Water Works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Philadelphia Museum

Why the museum's new exhibition can’t be missed.

Every time a watercolor is seen, it dies a little. Its colors disintegrate and fade. This is true of oils and inks and anything light touches, but watercolor is particularly vulnerable to the assault of photons. Which is why assembling “American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent,” opening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was such an ordeal. “People are very cautious about lending watercolors because they’re worried about exposing them too much,” says the show’s curator, Kathleen Foster. “Every single work has been a begging process for me.” That’s also what makes the exhibition so special, since the more than 170 masterpieces on display have never been shown together before and likely won’t again for a very long time. The show covers the burgeoning of watercolor as a serious art form, rather than a pastime for dabblers, illustrators (like Winslow Homer), and those who couldn’t cut it in oils (unlike Winslow Homer). Its timeline runs from 1860, just before the founding in New York of the American Watercolor Society, to 1925, with the death of John Singer Sargent, whose aqueous works exude spontaneity and joy. In that time, Homer painted oceans, Georgia O’Keeffe painted deserts, Edward Hopper painted cities, and watercolor became known as the American medium. March 1–May 14; philamuseum.org.