Curator's Corner

Saying Goodbye to World Watercolor Month 2023

By Karl Cole, posted on Jul 31, 2023

Watercolor can be a very unforgiving medium—boy, don’t I know it! I started out studying for an MFA in painting using gouache and watercolor, but my professors suggested that what I was trying to accomplish with them would be easier in oils or acrylics. I changed to oils, but I still appreciate and marvel at artists who have expertise in watercolor. It’s only fitting that such a demanding medium get its own celebration month around the world, because watercolor is not just a Western medium. Here are three unusual examples help celebrate the art form.

Watercolor by Lawrence Calcagno titled Evening Game (1953). Abstract painting of black, red, yellow, and blue areas of color.
Lawrence Calcagno (1916–1993, U.S.), Evening Game, 1953. Watercolor on paper, 23 ¾" x 17 ¾" (60.3 x 45.1 cm). Courtesy of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, Buffalo, NY. © 2023 Artist or Estate of Artist. (AK-730)


Raised near Big Sur, California, the earliest influences on Lawrence Calcagno's mature painting style included aspects of nature such as sea, waves, sky, and nighttime. He developed a personal visual vocabulary for his interpretation of nature. Unlike many of the other Abstract Expressionists, his subject matter and titles reflected an abiding connection to landscape rather than formal concerns such as color and shape.

Works such as Evening Game, with its saturated colors, gestural brushwork, and all-over abstraction, conjure up Calcagno’s experience with the foggy end-of-day in San Francisco. It is more reminiscent of the works of Sam Francis (1923–1994) than those of Clyfford Still (1904–1980), with whom Calcagno studied. However, it fits comfortably into the common reference in Abstract Expressionism to “action painting.”

A number of exhibitions held in the 1960s focused attention on changes occurring in American abstract painting. Abstract imagism, systemic painting, and—the most enduring—color field painting were terms used to identify these new trends in abstraction. The broader term of post-painterly abstraction was sometimes applied to the work of this group of painters to differentiate the trend from the action painting of Abstract Expressionism. Art critic Clement Greenberg (1909–1994) defined the difference from Abstract Expressionism as an emphasis on sharply defined compositions rather than personal gestures by the artist.

Calcagno is often described as a post-painterly abstraction painter. This is despite his association with the so-called "second generation" of Abstract Expressionism and its counterpart, l'Art Informel, in Europe, where he lived from 1950 to 1955. He was among the few artists with connections to Abstract Expressionism who was born on the West Coast (San Francisco).

Without formal art education, Calcagno developed abilities in drawing and painting on his own. He also acted in community theater and had small movie roles. During his three-year (1943–1945) service in the Army Air Corps (Air Force) during World War II (1939–1945), Calcagno received three awards for his drawing. Under the GI Bill after the war, he studied art with Still, a color field Abstract Expressionist, at the San Francisco Institute of Art (now the San Francisco Art Institute) from 1947 to 1950 and in Europe from 1950 to 1955.

In Paris, Calcagno studied at the Academy of the Great Thatched Roof, where students were provided only models and studio space. There, he spent time with Francis, another California-born painter associated with the “second generation” of Abstract Expressionism. In Florence, Calcagno studied at the National Institute of Art. Returning to the States, Calcagno taught art from 1955 to 1969 at various schools.


Watercolor miniature by Bichitr titled Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings (ca. 1615–1618). Ruler with a large golden halo sitting atop an hourglass throne with Putti at the base hands a book to a Sufi Shaikh with an Ottoman Sultan, English delegate, and the artist below, all famed by a floral border.
Bichitr (active ca. 1615–1640, India), Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings, page from the Saint Petersburg Album, ca. 1615–1618. Watercolor, ink, and gold leaf on paper, 10" x 7 1/16" (25.3 x 18 cm). © 2023 Smithsonian Institution, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (APAH-208)


This work emphasizes Mughal Emperor Jahangir (1569–1627) as a ruler concerned with religion more than statesmanship. He hands a copy of the Qur'an to a Sufi (mystic) as a symbol of his devotion. Below the Sufi is an Ottoman sultan and a European delegate, based on a portrait of King James VI and I (1566–1625), ruler of Scotland, England, and Ireland. In the lower left corner is the artist of the work, Bichitr. These accurate portraits represent the peak of realism that the Mughal School would achieve.

