Winslow Homer, A Garden in Nassau, 1885Watercolor on textured paper,
Art Institute of Chicago, on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

If you care at all about watercolor, either as a practitioner or an aficionado, get yourself over to the Philadelphia Museum of Art with all the alacrity you can muster. There is a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition about the American watercolor tradition on display there through Sunday, May 14, and to miss it would be a kind of sin against the medium.

“American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent” is a grand achievement for the senior curator Kathleen Foster, director of the museum’s Center for American Art, who has worked assiduously on related topics since she was a doctoral student at Yale. Through the catalogue—a noble, handsome, five-hundred-page beast of a tome that will provide much consolation and a measure of absolution if you can’t see the exhibition in person—one can travel through her palatial understanding of the art scene at the time, one that witnessed the flowering of a previously dismissed medium, an associated emergence of talented women artists (speaking of previous dismissal), and a transformation of American taste from a preference for dogged craftsmanship to an appreciation for a wrist with a bit of flair.

This last bit was consequential, as it enabled giants like Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent to explode the possibilities of the medium. Having never previously thought of either of them as innovators, I was obliged after seeing them face off against each other in an installation devoted to that contest in “American Watercolor” to consider that they might have pried a gate open in the national imagination. The earlier history of the medium on these shores is full of earnest, detail-driven pictures that took cues from botanical illustration and similar pursuits. Typical of such works is Apples and Plums (1874) by John William Hill. It is, for the record, gorgeous, but one has to admit to there being a plodding quality to it. Anyone who has had a chance to admire the temperas of Giovanna Garzoni will recognize a similar sort of temperament in operation. The technique is excusable for a painter working two hundred years earlier, but by Hill’s time it looks more like a misunderstanding about how to arrive at artistic success, applying details to the picture one after the next as if piling them up would do the trick.

Homer’s A Garden in Nassau from eleven years later exists on a higher plane. A black boy, painted with beautiful economy, looks longingly at coconuts that tempt him from the other side of a garden wall, a wall that the artist rendered in all its rocky texture and Caribbean effulgence by leaving the paper mostly blank. One can detect the palest blue-gray washes on the white of the surface, punctuated with more opaque daubs to give the stones their form. No other medium registers satisfyingly on the eye at such low saturations, and Homer maximizes the effect. Technique is what you include, art is what you leave out. Homer was among the first American painters to truly grasp this. Even admirable artists like J. Frank Currier, who could work wet into wet with the best of them, tended to realize a little too late that it was time to stop working (not that his Landscape from 1880 is anything short of haunting).

If Sargent’s Muddy Alligators (1917) isn’t a whole plane above Homer, it’s at least the same one with an additional dollop of the divine. With the same blue and gray washes that Homer used for his Bahamian wall, chasing the same kind of texture, Sargent depicts a pile of gators eyeing the viewer with more interest than one would really like at that proximity to the canoe. The background of slash pines is put down with a loose modernity that is astonishing—just as one can look at the Hercules Segers prints on view at the Metropolitan Museum right now and fairly wonder whether they’re from 1622 or 1971, the paint-handling on these trees evokes John Marin, who is also on display in this exhibition with a striking abstracted seascape from 1922. After paddling around South Florida for a few months, Sargent returned to Boston with an armful of luminous watercolors, and museums couldn’t collect them fast enough. Word about them got around quickly, thus introducing the possibility of a more direct effect of Sargent on Marin than one would typically consider.

Foster goes into copious detail about the formation of the various watercolor societies that instigated the medium’s nineteenth-century surge. One can’t much admire the soap-opera politics that went on in them, but they had at least two beneficial effects. One was that watercolors had long been associated with women, and the societies’ efforts to raise the status of the medium and the status of women as artists went hand-in-hand. Consequently, by the time Georgia O’Keefe arrived on the scene, she was standing on the shoulders of figures like Caroline Townsend, whose image-making prowess—exemplified in Lotus-Flower Design (ca. 1885)—provided her with a career that enabled her to study in Paris and return to America as a fine-art painter.

The other was to pioneer a kind of can-do attitude that leveraged American optimism and presupposed that, given enough elbow grease, one could remake art history to one’s liking. It’s possible to detect a thread that stretches from the Boston Water Color Club to the circle of Alfred Stieglitz, from there to The Club that was the intellectual hub of the abstract expressionists, and from there to Andy Warhol’s Factory. I believe that this ability to steer artistic taste is an idea that still has life in it, and with communication technology more powerful than ever, ought to be taken up again. One just needs to summon the optimism, and rally people behind a singular advancement. It needn’t be lofty. It only needs to be as much of a pleasure as Homer’s wall in Nassau, washed with a hue so pale as to nearly disappear in the light.