April 2012

Watercolor as Underdog

Albrecht Dürer, "Young Hare," 1502, watercolor and gouache on paper

One of the classes I’m teaching this quarter includes a lot of avant-garde art from the 19th and 20th centuries. Last week, a student observed that we haven’t been discussing watercolor paintings as a class. I thought this was a good observation, and responded that avant-garde painters often (but definitely not always) stick with oil and canvas as a medium. This reliance or insistence on oil makes sense for a lot of reasons. On one hand, avant-garde artists seemed to want to “reference” the tradition of oil painting while simultaneously establishing their “difference” from that tradition (to borrow two phrases from Griselda Pollock).

This comment about watercolor, though, has got me thinking. On a whole, I would say that watercolors are not highlighted or discussed very much in general art history textbooks (or in the artistic world at large). In some ways, I think this is a little surprising. Water-based paint has existed since prehistoric and ancient times. Several significant European painters also were interested in watercolor, like Albrecht Dürer (see above).

However, it seems to me that watercolor often has played second fiddle to other mediums, including oil paint. (Maybe it’s part of our human psyche to be reliant on all types of oil – hence the contemporary issues with oil drilling today! Ha!) In fact, in 1804 a group of disgruntled watercolorists banded together in Britain. These artists were upset that watercolor did not receive very high status by the Royal Academy (which had created a hierarchy of artistic mediums). One British watercolorist, William Marshall Craig, even felt compelled to debate the superiority of watercolor over oil painting.1

So, is watercolor really less pervasive of a medium than other types of paint (from a historical standpoint), or does our current view of history simply privilege other mediums? Do we not value watercolor as a medium very much? I haven’t come up with all of the answers (feel free to leave your own opinion), but here are some of the things that I’ve thought about:

  • Going back to the Baroque period, watercolor was used by artists for preliminary compositions, cartoons, or copies. (One such example is a kitchen scene by Jacob Jordaens, which happens to fit quite nicely with my recent post on meat and art). Perhaps watercolor has escaped a lot of attention because it is seen in connection with “unfinished” or “lesser” works of art.
  • Today art museums do not highlight watercolor as much, due to the fragile, light-sensitive nature of the medium. I remember a curator once telling me that watercolor paintings can only be displayed for a short period of time (six weeks?) before they needed to be taken down or rotated with another painting. Perhaps if watercolor paintings were inherently a little heartier, then they would receive more exposure (ha ha!) to the public eye?

John James Audubon, "American Stork," 1827-28, watercolor

  • Watercolor is also associated with things that are not strictly labeled as “fine art” (or, along these lines, “art for art’s sake”). For example, watercolor paintings often appear in naturalist field guides. The connection with watercolor and nature has been longstanding, perhaps reaching its zenith in the work of John James Audubon in the 19th century (see above).2
  • Avant-garde artists might have wanted to “reference” the longstanding tradition of oil painting (and perhaps better challenge the Academy by using a medium which was valued at the time?).

I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on the topic. Do we need to write some revisionist history to include more watercolor painting? What watercolor paintings do you enjoy and/or feel like they deserve more attention? Are there watercolor paintings that you find to be historically significant?

1 William Marshall Craig put forth four arguments in defense of the superiority of watercolor paint. First, he finds that watercolor gets a brighter range of tones than oil paint (partially because the white of the paper produces a brightness that is unattainable in oil). Second, he argues that transparent watercolors allow for clarity and detail that cannot be achieved with oil. (I personally don’t completely agree with that point.) Third, watercolors do not change in appearance when they dry, which is different from oil. Fourth, he finds that watercolor is better for working outdoors, which is necessary with the increasing interest in naturalism. I think this last point is really interesting, especially since he made these arguments several decades before Impressionism. If painters had focused on watercolors a bit more, I wonder if Impressionism (or a similar movement to Impressionism) could have happened several decades earlier. Craig’s arguments are outlined in the book, Great British Watercolors from the Paul Mellon Collection (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 2. Citation available online HERE.

2 Audubon is best known for his “The Birds of America” publication (1827-1838). The complete watercolor work of Audubon can be seen HERE.



Egyptian Hands

Fragment of a royal hand from the Amarna period, c. 1349-1336 BC

When I introduce students to Egyptian art, I often show them a short clip from Nigel Spivey’s documentary series, How Art Made the World. I like this clip for a couple of reasons, particularly since it introduces some of the Egyptian conventions for representing the human form. One of the parts that I think it particularly interesting is seen at 4:36 in the clip below, when Nigel discusses how Egyptian hands were represented.

Nigel explains that Egyptians were depicted with two identical hands (with “palms facing outwards”) and with fingers that were a “nice uniform length.” In other words, there is no differentiation between right and left hands. And, if you look at Egyptian art, you will find lots of examples that fit with Nigel’s description (although not every palm is necessarily represented as “facing outwards”). Notice the identical hands of the woman on the right side of the Stele of Amenemhat (see below), and also how the hands of the men are interlocked in an awkward way.

Stele of Amenemhat, c. 2000 BCE

It must be difficult to play the harp with two right thumbs!

Detail of a musician, tomb of Rekhmire, ca. 1425 BCE

For a general audience, I think that Nigel’s description of identical hands is fine. However, there are lots of other examples that don’t perfectly fit this description. Several Egyptian artists took time to represent two different hands. In fact, some works of art will depict one figure with identical hands and another figure with distinct hands. For example, one representation of King Tut (shown below, seated) shows the ruler with two left hands, while Queen Ankhesenamon has both a right and left hand.