The brilliant and arbitrary use of color was a characteristic of the school that would continue through the 1700s and influence the Rajasthani (Hindu) painting school. The format of this painting is based on European Renaissance (particularly French) manuscript illumination. The scene is a brilliant folding in of European painting style into a traditional Muslim subject. While the realism of the figures and manuscript format speak of heavy European influence, the space is typical of the vertical arrangement to suggest depth seen in Iranian book illustration.

Little is known of the background or training of the artist Bichitr. He may have been educated in a Mughal court painting workshop. He may have worked during the reigns of not only Jahangir, but also Shah Jahan (1592–1666). His self-portrait in this work suggests that he was about 30 years old, so he may have still been painting during the reign of Aurangzeb (1618–1707), as well.

Bichitr depicts himself in the Hindu style of court attire. He is known to have been drawn to European painting and prints, which he studied carefully. That is clearly evident in this work, where he concentrated on shadow to create volumetric form. The incorporation of putti (winged infants) is also a carryover from Western art.

Islam was introduced to India in the 700s, but it was not until 1192 that Islamic forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Persia combined to vanquish Hindu armies and form an Islamic kingdom in northwestern India. Around 1525, the Islamic kingdom was taken over by Indo-Islamic invaders who established the Mughal Empire, centered in Delhi and Agra.

Mughal Emperor Akbar (died 1605) had contact with Persian artists, who were influenced by manuscript illumination from Western Europe. The Mughals imported Persian artists to form the nucleus of the Mughal School of painting. After 1573 came the direct influence of European realism in Christian art, which was introduced by Portuguese traders who established a trading post in India. The Mughal School thrived under Akbar's patronage, producing many manuscripts and illustrated stories.

Jahangir was Akbar’s successor, and it was during his reign that the Mughal School reached its greatest flowering. Jahangir was less interested in book production than he was in portraiture and illustration of events from his reign.


Watercolor by Ivan LeLorraine Albright titled The Harbor of Dreams (1941). Sunset seascape with small boats in the water and a tree-covered hill in the background.
Ivan LeLorraine Albright (1897–1983, U.S.), The Harbor of Dreams, 1941. Watercolor on paper, 13" x 19" (33 x 48.3 cm). Courtesy of the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH. © 2023 Artist or Estate of Artist. (BIAA-324)


Despite the morbid, dark style that characterized his major works, Ivan LeLorraine Albright produced many landscapes of the Northeast coast. This idyllic sunset scene—with its almost tangible waves, trees, and boats filled with fishing accoutrement—is in stark contrast to his figures presented in almost decomposing realism.

The melancholy emptiness of The Harbor of Dreams fits right in with the morose tenor of Albright’s oil paintings. Sunset, a symbol of death, reigns over a rocky, unpeopled coast with dark forbidding woods, conjuring up the possibility that the harbor of dreams is like the island of death.

American art was dominated by realism through the middle of the 1900s. The American appreciation of unpretentious, factual realism from the 1920s into the early 1940s was aided by two events. 1. American involvement in the devastation and slaughter of World War I (1914–1918) in Europe virtually extinguished any interest Americans had in the progressive trends in European art. 2. The onset of the calamitous worldwide economic collapse, the Great Depression (1929–1940), caused Americans to turn inwardly even further, preferring to see art that reflected uplifting, nationalistic, recognizable imagery.

Social Realism was an overwhelmingly popular painting style during the Depression. The Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project even stipulated that federal money would only be given to projects that uplifted the common American with patriotic subject matter and positive imagery of everyday American life. Some artists applied elements of Surrealism into American painting, a style that has been dubbed Magic Realism. Albright's paintings have been associated with that style.

The son of a landscape painter, Albright studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating in 1923. He also studied architecture at Northwestern, but dropped those studies in favor of painting, drafting, and printmaking. Studying painting seriously, he had his first one-person show in 1930. At that point his work already reflected a fascination with death and decay, a hallmark of his super realistic painting (mostly of single human figures) throughout his career. Albright attributed it to his work as a medical artist during World War I.


Correlations to Davis programs: Experience Art: p. 391; The Visual Experience 4E: 8.3; Exploring Painting 3E: Chapter 5; Experience Painting: Chapter 4