THE expatriate American artist John Singer Sargent once described painting with watercolor as "making the best of an emergency."
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has mounted an exhibition, "Awash in Color: Homer, Sargent and the Great American Watercolor," composed of 127 of its finest "emergencies." Because of their fragility and sensitivity to light, these works are seldom on display, so it is a particular treat to see so many, and so many of the best.
"Bostonians," according to Winslow Homer scholar Lloyd Goodrich, "have always been great collectors of watercolors, for some occult reason, perhaps connected with thrift; and in buying Homer's watercolors they also showed that other characteristic Boston trait, discrimination."
Watercolor painting was customarily considered a refinement for British ladies and gentlemen, and Boston seems to have imported this idea.
The first work on display is Benjamin West's lovely 1790 preparatory sketch of "Angels Announcing the Birth of Our Savior." The angels are drawn in a baroque fashion with heavens appositely cascading with light.
This picture is followed by more colloquial examples of portraits, reportorial landscapes, and exuberant folk art, some in a highly finished style.
Most are firmly executed within the English tradition, notably James Hamilton's evocation of Turner and Henry Roderick Newman's use of elaborate layering techniques to achieve a shimmering but highly precise rendering.
William Trost Richards's work of the 1870s shows an attempt to create works of a size and complexity thought commensurate with that of serious oil painting. One large picture, "Near Paradise, Newport," is painted in opaque watercolor on a thick fibrous paper that had been used to line carpets. Richards wasn't kidding around.
Various 20th-century works are on view, among them: Charles Burchfield's visionary representations of the mundane, Charles Demuth's exquisite still lifes, and Edward Hopper's tonal masterpieces. Jacob Lawrence's "Cafe Comedian" depicts a jazzy interior with comedian, jazz band, and patrons all seeming to revolve around the axis of a barkeep in what is, at second glance, not a comic atmosphere at all.
But the real stars of the show, as the title suggests, are Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. Born 20 years apart, and living in entirely different circumstances, they each put their definitive stamp on the medium. In fact, between them they practically define American watercolor.
Sargent, the younger artist, was a world-famous painter, renowned for his vigorous limning of European and American high society. After painting nearly 600 hundred of these, he officially retired in exhaustion and annoyance, declaring, "No more mugs!"
Although he was always an able watercolor painter, it was around 1907, after refusing further portrait commissions, that he seems to have produced scores of the most buoyant, light-charged watercolors ever painted.
Architectural details, sunny Venetian scenes, and vivacious family holidays are all recorded in what Sargent referred to as "snapshots." Indeed, they do often resemble photographs with their abrupt cropping and casual subject matter, but the concise virtuosic brushwork and uncanny evocation of light in no way suggest photography. The "snapshots" are really only successful because they are supported by fine and solid drawing - a result of Sargent's native gifts and his academic training.
Arguably, however, his best work in this show is the moving but unsentimental "Portrait of Alice Runnells," (1921). It depicts a convalescent woman who seems to look inward and yet engage the viewer as if he were an invited guest. These traits are magnified by the composition, which sinks off the page.
Sargent's pictures are a true joy to see. But in an apples-and-oranges comparison, it is Winslow Homer's work in watercolor that reaches one of the real pinnacles of painting.
Within this exhibition, one can trace his growing fluency and power in the medium. The rough-hewn Gloucester pictures from the 1870s featuring playing children led to dramatic pictures, in full English technique, of ocean storms and struggling fisherfolk from the English coast. Back in the States, Homer made progressively simpler and bolder exploitation of saturated color and accidental effects in paintings from Maine, the Caribbean, and the Adirondacks.
He scraped and gouged his sheets in order to take full advantage of the white paper.
It is the depth of feeling in these paintings that makes them extraordinary. There is no hackneyed theme ("Man vs. Nature" is the banal critics' favorite): The fishing paintings and "The Fallen Deer," for example, are stirring pictures, which neither condemn nor defend sportsmen (Homer hunted and fished) but compel us to inquire into their essence.
The display of some of Homer's and Sargent's tools is a charming and instructive addition to the exhibition. A painter touring the galleries, such as I, will readily see the daunting but comforting connection he has to these artists in the essentially unchanged nature of the tools of the craft. He may also wish, as I did, to run off with Homer's beautiful brushes.
* `Awash in Color' closes Aug.15.