Although watercolor has been used to make landscape paintings for more than 500 years, it was not until the late 18th century that this medium came into widespread use. Over the course of the 1800s, the number of watercolors produced by professional artists and amateurs alike, from rough sketches to highly finished compositions, grew exponentially. The rapid rise in the use of the medium can be largely attributed to innovations in the manufacture of watercolor paints and papers, resulting in materials that were high in quality, practical to use, and easy to transport. These improvements made the technique attractive to landscapists who painted outdoors and sought to capture the elusive effects of light, atmosphere, weather, and color.Watercolor is remarkably versatile, allowing artists to dilute, mix, and apply their paints in a variety of ways to attain a wide range of results, such as the luminosity achieved when translucent colors are applied to bright white paper. Gouache, the opaque form of watercolor created by adding white pigment to the paint, offers artists even more ways to manipulate colors and visual effects.
Thanks to a number of generous donors, more than 200 nineteenth-century European and American watercolors and gouaches have been added to the National Gallery of Art collection in just the past ten years. This exhibition features 15 of them—stunning and sun-filled landscapes by European masters that express some of the rich possibilities of this endlessly fascinating medium.