Women and Watercolor

Editorial Staff Magazine

Fig. 1. Wild Roses Among Rye by Fidelia Bridges (1834–1923), 1874. Watercolor and gouache over pencil on heavy wove paper, 13 1⁄2 by 9 inches. Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Connecticut, gift of the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection
and Insurance Company.

The enthusiasm for watercolor painting that swept the United States after the founding of the American Watercolor Society was a boon to many artists struggling for critical attention and patronage, such as Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins. But no class of artists benefited more than women, who capitalized on their traditional familiarity with the medium. Clean, light, inexpensive, and widely available, watercolor was taught at home and in school to children and especially, young women. Dismissed as a “ladies’ medium” at mid-century, watercolor became stylish after 1870, and the long association with decorative, genteel accomplishments, such as the splendid stitched and painted parlor pieces by early nineteenth-century schoolgirls, became a source of energy rather than a liability.

The popularity of watercolor with women probably discouraged the rank and file of the Hudson River school, who showed little interest in the medium before then, partly because of its association with amateurs—perhaps their mothers and sisters—and commercial artists. Busy proving themselves in painting and sculpture, the highest-ranking and most important mediums in the European hierarchy, established artists were eager to distance themselves from materials used by their female relatives, not to mention printmakers, architects, and designers. That would change with the founding of the watercolor society in December 1866, when a band of respectable male professionals decided that the United States needed a dedicated forum where watercolors could be seen to advantage. Their first exhibition, held a year later, marked the beginning of a conscientious campaign to raise interest in the medium among both artists and collectors. The founders included watercolor specialists born in Great Britain, who yearned for the support they had received in the old country, and a core of oil painters led by American-born Samuel Colman, their first president, who lent his charm and prestige to the new venture. Within fifteen years, the watercolor society was the toast of New York, and the most diverse and exciting exhibition venue in the city; within fifty years, the medium would be widely practiced by the American moderns and celebrated as a particularly national form of expression. This remarkable rise in the status of the medium, told in the exhibition American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent, currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, would lift hundreds of women artists.1

Fig. 2. Simplon Pass: The Lesson by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), c. 1911. Translu- cent watercolor, with touches of opaque watercolor and wax resist, over graphite on paper, 15 1⁄8 by 18 1⁄8 inches. Some of the greatest watercolorists of this time—Winslow Homer and Sargent—were taught to work in the medium by their mothers. Sargent was often surrounded by women watercolorists, including his sister Emily (depicted at center) and niece Reine Ormond (at right). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Hayden Collection—Charles Henry Hayden Fund.

The liberal policies of the new club were evident in the first annual exhibition, organized as a novel addition to the National Academy of Design’s revived “winter exhibition” of 1867/68. The founders recruited from all corners of the art world, accepting architects’ drawings, portfolio sketches, English watercolors from collectors and dealers, and an astonishing number of items by women, some 30 percent of the total. More than twice the participation of women in the usual spring annual of the National Academy, these percentages would drop as water-color became popular and profitable for men, but the society remained the forum where women artists were most likely to get a foothold.2

Fig. 3. Autumn Leaves by Ellen Robbins (1828–1905), c. 1870. Signed “Ellen Robbins” at lower right. Watercolor with selectively applied glaze over graphite on wove paper, 21 1⁄2 by 29 5⁄8 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, purchased with the American Art Revolving Fund.

Predictably, the first female star as well as the first woman elected to the society was a professional watercolor painter born in England, Elizabeth Heaphy Murray. The wife of the British consul in Portland, Maine, Murray was well trained, widely traveled, and socially adept; her genre paintings, mostly based on European gypsy subjects, enthralled her admirers in Boston and New York for the dozen years of her residency in the United States. Quieter, more modest, and more typical of the American-born painters in the first watercolor exhibition, Ellen Robbins specialized in still life. She supported herself in Boston teaching watercolor and producing exquisite albums depicting North American leaves. By 1867 Robbins was sending grander single compositions to the New York watercolor annuals, akin to Autumn Leaves (Fig. 3), which blended the tradition of botanical illustration with the newer taste for painting outdoors inspired by the writings of John Ruskin.


Fig. 4. Bow Sprit by Alice Schille (1869–1955), c. 1916–1918. Watercolor on paper, 13 1⁄4 by 16 1⁄2 inches. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. H. Schmidt III.

Fidelia Bridges rose from the same Ruskinian culture, patiently studying from nature. Better trained than Robbins, she learned a delicate realist style from the Philadelphia painter William Trost Richards and developed a personal genre of bird and flower subjects that endeared her to audiences at the watercolor exhibitions (Figs. 1, 10). In 1875, as Winslow Homer emerged as a new force in watercolor, the writer Henry James found Homer’s “raw” seaside sketches and Bridges’s “infinitely finer” roadside idylls the best entertainment at that year’s annual.3 Bridges set a professional standard for a large group of younger or later-arriving women flower painters, including Maria Oakey Dewing, Ellen Thayer Fisher, Kathleen Greatorex, and Emily M. Scott, who would move into more impressionist territory in the 1880s.

