Paul Mellon wasn’t interested in masses of people wandering in front of his paintings and forgetting about it the next day (this is the “numbers trap” that messes up the museum experience so often). For him what really mattered was the “transformative experience” — a single life altered forever by an encounter with great art. His vast collections are now variously concentrated in great museums in Washington, D.C., Yale University, Virginia and London, which aim for that goal. They were never intended for Pittsburgh, the source of his wealth. But for a brief period, until about 1980, some of it hung in this city — in the bank founded by his grandfather — before being allocated elsewhere.
It inspired the bank to build up its own collection, first with a core group of classic English watercolors that tells the historic story, hopefully transformative, too. Other watercolors collected by the bank extend that tradition into the 20th century with some cognate works on paper, mainly woodblock prints and some lithographs that still convey the “feel” of watercolor. Even so, that is only one aspect of the Mellon Bank collection, now subsumed within the new corporate entity Bank of New York Mellon, which has other riches stashed away in its curatorial portfolio.
The hero of this show is paper, the whitish, fibrous confection that shines through the overlaying washes of paint, graphite and ink and provides another source of light other than that which naturally falls on the surface of the work. It has its special texture too; sometimes rough, sometimes shiny (artists call it “tooth”) that affects the handling of the pigment. Look closely at the paper in the Carnegie exhibition. In Michael Angelo Rooker’s W estminster Hall, London, c. 1770, (and what a name!) the artist has to navigate the indented chain lines of the rough, early paper and yet achieves a remarkable precision.
J.M.W. Turner, the real Michelangelo of watercolor, uses, in his mature work, Barnard Castle, c. 1835, a smooth, shiny white paper that he floods with transparent washes.
John Ruskin’s View of Venice, 1877, takes up Turner’s cue.
Early watercolors were seldom intendedto be framed and hung on the wall, but rather to be studied in portfolios and albums. Those that were (such as Peter de Wint’s View of Lowther Castle) need to be scrutinized for signs of fading and allowances made. Most in this show are scintillatingly bright, but none more so than those from the 20th century (note the Wyndham Lewis and the David Bomberg).
David Jones highlights the mystic traditions of English art (in lieu of the missing William Blake), Walter Sickert and Charles Ginner supply an earthier vocabulary and John Nash brings English pastoralism into a sharp, unsentimentalized focus.
And John Constable’s H ampstead, 1833, defies any category: it is fresh, timeless and surely transformative.