and finished, and therefore ultimately less satisfying, than the more spontaneous works elsewhere that capture the essence of watercolor.

A modern beginning

A work such as John Frederick Lewis' "Life in the Hhareem, Cairo" (1858) may indeed be a great tour de force of light and color and texture and detail and complexity of space, but after all is said and done it remains a somewhat cloying genre scene. And even J. M. W. Turner's "The Great Falls of the Reichenbach" (1804), for all its grandeur, cannot give us the thrill of such later and more intensely Turneresque (though smaller) works as "The Rigi at Sunset" (about 1841).

That picture hangs in one of the smaller galleries in which most of the show is housed, off to one side of the main corridor through the building and possible to bypass. There, the show begins on a surprisingly modern note with a section devoted to 18th-century theory and featuring the works of Alexander Cozens. Cozens' ideas of building up an ideal landscape from blots of ink used as compositional marks resulted in pictures with a degree of abstraction.

His theories influenced his son, John Robert Cozens, who adapted them to the depiction of specific places, as in "Cetara, on the Gulf of Salerno" (1790). In doing so, he was able to raise the particular to the level of the general, as Sir Joshua Reynolds had earlier declared the aim of major art to be, and helped pave the way for the later romantics' pursuit of the sublime.

The ease of transporting the paraphernalia of watercolor (compared with those of oil painting) and the rapidity with which the medium could be used made it a popular one for the topographic study, or the record of the particular place. If the art of topography sounds a mundane one, its best practitioners' achievements were considerably more elevated than that.

People in time

The people populating Paul Sandby's views of Windsor Castle place these pictures firmly in time and, somewhat paradoxically, bestow upon them an immediacy that transcends any particular time. Girtin's view of the "Rue St. Denis" in Paris (1801-1802) endows a contemporary street with something of the reserved drama of his ruin at "Lindisfarne" (about 1798).

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