Fig. 5. Picking Wildflowers by Rhoda Holmes Nicholls (1854–1930), c. 1900. Watercolor on paper, 20 1⁄2 by 14 inches. High Museum of Art, Atlanta.


Repeating the success of Elizabeth Murray, the exemplary figure painter in watercolors for the next generation of women would be the English-born Rhoda Holmes Nicholls. She arrived in New York in 1884 an accomplished watercolorist, having trained in London, Venice, and Rome, where she learned the bright impressionist style of the modern Spanish-Italian school (Fig. 5). An influential teacher and role model, she was in 1890 among the founders of the New York Water Color Club, a new group organized in part to address the failure of the increasingly “old-boy” American Watercolor Society to elect many women to its membership. Women were immediately officers and a substantial percent-age of the new club, which merged with the older society in 1941.


The story of the New York Water Color Club was repeated in many new societies formed across the United States as the popularity of the medium spread. Boston had two: one created by men, another, by women (who more tolerantly allowed guests and male artists). The Philadelphia Watercolor Club was likewise driven by a substantial core of women artists. The watercolor exhibitions created by such new clubs offered opportunities for many rising talents in the first decades of the twentieth century. Alice Schille and Jane Peterson, both from the Midwest, prospered on this exhibition circuit and in the artist colonies of the new century (see Figs. 4, 7). Both trained in New York and then traveled widely in Europe, gaining experience that would take their work in watercolor in postimpressionist directions. Peterson’s bright gouache technique showed an adventuresome feeling for pattern and color, while Schille learned from Fauve painting to develop a brilliant transparent style that would make her one of the most honored women artists of the period.

Fig. 6. Untitled (Rose Study) by Henrietta Benson Homer (1809–1884), 1873. Watercolor on paper, 14 7⁄8 by 11 inches. Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, gift of the Homer family.

Schille would, like Nicholls, Robbins, and many other women artists, find a stable income from teaching, but some would find opportunities in commercial art and illustration. Frances (“Fanny”) Bond Palmer blazed a trail for women in the 1850s and 1860s, working for the print publisher Currier & Ives. She became famous creating watercolor designs for lithographs; women also found employment coloring these same prints with watercolor washes, using such designs as templates. Bridges would follow in this path in 1876, after her watercolors drew a commission for a calendar from the Boston chromolithographer Louis Prang. His new color presses were good at reproducing the translucency of watercolor, and his company would employ many women, including Murray and Robbins, as his business expanded. Bridges became one of his house designers, and ultimately, a household name, producing dozens of charming watercolors for prints and greeting cards.

Fig. 7. The Pier, Edgartown by Jane Peterson (1876–1965), c. 1915. Signed “Jane Peterson” at lower left. Opaque watercolor and charcoal on paper, 17 by 23 1⁄4 inches. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Charles W. Atwood.

Other women took advantage of the boom in illustrated newspapers, magazines, and books that accompanied the improvement of color printing. Watercolor was taught at the new design schools, where women artists were trained for professions in illustration, design, and teaching. The watercolorist and art critic Susan N. Carter would guide many students as principal of the Woman’s Art School at Cooper Union in New York; and the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art & Design) would likewise address the “problem” of vocational training for girls seeking reliable, respectable work. Also in Philadelphia, the illustrator Howard Pyle would mentor the “Red Rose Girls”—Elizabeth Shippen Green, Violet Oakley, and Jessie Willcox Smith (Fig. 12)—at the Drexel Institute. All three began as watercolor painters, using the medium for illustration projects, and all would win a national reputation. Oakley would also use watercolor for stained glass and mural design, following the practice of John La Farge and the other leaders of the American Renaissance. Her designs for the vast decoration campaign at the Pennsylvania capitol at Harrisburg would make her the most famous woman muralist of her day (Fig. 9).

Fig. 8. Study for Poppy Shade by Clara Driscoll (1861–1944), c. 1900, for Tiffany Studios (1902– 1932). Watercolor, graphite, and black ink on paper, 12 1⁄4 by 19 3⁄4 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchase, Walter Hoving and Julia T. Weld Gifts and Dodge Fund.

Oakley was not the first woman to use watercolor skills to enter the field of decorative design, which was the third pathway to professional status for women artists, in addition to exhibition work and illustration. The mood of reform and revitalization that followed the Centennial in 1876 led to an enthusiasm for all the decorative arts as well as an ideology of integrated design. The concept of the complete artistic interior, promoted in Clarence Cook’s bestseller The House Beautiful in 1878, was taken up by the three great American designers of the aesthetic movement—La Farge, Louis C. Tiffany, and Samuel Colman. All were watercolor painters, and all employed women in decorative projects that linked many mediums—textiles, stained glass, ceramics, furniture—through a common design practice in watercolor. All three would draw on the expertise of the embroidery impresario Candace Wheeler, whose team of virtuoso needleworkers produced the luxury textiles of the period. A luscious portiere by Wheeler, a rare survival from the opulent interiors of the 1880s, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, demonstrates the painterly effects sought with her designs. As Wheeler intended, she produced “an embroidered surface which should possess all the softness of painting in water-colors.”4

Fig. 9. Study for “Divine Law” Mural at the Pennsylvania State Capitol, Harrisburg by Violet Oakley (1874–1961), c. 1917. Opaque watercolor, oil paint, gold leaf over bole, pen and black ink, and graphite on illustration board, 20 1⁄2 inches square. Philadelphia Museum of Art, purchased with the Director’s Discretionary Fund.

