Maine boasts an extraordinary lineage of watercolor painters stretching back nearly 150 years. A short list would include Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent (yes, he painted in the Bar Harbor area), Harold Warren, Samuel Peter Rolt Triscott, James Fitzgerald, Edward Hopper, John Marin, Marguerite and William Zorach, Eliot O’Hara, the Wyeths, Vincent Hartgen, Chenoweth Hall, William Thon, Alan Gussow, Edward Betts, Lawrence Goldsmith, Donald Holden, Carolyn Brady and Susan Shatter.
And today’s roster is equally strong—and more gender-balanced. Again, a small selection to prove the point: David Dewey, Wendy Turner, Marsha Donahue, Linda Norton, Susan Headley van Campen, Terry Hilt, Michael Torlen, Paul Rickert, Gregory Dunham, and Scott Kelley.
Like many of these artists, DeWitt Hardy (1940–2017) made watercolor a central focus of his work—indeed, to the best of my knowledge, it was his only medium. The Bates College Museum of Art has mounted a terrific retrospective, DeWitt Hardy: Master of Watercolor (through October 5), with nearly 70 watercolors highlighting his creative brilliance.
Accompanied by a slim hardback catalogue, the exhibition honors an artist who never really received the acclaim his work deserved. Yes, Hardy showed in New York City with two outstanding galleries (Rehn, where Hopper and Charles Burchfield showed, and Schoelkopf) and sold his work to many distinguished collectors, but one feels the art-critical world failed him.
Some of the oversight may be due to watercolor’s ranking in the hierarchy of mediums. It infrequently gains the spotlight that oil painting does, even though it has had its champions. A favorite example: In a review in The New Yorker in May 1933, critic Lewis Mumford paid the ultimate compliment: “Were I writing a history of American civilization and did I want a symbol of the utmost economy and organization we had achieved, I should select not a Ford factory but a [John] Marin water color.”
Hardy’s close friend Richard Andrew Johnson takes a similar tack in praising his friend’s genius, writing in the catalogue: “Hardy with a watercolor brush was Duke Ellington at the keyboard, DeBakey with a scalpel, and Brando onstage.” Faced with the paintings in the Bates Museum show, it’s hard to argue with those lofty comparisons: the man handled the medium with consummate skill.
And that’s saying a lot: watercolor is renowned for its foibles. It doesn’t sit still on the paper; it can pool or run to the edges; it may muddy. As Hardy’s friend and fellow painter Lincoln Perry explains in the catalogue, “A badly done watercolor can make babies cry in their cribs and dogs bark at the page.”
Yet for those painters like Hardy who master its fluid nature, who embrace its delicate washes, luminous transparencies and radiant palette, who work with it, watercolor offers an astonishing variety of visual rewards. As master watercolorist Lawrence Goldsmith once boasted, “Our medium can do things no other medium can.”
While Hardy painted his share of Maine landscapes like his predecessors, he specialized, as it were, in the female nude. Part of the power of his depictions comes from the unusual perspectives he often chose. In Shadow in Studio (ca. 2002), for example, we view the model from above and from the side, peering voyeur-like over a patch of striped backdrop at her body. At the top of the painting is the bottom half of one of the members of the drawing group, seated, reaching toward a palette. It’s a wonderfully engaging composition that requires study to comprehend its component parts.
Hardy’s widow, Deirdre Williams, has noted how painting the nude in watercolor is “notoriously difficult” and how her husband “reveled in the challenge.” She recalls him saying, “If you are drawing the nude and you are not staggered by the humanity of the human figure then you are being dishonest—and you are doing it wrong.”
Williams’s naked fanny takes center stage in Deirdre on Stairs (ca. 1996). Looking over from a chair in a corner of the next room, Hardy seems vaguely sour, as if he hasn’t been invited up the narrow steps, which divide the painting in two and are curtained, adding to the theatrical eroticism of the image. The curtains also remind us that Hardy and Williams were deeply involved in local theater.
To tie this appreciation to this quarterly’s appropriation theme, consider Hardy’s remarkable painting, Chamber of Genius (1994). Robert Flynn Johnson, the exhibition’s guest curator, calls it a “Maine version of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas,” but notes that it actually is modeled on a print of the same name by Thomas Rowlandson, the 18th-century British caricaturist.
