The Mitchell Gallery

The Elizabeth Myers Mitchell Gallery

The Room in Watercolor: Reflections on Works from the Eugene Thaw Collection

by mitchellgallery

Empress Alexandra Feodorovna’s Sitting Room, Cottage Palace. St. Petersberg, Russia, ca. 1855. Eduard Petrovich Hau (Estonian, 1807-1888). Brush and Watercolor on white wove paper.

As I reflect on these works for the last time before the House Proud exhibit ends, I can’t help but return to what first impressed me about them: that, of all media, watercolor is used to achieve this degree of detail and depth of color. Considering the difficulties of this medium (the tendency of colors to bleed into one another, the difficulty of forming precise lines), it seems that only someone with enough skill—and very small brushes—could achieve these effects with watercolor. Why, then, was watercolor chosen as the medium in which to render such detail?

Looking at the work above, which depicts the sitting room of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, one can hardly believe that watercolors can be used with such precision. In this sense, the successful execution of detail might strike one as a triumph of the artist over the difficulties of the medium. But not all characteristics of watercolor are hindrances to be overcome. In fact, it’s only through watercolor that the effect of the light coming in through the stained glass panels can be rendered with such precision and delicacy. The translucent quality of watercolor lends itself perfectly to portraying a light-filled room; sheer washes of color can be carefully built up, while still retaining a translucency that allows the whiteness of the paper to shine through. (White paint is rarely used in watercolor.) In this painting, every part of the room is bathed in the cool-toned, natural light filtered through the slightly clouded windows. The more colorful stained-glass decorations on the screens in the foreground glow most richly, but every object in the room is touched by light that is both crisp and lustrous.

Although the effect is seamless, I can’t help but still feel astounded that this degree of precise detail was achieved through watercolor.This continual sense of awe of the technical mastery of this work makes me distinctly aware that what I am looking at is a work of art: an image of a real room. When, with this awareness, I imagine the skill required to render such detail, my eye is drawn to linger over the smallest portions of the room. This has the effect of ensuring that no detail is overlooked. In my experience of looking into a real room, I might take in the whole at a glance. Here, however, no detail is too small to be overlooked. In this artistic portrayal, my experience of a room is transformed by the way the artist makes me see the whole—by elevating my experience of every part.


Sophy Schulman — St. John’s College Student


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