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The Beginning

Minutes of First Meeting, December 5, 1866

The Founding of the American Watercolor Society
Written by Homer O. Hacker, AWS

December 5, 1866

Just a year and a half after the four-year struggle between the states, post-war New York City was in the process of revival. Change was occurring which would enliven the Industrial Revolution with products to make life easier.

New York was much smaller geographically and in population. The northern border was where 59th Street is today. Central Park was nothing but meadows and farmland.

Across the country, a cultural revolution was taking hold. Following the war, people were searching for beauty to enhance their lives. They were looking for art to help bring them joy. Watercolor painting was coming into its own and competing heavily with other media. Girls’ finishing schools were teaching watercolor painting in addition to manners and fashion.

Despite cold, muddy streets, horse-drawn carriages and long travel times, a group of artists met in the evening of December 5, 1866. The meeting was held in Gilbert Burling’s studio in the New York University Building. Painters’ studios, in those days, were somewhat fancier than we expect them to be today. They often had walls decorated with tapestries, floor-to-ceiling displays of paintings, oriental rugs and spittoons on the floors, and the heavy odor of cigar smoke in the air.

In that ambiance, the first meeting consisted of eleven artists, the founders of the American Society of Painters in Water Colors. The purpose of the organization was singular: to promote the art of watercolor painting in America. Obviously, this was intended as a way of combating the feeling of many artists, as well as non-artists, who viewed watercolor only as a sketching medium.

Among those present were Samuel Colman, William Hart, William Craig, and Gilbert Burling; each had earlier signed the call-to-meeting letter. Others present were John M. Falconer, Alfred Fredericks, Frederick F. Durand, Edward Hooper (not Hopper), Constant Mayer, A. L. Rawson and William Thwaites. It is not clear whether Constant was male or female; more on that subject later. Samuel Colman was elected president.

Requirements for membership were rigid, although the number of painters in watercolor was relatively small. The Society wished to keep the quality of its membership high, but many top painters hesitated to join, because women had been allowed membership.