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Thursday, December 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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The Golden Age of British Watercolors fills the Chazen Museum with color and whimsy
<i>The Intruder</i> by John Anster Fitzgerald
The Intruder by John Anster Fitzgerald

Watercolor has sometimes suffered from a perception as a second-class medium, for a variety of reasons. Part of it is the association with casual "Sunday painters" and part of it is its delicacy compared to big, bold oil paintings.

But the latest show at the UW's Chazen Museum of Art puts this often-underrated medium in the spotlight. The Golden Age of British Watercolors, 1790-1910, running through Dec. 2, showcases watercolor painting at the height of its popularity. Nineteenth-century Britain was a hotbed of expression for professional and amateur watercolorists alike.

This appealing exhibition tackles a wide range of subject matter. Two of the most fascinating pictures greet you at the entrance: Richard Doyle's Elves in a Rabbit Warren (1875) and John Austen Fitzgerald's The Intruder (c. 1865). Both are examples of fairy painting, which, as the name suggests, features whimsical and fantastic imagery.

In Doyle's painting, a gentle palette of green, tan and blue belies a raucous scene: Near the gnarled roots of a tree, tiny elves cavort with equally tiny bunnies. Elves ride the rabbits, pull their ears and generally make merry. While it's an image that would delight a toddler, there's nothing childlike about the artist's level of skill.

The "intruder" in Fitzgerald's painting is the one realistic critter in the scene: a frog that has hopped its way into a wild party of bizarre creatures under a crimson toadstool. Unlike Doyle's approach, Fitzgerald's colors are more saturated and intense, and there's an element of the grotesque at play, not just sweetness. If Hieronymus Bosch had lived in the 19th century and illustrated a children's book, the result might look something like this.

But fairy painting is just one small part of the show overall: Bucolic landscapes, quaint rural scenes, Biblical and mythological subjects and exotic places depicted with delicacy and realism all get their due. John Sherrin's 1860s still life of lush, juicy purple plums is a standout.

To help viewers understand the medium better, a nineteenth century watercolor kit is on display, as well as one of the many manuals that helped amateur painters learn basics like mixing pigments.

Only one oil painting hangs in the show, Daniel Maclise's richly colored Scottish Lovers (1863). It depicts a young woman with a watercolor set near her side, but her sketchbook is empty and she seems more interested in the rosy-cheeked lad with her. It may offer a wry comment on amateur female painters, offering us a glimpse into how watercolor was seen at the height of its popularity.

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