Minutes of First Meeting, 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.
EARLY MEMBERSHIP REQUIREMENTS
When William Hart, NA, became president of the Society in 1870 there were two categories of membership. They consisted of artists who lived within the city, called “Active Members,” and any others were known as “Associate Members.” This second category consisted of artists not residing in the city, and amateurs. One was considered an amateur if his or her major source of income was not based upon sales of their art work. This meant that non-resident artists were in the same category as amateurs. It is possible that this categorization was based upon the prejudice that anyone living outside New York City could not possibly be as fine an artist as one residing within the city limits.
President Hart established a third category of membership made up of connoisseurs and patrons. These members were known as “Honorary Members.”
Understandably, those living outside the city limits could not be expected to be active in the organization. Permitting patrons and connoisseurs membership was a sound move, attracting culturally-minded and wealthy patrons to swell the membership roles.
A resolution was passed in November 1870, to drop from membership any active member of the Society who failed to contribute works to three consecutive shows, or who neglected to pay dues for two successive years.
Entries in annual exhibitions were not exclusive to members, or even Americans. The catalog of 1870 lists works by Jerome, Delacroix, Meissonier, Turner, Rosa Bonheur, Ruskin and others. In 1872, when the membership of the Society was just forty-two, 341 paintings were exhibited, 96 of them by members.
THE AWS AND THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT
One of the first actions taken by the American Society of Painters in Water Color was to plan their first exhibition for 1867. It was held at The National Academy in conjunction with the Academy’s own winter exhibition of 1867-68.
The relatively young society profited hugely from the endorsement of the highly respected National Academy. It was the first truly watercolor exhibition in America. It opened on December 21, 1867, and remained open to the public for three months. Listed in the catalog of the show as members of the American Society of Painters in Water Color were the names of two women, Caroline P. Carson and Elizabeth Murray. In Ralph Fabri’s interesting history of the American Watercolor Society, he writes, “There were only a couple of women on this list, a fact which seems to have been held against the Society by a number of artists, when women began to fight for emancipation.” Nevertheless, there were a good number of famous artists whose names appear on those roles of former members. Winslow Homer, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Edward Hopper, William Merrit Chase, Thomas Eakins, Samuel Colman, Charles Burchfield, Gladys Rockmore Davis, Childe Hassam, John LaFarge, Alphonse Mucha, Edward Potthast, and Mahonri Young are a few of the past members mentioned in Fabri’s book. Surely, there were many others whose names would strike a note of great pride in all members, both past and present.