Certainly, it’s the exhibition of Kathleen A. Foster’s lifetime. She began working on it – unknowingly at the time – during her graduate school years at Yale in the early 1970s.
And now, after a distinguished career as curator, first at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, then at the Indiana University Art Museum, and for the last 15 years at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Foster’s decades-long effort bears fruit with Wednesday’s public opening of “American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent.”
Not in memory in Philadelphia, and probably nowhere else in the United States, has such a rich and comprehensive show of works in this fragile medium been brought together.
Through May 14, visitors will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see masterful watercolors by Edwin Abbey, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, John La Farge, Thomas Moran, William Trost Richards, Maxfield Parrish, Jessie Willcox Smith, Violet Oakley, Georgia O’Keeffe, and a host of others. The exhibition will be only here, in Philadelphia.
Even getting these works to the Art Museum was no mean feat. Watercolors are fragile, very light-sensitive, and curators are loath to lend them.
But Foster, who has been at the top of the field for years and is one of the most respected scholars of Eakins in the country, was able to rely on trusted friendships with many colleagues to persuade them to part with their delicate masterpieces, at least briefly.
“I go in there,” Foster recounted recently, “and I say, ‘You know me. I’ve been working on the topic a long time. This is the great show. Finally we’re pulling this together.’
“And they say, ‘You’re right! If we’re ever going to lend this picture, this is the moment.’ So I think I’ve gotten loans on the strength of people recognizing this is a once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-generation moment, and that I’ve been working on the subject a long time.”
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The list of artists reads like a Who’s Who of American art. And that’s perhaps the most interesting part of the story. Foster has created an exhibition that traces the rise of watercolors from being the domestic products of finishing schools and drawing rooms and workshops to the point when they out-muscled oil paintings at salons and museums.
“American Watercolor,” in fact, identifies and traces a sea change in American art history. Foster shows how it happened and why — perhaps the trickiest part of a curator’s task.
“I’m excited,” said Timothy Rub, Art Museum director, who noted that Foster “has kind of reframed for us a very important aspect of the history of American art.”
At the same time, Rub said, “this is a kind of a congregation of masterpieces.” About 70 lenders have contributed to the exhibition, which features 175 works and one palm-studded gallery room — echoing the theatrical ambiance of late 19th-century watercolor exhibitions.
David R. Brigham, head of the Pennsylvania Academy and a former Foster student, said that “watercolor is sometimes dismissed as a hobbyist’s medium; Kathy’s show will blast that idea right out of the water.”
The show has had a long fuse, Foster says. She began thinking about it while in graduate school in New Haven working with the collection of Edwin Austin Abbey.
“Abbey is a Philadelphia kid who went to the Pennsylvania Academy and then went to New York and worked at Harper’s Magazine alongside Winslow Homer,” she said. “He became very famous as an illustrator and watercolor painter in the 1870s and ’80s.”
Foster fell for him, too.