American Gilded Age · Essay · Works on Paper

‘Medium Specificity’ in Nineteenth Century Watercolors: Winslow Homer and Julian Alden Weir

In the watercolor Autumn Trees from 1878, Winslow Homer nicked the surface of his drawing to create curt, white marks seen across the swath of grass in the foreground of the scene. This enlivening technique, though present in the work of other artists including J. M. W. Turner, is unusual for Homer. It is likely the artist was simply being playful with the medium – watercolor – which is frequently associated with a fast and sketchy style. Why not experiment with the face of the drawing when the medium – where ink runs across a wet surface – already lends itself to unpredictability.

As the critic Clement Greenberg wrote in 1940, “Purity in art consists in the acceptance, willing acceptance, of the limitations of the medium of the specific art.”[1] Thus when one considers the ‘limitations’ of watercolor from a theoretical standpoint, the issue of time arises, as gouache drawings are often completed in one sitting before the paper dries. In the case of Homer’s drawing, then, the artist’s need to add one more dimension of activity after the paint had fully dried compels us to consider his process in this specific medium and to contrast this work from others absent of such markings.

Conversely, in a watercolor by Julian Alden Weir of his domestic life entitled Family Scene, Isle of Man (c. 1889), the artist demonstrated self control by allowing for an ambiguity of form. In this drawing of his wife and children from their trip to Europe in the summer of 1889, the artist refrains from “finishing” the faces of his figures through over-painting. As such, the scene is more a study of the idea of “comfort” and home rather than the individuals present. Here Weir, who was elected to the American Watercolor Society in 1884, emphasizes the strong suit of this particular medium – the rapid portrayal of impressions and moods that capture a specific ambiance.

Lizzie Frasco

[1] Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 1: Perceptions and Judgments, 1939-1944 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 32.


Winslow Homer, Autumn Trees, 1878, watercolor on paper, Hawthorne Fine Art.

Homer Winslow_Oak Trees_email

Julian Alden Weir, Family Scene, Isle of Man, c. 1889, watercolor on paper, Hawthorne Fine Art.

Weir Julian Alden_Family Scene Isle of Man-cat




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