by Marie-Pierre Salé (trans. Alan Paddle). Abbeville Press, October 2020. 400 p. ill. ISBN 9780789213730 (h/c), $125.00.

Reviewed March 2021
Sandra Rothenberg, Senior Librarian and Coordinator of Library Instruction, Henry Whittemore Library, Framingham State University, MA, srothenberg@framingham.edu

SaleWritten by Marie-Pierre Salé, chief curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Louvre, this book is a comprehensive historical survey of the development of the watercolor genre in the West from the twelfth century to the twentieth century. While watercolor is both a medium and a genre of artwork, it was not considered a genre until the second half of the eighteenth-century.

Salé traces the development of the genre chronologically from its precursors in the tinted drawings of medieval manuscripts, to the opaque wash drawings of the Italian Renaissance and Albrecht Dürer’s studies of the fifteenth century, to the appearance of the first watercolor in the modern sense, and seventeenth-century Flemish and Dutch “watercolor paintings” colored inside outlines of ink. At the end of the eighteenth-century, the term aquarelle started being used to describe drawings that demonstrated the properties of color and transparency. At this point, the author divides the study of the watercolor genre into three sections. The discussion of the flourishing of watercolor painting in England, America, and Europe includes the development of a wide range of watercolor materials including different kinds of paper and portable watercolor paints, the creation of the first watercolor society in London (founded in 1804), and the burgeoning practice of watercolor exhibitions. This Golden Age was marked by the rise of master artists of the medium such as J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, and Winslow Homer. In the next chapter, the author remedies the lack of research on French watercolor by demonstrating that while the watercolor was traditionally at the bottom of the hierarchy of the arts in France, during the nineteenth century the genre rose. Artists such as Eugène Delacroix and French plein-air painters Johan Jongkind and Eugène Boudin led the way to the modern liberation of color employed by later avant-garde French artists Paul Cezanne and Paul Signac, who are highlighted in the last chapter of the book. Only a brief discussion of the watercolor after World War I is included.

Printed on Munken paper, the illustrations in this beautiful book capture the feeling of the original art works. Although a scholarly work with footnotes and bibliography, the writing is clear and accessible for the non-specialist. As noted by the author, because of the lack of research on French watercolor as opposed to British, American, and Germanic watercolor, the history of French watercolor is emphasized in this book, and thus light is shed on a lesser-known aspect of this art form. Also of note is the appendix that includes historical treatises and texts, color charts, and images of the associated paraphernalia of watercolor painting such as paints, paint boxes, and brushes.

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