Art: Britannia Rules the Wash

Watercolor: today, the word seems prim and dilute. It suggests Aunt Mabel, poking at her holiday sketchbook in some Tuscan piazza. Oils for real artists, watercolor for amateurs—so the common prejudice runs. Yet in the 18th and 19th centuries, some of the best painting in Europe was done in watercolor. The brilliant achievements of English art in particular, from Rowlandson to Turner, were largely based on the freedom, speed and unique sparkle of the transparent wash. One forgets what the medium could do. Last week the Pierpont Morgan Library produced a salutary reminder,...

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