Before visiting “Sun, Wind, and Rain: The Art of David Cox” at the Yale Center for British Art on Tuesday, my experience with watercolor painting was limited to the blurry, translucent medium of my elementary school art classes. Luckily, unlike the soggy creations of my youth, David Cox’s paintings display an absolute mastery of watercolor technique.
“Sun, Wind, and Rain” — which runs from Oct. 16 to Jan. 4 — has the potential to be really boring. It is a purely retrospective exhibition of over 100 of David Cox’s pieces. It presents no ground-breaking thesis nor does it raise any controversial questions. The exhibit, which takes its name from one of Cox’s best-known paintings, simply pays homage to an artist who was important in the development of watercolor landscape painting but is now “rather underrated,” as Scott Wilcox, the Curator of Prints and Drawings for the Center, said at the press preview of the exhibit on Tuesday.
There is far more, however, to this surprisingly engaging exhibition than one might anticipate. The retrospective, which was co-organized by the Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, is the first show of Cox’s work in the United States. The last major exhibition of Cox’s pieces occurred at the Birmingham Museums twenty-five years ago, around the time that Wilcox, the preeminent art historian on Cox, was writing his dissertation. In the 150 years since his death, interest in Cox’s work has been largely “dormant,” explained Amy Meyers, the Director of the Center, “due to a shift in generational taste.”
David Cox was born in 1783 in Birmingham, England. A painter of sets, he moved to London in 1804 for a theater job that ended up falling through. He turned to watercolor painting instead, an art form that had only recently been socially accepted as legitimate. He became a prolific member of the newly created “Associated Artists in Water Colours” and devoted much of his career to mastering the technical aspects of the aqueous pigment. He remained staunchly loyal to the medium even when it fell out of vogue, although he did experiment with oil paints towards the end of his career.
Laid out chronologically, the exhibit is divided into sections based on the different locations where Cox painted over the course of his career. Cox’s incredibly detailed landscapes take visitors on scenic tours through Birmingham, Wales, France and London, transporting viewers away from New Haven and into the British countryside. The setup of the exhibit “works effectively and powerfully” to show the “immense distances” Cox traveled at a time when painters rarely left home for their art, Wilcox explained.
The exhibit also focuses on “Cox’s stylistic evolution as a watercolor artist,” Wilcox said. In order to help viewers gain a better understanding of Cox’s mastery of watercolor technique, the Center developed a booklet entitled, “David Cox: The Art of Painting in Watercolor” that is available along with the exhibition brochure. The booklet is very accessible and “encourages visitors to look at watercolors and appreciate the technical use of the medium,” Wilcox said.
One of the highlights of the exhibit is the collection of original drawing and painting manuals executed by Cox throughout 1813 and 1814. Similar to step-by-step drawing guides of today, the how-to books provided Cox with a steady income during the early years of the 19th century. The copies of “A Treatise on Landscape Painting and Effect in Water Colours” on display are in their original bindings and give visitors insight into the way Cox constructed his paintings.
Though straightforward and uncomplicated, “Sun, Wind, and Rain” is anything but dull. A look into the life and work of a largely forgotten artist, the exhibit accomplishes the important task of bringing back into the public eye a man Wilcox described as “one of the paramount artists to exploit the medium of watercolor.”