In Rowlandson’s original, the “genius” seated in his chaotic quarters is so focused on painting his subject, a shocked-haired old man, that he doesn’t notice the knocked-over chamber pot or a cat clawing his legs. It is calmer chez Hardy, the disorder more controlled, as the painter paints two adolescent boys watching TV. A myriad of details catch the eye: an Amtrak coffee mug, a handwritten note about making dinner, a copy of Foster’s Daily with a headline about a heat wave.
To the right the painter regards his squeezed visage in a hand-held mirror, a set-up that echoes Norman Rockwell’s humorous Triple Self-Portrait (1960). Seated in his messy studio, Rockwell peers awkwardly in a mirror; postcards of famous self-portraits are pinned to the edge of his canvas, a device Hardy uses in his Self-Portrait with Classics, ca. 1985, with its images by Cassatt, Corot, Degas, Leonardo and others reproduced in miniature.
Like Hopper, Hardy loved vintage New England houses. The precision of his renderings of various buildings makes one wonder that he didn’t pursue architecture. All his buildings have personality, whether it’s a humble Quaker meeting house or the Wentworth by the Sea Hotel in Portsmouth. His side-long view of the façade of that venerable structure is a brilliant study in winter light, the imposing structure rising into the sun.
Hardy’s legacy includes his teaching. He taught watercolor for much of life. One of his long-time students, Bill Paarlberg, wrote a lovely tribute to him in June 2019, highlighting his approach to teaching, which he calls “a mixture of gentle encouragement and tough love.” According to Paarlberg, Hardy left behind “thousands of grateful students” from his gigs at Sanctuary Arts in Eliot, Heartwood College of Art in Kennebunk and the University of Maine at Augusta. He and his first wife, painter Pat Hardy, founded the North Berwick Drawing Group in 1963, which he attended till shortly before his death—and which maybe accounts for the many nudes in his overall oeuvre.
Hardy will also be remembered for his contributions to cultural institutions in southern Maine. He served as associate director curator of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art for over a decade (1965–1976) and led the Barn Gallery for a number of years.
The one time I wrote about Hardy’s work was for “The Canvas” column in Maine Home + Design. I contacted him about the painting, Kangaroo Beach, a light-filled watercolor of a stretch of coastline in York. He explained that his wife Deirdre posed for the bikinied figure, “to knock off any edge of sentimentality,” and that he made up the name, Kangaroo Beach, inspired by an apocryphal story about these hopping creatures from Australia. When explorers asked the Aborigines what the animal was called, the legend goes, they replied, “kanguru,” which in their language meant “I don’t know.”
Hardy’s final painting was Krapp’s Last Tape: Seascape (2017), a narrow horizontal image of the Maine coast under a gray sky. The title references Samuel Beckett’s famous play in which an old man looks back at his life by way of tape recordings of his younger self. “Krapp’s spool of life is almost wound,” as one critic put it, and so is Hardy’s as he limns the watery expanse, the rocky scree, a distant house, and the dark pall of the heavens.
The Bates Museum exhibition allows us to trace the evolution of Hardy’s technique, from the seamlessness of his earliest work, as exemplified by the stunning image of his wife in Pat at the Bottom of the Stairs (ca. 1970), to what Robert Flynn Johnson calls his later “don’t give a damn” approach, where he loosened his brushwork and heightened “the tonality of his palette” as seen in his moving self-portrait My Old Bat (2006).
Hardy painted everything with care and grace: flowers, fruit, landscapes, houses, women. His renderings of decorative fabric hark back to the Old Masters. Give yourself time to study his work—it’s a master class in watercolor, but also the representation of a life lived among loved ones in a place Hardy called home. As Pat Hardy writes, “DeWitt’s art is a response to the intrinsic humanity he has for his subjects. Every figure is a portrait, every person has dignity, and every landscape or interior is loved and familiar.”
Image at top of page: DeWitt Hardy, My Old Bat, 2006, watercolor, 23 1/8 x 22 inches, Estate of the Artist, Courtesy of Modernism Inc., San Francisco