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In the 1834 article “Les Aquarelles” published in the French journal L’Artiste, the author demonstrates his country’s disdain for the medium by asking archly: “Did Raphael and Michelangelo paint watercolors?” Long overshadowed by oil paint, watercolor has nonetheless been the humble, trusted tool of artists for centuries. Watercolor: A History by Marie-Pierre Salé, published by Abbeville Press, elevates this fundamental medium’s evolution in Europe and the United States. Moving from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century, the chief curator of prints and drawings at the Musée du Louvre expertly explores watercolor’s technical and creative complexities in exhaustive essays and over 300 dazzling, full-color illustrations, all specially printed on Munken paper to capture the intensity and texture of the original works.
Watercolor has its roots at least as far back as ancient Egypt. It shows up in the writings of Pliny the Elder and later in a technical manual by the 12th-century monk Theophilus. As its name implies, it’s composed of water, gum extracted from plants, and pigments, which initially came from earth, crushed stones, roots, berries, and leaves. Transparency distinguishes watercolor from tempera, gouache, and oil. Its material connections to dyeing, drawing, and small-scale genres, like illuminated manuscripts and miniature, have kept watercolor shunted to, as Salé puts it, “the bottom rung of the hierarchy of arts.” Perhaps the dismissal also stems from the medium’s attainability: once William Reeves developed his portable, pre-mixed “moist color” cakes in London in 1766, watercolor became accessible to hobbyists and artists alike. In fact, watercolor had a golden age starting in 1750s Britain — even Queen Victoria was an avid watercolorist. It would take the continental Europeans about a century to catch on.
Salé’s book covers well-known artists like Dürer, Turner, Delacroix, Sargent, and Cézanne, but also spotlights a number of brilliant, lesser-known watercolorists like the Italian Renaissance artist Pisanello, whose fresh, naturalistic animal studies could have been painted today. Another artist, the “pre-Impressionist” David Cox, rejected picturesque traditions by introducing wind, rain, and rainbows into his luminous landscapes, phenomena perfectly suited to watercolor’s transparent effects. And in the mid-19th century, Léon Bonvin painted stunningly sensitive still lifes between shifts at his family’s bar, before tragically hanging himself at age 32. Unfortunately, besides Berthe Moisot and Georgia O’Keeffe, women are largely absent from this account. That aside, Watercolor: A History exquisitely captures the vibrancy of this astonishing, essential medium and the artists who’ve made it come alive.
Watercolor: A History by Marie-Pierre Salé is published by Abbeville Press and is available in stores and online.