Art: Britannia Rules the Wash

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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, in the form of a show called "English Drawings and Watercolors, 1550-1850." The 150 items are drawn from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, and they are nearly all of staggering quality.

The art of watercolor has two roots. One is in pen-and-wash drawing, the other in the more static and ceremonious art of miniature painting. The first item in the Morgan catalogue is a painting of an imaginary noble savage, A Young Daughter of the Picts, by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues. Le Moyne, a French artist who worked in England in the 16th century, voyaged to Florida in the early 1560s. There he saw Indians—and concluded that there had to be a likeness between them and the lost tribes of primitive Britain. Hence the delicate Amazon, who might have stepped out of a court masque. Her tribal body painting is transmuted into an exquisite damask of skin tattoos; every detail of Le Moyne's image, from the green, parklike landscape and the rippling blonde hair to the jaunty flutter of tassel and petal, adds to the sense of a new-minted Arcadia. It is, of course, completely artificial.

Nature Worship. Watercolor came fully into its own as a medium two centuries later—through nature rather than culture. The two great themes of English art in the 18th and 19th centuries were antiquity and landscape. Both necessitated some form of travel—either taking the road to Rome or making the shorter trip into the English countryside, with painting kit. Oil paint in tubes made Impressionism possible, but that sort of packaging did not exist in the 18th century. Lugging oils through the vales of Kent or the gorges of Switzerland was messy, and watercolor—carried dry, in little pans—was the solution. The sheer convenience of watercolor—and its appeal to amateur and professional alike—was neatly expressed by Paul Sandby's tranquil view of Rosslyn Castle, North Berwick, with an aristocratic-looking lady on the riverbank painting with the aid of a camera lucida.

The medium was so handy and quick-drying that it could serve almost as photography, recording a fascinating panorama of costume, manners and habits. The master of social observation was Thomas Rowlandson, with his scenes of 18th century London—like the splendid Old Vauxhall Gardens (circa 1784), in which portraits of such notables as Dr. Johnson, Boswell and the Prince of Wales are mingled with the faces of anonymous revelers. Other artists went farther afield. George Chinnery fled his family in 1802 and settled in India, where he turned out a stream of elegant, precise topographical studies like Figure Seated by an Indian Temple.

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