Detail of gold throne panel of King Tutankamun, 1332-1322 BC

The same thing can be observed with the identical hands of Hu Nefer (from a Book of the Dead), but the varied hands of the god Horus:

Detail of Judgment of Hu Nefer (Hunefer), c. 1285 BC

Here is another instance, where the artist has taken pains to represent two different hands:

Woman combing the hair of Queen Kawait, from Queen Kawait's sarcophagus, c. 1400 BC

Luckily for this carpenter, he is able to make his chair with both a right and a left hand:

Carpenter Making a Chair, Tomb of Rekhmire, ca. 1479-1400 BC

As of yet, I have not found any scholarship which addresses the different representations of hands in Egyptian art. Perhaps it is too much of a daunting task to undertake. (But if anyone knows of such scholarship, please let me know!) Are composition and description the primary two considerations in every single instance where hands are represented? Perhaps so. However, I wonder if identical hands and/or varied hands might have other significations, at least in certain contexts.

Any thoughts? Does anyone have a favorite depiction of identical (or non-identical) hands from Egyptian art?


Excavation Sites for Prehistoric and Ancient Female Figurines

Various (mostly) prehistoric “Venus” figurines. (1) Willendorf’s Venus (Rhine/Danube), (2) Lespugue Venus (Pyrenees/Aquitaine), (3) Laussel Venus (Pyrenees/Aquitaine), (4) Dolní Věstonice Venus (Rhine/Danube), (5) Gagarino no. 4 Venus (Russia), (6) Moravany Venus (Rhine/Danube), (7) Kostenki 1. Statuette no. 3 (Russia), (8) Grimaldi nVenus (Italy), (9) Chiozza di Scandiano Venus (Italy), (10) Petrkovice Venus (Rhine/Danube), (11) Modern sculpture (N. America), (12) Eleesivitchi Venus (Russia); (13) Savignano Venus (Italy), (14) The so-called “Brassempouy Venus” (Pyrenees/Aquitaine), (15) Hohle Fels Venus (SW Germany). Image from article, “Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic: Symbols of Fertility or Attractiveness?” by Alan F. Dixson and Barnaby J. Dixson (2011).

Yesterday I had a student ask about the excavation sites for so-called “Venus” figurines from the Paleolithic period. This student wondered if the physical location of the site (or the other objects excavated at the sites) could give us more understanding about how the “Venus” figurines originally functioned. I thought this was a great question. Although I knew that some figurines were found in caves or domestic sites, I thought that I would find more information about the specifics regarding the excavation sites and findings.

I didn’t find nearly as much information as I had hoped (there may be more information hidden away in technical archaeology journals), but I did pull together a few interesting finds. It is interesting to see how several figurines are associated with domestic sites or found alongside animal bones. Would these bones have been food for these people or sacrifices for religious rituals? Perhaps both? Other female figurines are found in caves, sometimes with other objects and animal bones, too.

I know that the following list isn’t comprehensive by any means. (I also threw a Neolithic and a Minoan female figurine in the list, just to make things fun.) I plan on adding to this list as I come across new information and findings. If you want to add a another figurine to the list, or more details regarding the excavation of these figurines, feel free to leave a comment!

Photograph of the Hohle Fels Cave. Red arrow indicates where the “Venus” of Hohle Fels was discovered in September 2008.

  • Venus of Hohle Fels (at least 35,000 BCE) : Excavated in September 2008 in the Hohle Fels cave in Germany (see image above). The figurine, which was carved from a mammoth’s tusk, was discovered in six fragments. A flute was also discovered at this site, which currently is the oldest known instrument in the world.
  • Venus of Dolní Věstonice (29,000 − 25,000 BCE): Discovered in 1925 in a layer of ash. The figurine was broken into two pieces. Figures of animals, as well as 2,000 balls of burnt clay, have been found at the Dolni Vestonice site. The majority of these finds were located at the dugout of central fire pit at the site.
  • Venus of Laussel (20,000 − 18,000 BCE): Discovered in 1911 by physician J. G. Lalanne. The figure is found in a rock shelter, carved onto a piece of fallen limestone.
  • Venus of Willendorf (28,000 − 25,000 BCE): Excavated in 1908 by Josef Szombathy in a loess deposit (fine-grained material that has been transported by the wind). More technical information about the excavation and layer deposit is found here.
  • “Venus II” from Willendorf (see suggested reconstruction here): Discovered in 1926 by Joseph Bayer. This figurine was found in a pit, lying on top of the jaw of a mammoth. This figurine is probably older than the “Venus of Willendorf.” The deep pit where “Venus II” was found went from level nine to level five. The original “Venus” of Willendorf was excavated at level nine.
  • Venus of Lespugue (24,000 − 22, 000 BCE): Discovered in the cave of Lespugue in 1922.
  • Gagarino Venus (c. 20,000 − 1,700 BCE): Excavated between 1926-1929. These figures were found in a house pit. The walls of the pit were lined with rhinocerous and mammoth bones.
  • Kostenki Venus (23,000-21,000 BCE): This term is actually a misnomer (beyond the already-problematic nickname of “Venus”) since there was a group of “Venuses” discovered at this site. The most famous one, however, is an mammoth-bone statuette discovered in 1957 by Zoya A. Abramova. Kostenki refers to 20 Paleolithic sites along the Don River in Ukraine.
  • Minoan “Snake Goddess” (c. 1600 BCE): Discovered in 1903 by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. One of the “snake goddess” figurines was located at the “palace” of Knossos in a cist (repository) on the floor of a small room (near the “Throne Room” and “Room of the Charior Tables”). Sir Arthur Evans believed that this snake goddess (and the other objects found in the cist) formed part of a cult shrine. Evans identified the figurine traditionally identified as a “Snake Goddess” in art history textbooks as a votary of the snake goddess.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.