La Farge and Tiffany also found watercolor, with its transparency and intensity of color, the ideal medium for the design of stained glass. Tiffany’s production of the material employed many women, both as designers and assemblers; he believed that women were more sensitive to color. His large glass workshop was staffed by “Tiffany girls” supervised by Clara Driscoll, the artist behind his famous lamp-shades (Fig. 8), and many of his best-loved window designs were created by the talented Alice Northrop. The innovative opalescent glass used by both La Farge and Tiffany showed the cross-fertilization of this moment, as the watercolor designs suggest the motion and variety in the stained glass, while the finished windows and lampshades evoke the shifting brushwork of a watercolor wash.

Fig. 10. Winter Scene with Birds by Bridges, n.d. Watercolor on wove paper, 5 1⁄8 by 3 1⁄2 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, gift of Fern and Hersh Cohen.

Ceramic art shared the same crossover aesthetic, with a cadre of artists who worked between watercolor and porcelain. Handbooks recognized that the technique of painting on china was similar to watercolor painting, and the popularity of the two arts rose simultaneously from the 1870s through the turn of the century. Like watercolor painting, china painting was seen as a suitable outlet for women’s creativity, but the field professionalized with the advent of more ambitious talents like Mary Louise McLaughlin, founder of the all-female Cincinnati Pottery Club. Using the kilns of the Rookwood Pottery, McLaughlin was a pioneering figure in both glazing and painting ceramics (Fig. 11). Not coincidentally, she also exhibited her watercolors in the exhibitions of the American Watercolor Society. Many women would be employed decorating ceramics; others would produce designs for the art magazines of the period, which contained patterns for painting on china, along with many do-it-yourself art projects of the decorative age.

Fig. 11. Portrait of Esther McLaughlin by Mary Louise McLaughlin (1847–1939), 1881. Porcelain, diameter 18 inches. Cincinnati Art Museum, gift of Women’s Art Museum Association.

Fig. 12. With Thoughtful Eyes by Jessie Willcox Smith (1861–1935), 1909. Watercolor and white gouache over charcoal on illustration board, 21 7⁄8 by 16 inches. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, gift of the Estate of Jessie Willcox Smith.

The subscribers to these magazines and the amateur enthusiasts of still life, china painting, and embroidery comprise the last and largest group of women artists of the watercolor movement. They were from the same class that in earlier days had made embroidery and watercolors like the one in Figure 1 to ornament the home, but now their numbers were enormous and the “ladies’ medium” was fashionable. Many, such as Henrietta Benson Homer, continued to work at home, adding a note of beauty to the parlor, or setting an example for their children (Fig. 6). She painted flower subjects in the manner of Fidelia Bridges and place cards for the family dining table; she also sent her watercolors to exhibition in Brooklyn in the spring of 1873, a few months before her son Winslow decided to take up watercolors himself. Mother and son would debut at the American Watercolor Society the following winter. Winslow Homer was not the only artist to take a cue from his mother: John Singer Sargent’s mother, Mary, was an accomplished watercolorist, as were his sister Emily and his niece Reine (both seen in Fig. 2). Charles M. Russell claimed that he became a watercolor painter by watching his mother; Charles Demuth was raised in a family of lady watercolorists; and Georgia O’Keeffe had two generations of women water-colorists shaping her girlhood. Such amateurs were also a source of energy as collectors: Isabella Stewart Gardner, educated to sketch in watercolors for the grand tour, would become a powerful patron of Sargent; Sarah Choate Sears, herself a prize-winning watercolorist, would support the work of Maurice Prendergast. By example and by encouragement, women helped establish the taste for watercolor that would transform the status of the medium in the United States between 1860 and 1925.

The exhibition American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until May 14.

For additional information and bibliography, see Kathleen A. Foster, American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent (Philadelphia Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2017). Six of the objects illustrated in this article are in the exhibition, and all of the artists mentioned here are discussed at greater length in the book. For additional statistics and a graph charting the participation of women artists in the watercolor exhibitions, see ibid., p. 291. Henry James, “On Some Pictures Lately Exhibited,” Galaxy, vol. 20 (July 1875), p. 91. Mrs. Burton Harrison, “Some Work of the ‘Associated Artists,’” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, vol. 69 (June– November 1884), p. 346.