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Andrew Wyeth Picks 20 Great American Watercolorists

from American Artist’s Fall 2006 20th Anniversary Issue of Watercolor magazine
by M. Stephen Doherty

The Man Who Has Shaped American Watercolor For More Than 60 Years Identifies the Historic Painters Who Have Made the Most of the Medium.

When I first proposed to Andrew Wyeth that he compose a list of 20 artists he considered to be among the greatest watercolorists, he considered both contemporary and historic practitioners. "He’s concerned that limiting the list to historic figures would make it too short; and that adding contemporary painters would make it too long," said his curator, Mary Landa. "He also worries about offending some good watercolorists he might not think about." I suggested he focus on historic painters and consider a long list I put together. By the time I visited Wyeth’s home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, in early March, he was feeling more confident about finalizing a list that would suggest to Watercolor readers what he felt was the hallmark of a great watercolor.

The final list of 20 great painters includes those who elevated the importance of watercolor and helped define a distinctly American attitude towards the medium, as well as artists who are less well known yet offer a uniquely expressive approach to working with combinations of water-soluble paints. The selection includes some obvious choices that would be on almost anyone’s roster – such as Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent – as well as artists such as William Thon, Hardie Gramatky, and Morris Graves, who reflect Wyeth’s age, experience and attitude. For example, he knew and admired several of the artists who shared his interest in expressive representation; and in contrast, he felt no particular affinity with the Abstract Expressionists or the Photo Realists who painted in watercolor at roughly the same time he was working with the medium.

The point in formulating this list is to offer a broader view of watercolor than many people would associate with Wyeth. People often form the mistaken opinion that he gravitates toward the sentimental, pastoral, or nostalgic, but a review of the vast number of watercolors he has created since the last 1930s reveals that he is often captivated by the power of nature, the transience of life, the juxtaposition of animate and inanimate forms, and the ability of watercolor to represent the soul of the artist. Those are often the qualities he admires in other artists’ paintings.

It is clear that no other contemporary artist has influenced the ways painters use watercolor as much as Wyeth. His paintings have been so widely exhibited and reproduced over the past 60 years that almost every watercolorist has been influenced by him, either directly or indirectly. That influence may come from direct experience, through teachers or fellow artists, or through collectors who measure every watercolor against Wyeth. Many artists have emulated the subject matter of his paintings, his palette of colors, his penchant for detail, his orientation toward personal themes, or his willingness to express individual perceptions.

Anyone who has enjoyed such unprecedented success and had such a pervasive influence on generations of artists might be excused if he were arrogant, aloof, or remote. After all, celebrities in other fields are notoriously demanding. But despite his fame, wealth, and influence Wyeth is much the same person he was when he mounted his first exhibition of watercolors in 1938 at the age of 20. He remains a personable, caring, and appreciative man who is just as excited about the freedom afforded by watercolor as he was when his father first encouraged him to use the paints. Even with a major retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an exhibition of his drawings at the Brandywine River Museum, in Chadds Ford, Wyeth is still most excited when sitting on the ground with a stack of watercolor paper in his lap, brushes and paints laid out by his side, and a tree or a figure posing in front of him.

"Watercolor is a personal medium that allows artists to get into their souls," Wyeth told me during a recent conversation. "It’s not about clever tricks or academic study. It offers the promise of something much deeper." He has little concern for preparatory studies, procedural rules, or care of his work. If a painting blows into the river or flips over on the wet ground, he just keeps working without any concern for the possibility of ruining a valuable picture.

Wyeth made similar comments about watercolor when writing about the paintings reproduced in a book titled Andrew Wyeth Autobiography. "The only virtue to it is to put down an idea quickly without thought about what you feel at the moment. It’s one’s free side. Watercolor shouldn’t behave," he commented in reference to "Half Bushel", a painting of a basket lying under an apple tree, created in 1959. "You’re in the lap of the gods – almost like painting with your eyes half-closed." "Sometimes I don’t want to see too clearly," he wrote in reference to another watercolor. "You build up a kind of color that is purely an interpretation of the truth. Anything to get away from the predictable. This applies to the design of a picture too. Painting is all about breaking the rules. Art is chance."

Wyeth was introduced to watercolor by his father, the famous illustrator N.C. Wyeth, and by one of his father’s friends, Sid Chase. He immediately began looking at the work of great watercolorists from the past, especially American artists who "lifted watercolor from the academic approach of the British and made it something freer." He explained to me. Among the first historic artists to inform and influence young Wyeth was Winslow Homer, whose work he first saw when visiting Homer’s studio in Prouts Neck, Maine. "I never wanted to copy the work of other people, but I wanted to find out the truth in nature that they were expressing – and then find my own truth," he says in the book Andrew Wyeth: Early Watercolors, by Susan Strickler. "So Homer led me on to something else. I got a direction that was authentic to me and to what I felt."

As his interest in watercolor expanded, so did Wyeth’s awareness of other great artists who used the medium, particularly those who used it as freely and expressively as he did. He was especially interested in those who had developed a personal style and expanded their range of possibilities. He met many of those artists, such as Edward Hopper, during trips to New York or summer excursions to Maine; and a number of others called on him in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

The enthusiasm that Andrew and Betsy Wyeth have for American painting is demonstrated through their foundation, The Wyeth Foundation for American Art. The foundation provides substantial support for exhibitions, catalogues, research, and acquisitions of American Art. The Wyeths have also donated works from their own personal collection to museums, and they have made plans to leave their home and property to the Brandywine River Museum.

And the list that Andrew Wyeth came up with March 2006?

1. Milton Avery (1893–1965)
2. Charles Burchfield (1893-1967)
3. Charles Demuth (1883-1935)
4. Arthur Dove (1880-1946)
5. Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)
6. Hardie Gramatky (1907-1979)
7. Morris Graves (1910-2001)
8. Childe Hassam (1859-1935)
9. Winslow Homer (1836-1910)
10. Edward Hopper (1882-1967)
11. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)
12. John Marin (1870-1953)
13. Reginald Marsh (1898-1954)
14. Thomas Moran (1837-1926)
15. John Pike (1911-1979)
16. Ogden Pleissner (1905-1983)
17. Maurice B. Prendergast (1859-1924)
18. John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
19. Millard Sheets (1907-1989)
20. William Thon (1906-2000)