It would be easy enough to look at Luminous Landscapes: The Golden Age of British Watercolors, the name of a new exhibition at the Gibbes Museum of Art, and feel like you know what you're getting. The word "landscape" doubtless brings to mind pleasant-but-unremarkable images of fields, deserts, canyons, etc., that are meant to blend in rather than stand out.
The paintings that Amanda Breen, the Gibbes' assistant curator, has selected for this exhibition are meant to deliberately challenge those assumptions.
Consider 1864's "Off Whitby, Morning" by William Roxley Beverly, for example. It's less a landscape than a seascape, and it's a striking image of an overloaded fishing boat sailing toward a golden sunrise that fills the sky. Or look at 1819's "Wales Taquin Ferry, Snowdon from the Harlech," by John Varley, a swirling, almost dreamlike panoramic painting of a lakeside surrounded by mountains in the distance. There are more realistically rendered city scenes as well, like William Callow's 1851 work "Priary, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk," a painting of a simple but stately suburban home with slashes of red drapes and multi-color bursts of flowers on the balcony.
The 20 paintings in the Luminous Landscapes exhibition come from the collection of John Wigger, who bequeathed around 120 pieces to the Gibbes in 2004.
"John was a man who lived here for many years and had an interest in these British artists of the 18th and 19th century," Breen says. "This collection is all what he was drawn to. When we were looking through them and trying to organize a collection, paring 120 down to 20, I wanted to show a range of different artists, different time periods and different styles. There are some that are unfinished and some that are highly detailed. Some of it is in a more dreamlike, picturesque setting, and there are a couple in there that have people in them as well, and that's not what you would think of as a landscape, but they're looking at the environment around them and reading the terrain that the artists find themselves in."
Interestingly enough, most of the painters whose work appears in the Luminous Landscapes collection were initially creating these paintings for practical purposes rather than artistic ones.
"A lot of these artists working in watercolors in Britain, they started off as topographers," Breen says. "They'd be going out and creating drawings for different surveys, and then they started experimenting with adding washes of color, and people started viewing this as a higher art form. At the time, watercolors weren't quite given the same stature as oil paintings or sculpture."
Breen had the perhaps unenviable task of narrowing down Wigger's collection for the exhibition, and her only real guideline was to have as vague a guideline as possible.
"I think what I was looking for was a collection that showed the different approaches that these artists took to the landscapes that they were focusing on," she says. "Some were more interested in seascapes, for example, so we're showing some of those, and some were interested in geographical vistas. So there's a variety of subject matter they worked with and approaches that they took."
Watercolors have been around for thousands of years, so why did they only become popular for landscapes in the 18th and 19th century?
"Working in a studio was much more the norm for the time, and the portability of watercolors was a lot easier than oil," Breen says. "People started to travel more in that time period, so being able to go out into a landscape and create work from what they were seeing was pretty big. They were able to pack up these watercolors and bring them out into the field much more, and that's one of the reasons why it took off."
Breen says that she'd like for people to walk away from Luminous Landscapes with a better sense of where these paintings fit in history.
"I'd like people to have a better understanding about the background of these paintings," she says. "They're aesthetically beautiful, yes, but there's more to them than that. There's a history in how these artists came to be the leaders in this field, in this time period, and in this location. I'd like people to walk away having a better understanding of that."