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At Art Museum, American Watercolor exhibit a great achievement

"Boy Fishing," Winslow Homer, 1892,
"Boy Fishing," Winslow Homer, 1892,Read morePhoto by Peggy Tenison.

By the time I stopped painting in watercolors, around the age of 11, I had learned only one thing: The more I worked on a picture, the bigger the mess I could make.

I am not alone. Well-meaning adults often give watercolor paintboxes to children, and watercolor retains the aura of being a medium that rewards spontaneity and exploration. In fact, it is a subtle medium in which mistakes are difficult to reverse. You can achieve feelings of lightness and freedom, if that is what you are after, but only if you fully understand your technique and apply it in a disciplined way.

"American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent," which opens Wednesday at the Philadelphia Museum of Art following a weekend of members' previews, is one of the largest displays of mastery of the medium you are ever likely to see. With 27 works by Winslow Homer alone, plus a dozen by John Singer Sargent, and 140 works by artists both well-known and obscure, it makes the case that watercolors were among the greatest achievements of American art during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Now, watercolors tend to be smaller than oils, and often less pretentious. They are not a natural fit for blockbuster treatment. This show has things that will wow you, but quietly, and only after you have looked carefully. But it has the goods – a feast of wonderful pictures you have probably never seen.

Such a large and comprehensive show of watercolors is a rare event because works on paper deteriorate in daylight, and their owners – collectors and museums – show them only for short periods and rarely lend them out. Even items from the Art Museum's collection are likely to be unfamiliar to you, and there are many works here from other museums and collections.

The show, which will be seen only in Philadelphia, has been in the works for decades. It was organized by Kathleen A. Foster, the Art Museum's senior curator of American art, who also wrote its substantial catalog.

The premise of the show is that, while Americans have always worked in watercolor, it was long considered the province of hobbyists, women, children, scientists, architects, illustrators – but not of serious artists. This changed starting in 1867, when the organization that became known as the American Watercolor Society began holding annual shows in New York that drew big crowds and recorded substantial sales.

Watercolor painting was suddenly both fashionable and lucrative. Artists who had worked in the medium became better known, and other, already successful artists began to participate. The first generation was dominated by painters influenced by the critic John Ruskin, and their work emphasized close observation and short, fine brush strokes. Soon, though, the preoccupations of American art of the time – nature, the vast land, urban life – were fully reflected in work that also exploited the transparent colors and sense of immediacy that watercolor could offer.

Thomas Moran's Big Springs at Yellowstone (1872) uses the medium to show a steam-shrouded otherworldly landscape. A year later, Thomas Eakins' John Biglin in a Single Scull reveals the everyday complexity and beauty of the surface of the Delaware River.

And because watercolors were associated with design and home decoration, there are flowers and fruits from beginning to end. John La Farge, best known today for his stained glass, of which there is an example in the show, excelled with his outdoor still lifes, such as Peonies in a Breeze (1890), which shows the peonies and the breeze. Two years later, Childe Hassan in Island Garden, using just a handful of colors and many short strokes, did more or less the same thing – only impressionistically.

Watercolor, the exhibition argues, was the medium through which Americans first became aware, during the late 1870s, of impressionism, not from Paris, but through the work of artists such as J. Frank Currier, an American based in Munich. He soaked his paper, splashed his paint, and created allover compositions that were not so much derivative of Monet as predictive of Jackson Pollock. The inclusion of such now-obscure artists is one of the show's revelations.

But because watercolors were viewed primarily as domestic decoration, experimental works were often not as celebrated as the works that exemplify what we now think of as Victorian sentimentality. You can see why Edwin Austin Abbey's 1885 work An Old Song, a large nostalgic scene of a young woman playing a harp, was loved, and even appreciate its excellent technique. But you may not really want to look at it.

The high point of the exhibition comes in a gallery where examples of work by Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent that deal with similar subjects are hung beside each other. A wall panel invites us to judge which of them was the greatest watercolorist. Thus, a lively Homer that shows a bass taking a hook in Florida is paired with Sargent's Muddy Alligators (1917). Sargent's reptiles, with their complacently lethal grins, look almost as cold-blooded as the socialites and plutocrats Sargent so often depicted.

Sargent probably wins that matchup, but just a bit farther, a fishing scene by Sargent is matched with Homer's quietly breathtaking Boy Fishing (1892). As the boy nets a fish from the glary lake, his rod makes a sweeping, whiplike arc against a dark forest background.

Close scrutiny of the picture reveals what a photograph can't: The brilliance of the image was achieved as much with a knife as with a brush. The rod is really a quick, decisive gash in the paper. It is not an addition to the work, but a removal. Similarly, the surface of the water has been cut away to create bright white reflections, which he then reshaped and modulated with additional color.

As with nearly all watercolors, the places where there is no paint on the paper are crucial. They are where the light is.

Homer is thrilling in his directness. Sargent's watercolors can be exquisitely painstaking meditations on permanence and transiency. His bright, sun-splashed rendering of a carved stone escutcheon at the Alhambra in Granada looks as if you could set your clock, or maybe your calendar, by it.

The idea of a competition is fun, but it soon becomes clear that there is no loser here. These are two of the greatest artists America has ever produced, working in a medium that encouraged lightness, transiency, and freedom.

"American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent," Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy., Wednesday-May 14. Tickets: $5 surcharge above standard museum admission  (adults: $20; ages 13-18: $14; children under 13 free). Information: 215-763-8100 or