A History of Watercolour

Watercolour is one of the oldest painting mediums, dating back to 10,000 BCE

19/03/2024     Artworks

Watercolours can often be left behind when discussing fine works of art, with the favour falling on the side of oil painting and even acrylic. However, here at O’Reilly’s Auction Rooms, we choose to look in the favour of watercolour, and welcome the fragile and precise approach that accompanies it.


Watercolour is one of the oldest painting mediums, as originally pigment was to be mixed with water in order to create a substance that was fluid enough to paint onto a surface to create a composition, and in theory this is still how watercolour works today. Cave paintings during the Palaeolithic period, which ended around 10,000 B.C.E can be considered as the first artworks using this medium. Watercolour was, and still is, consistently used in Asia, referred to as brush painting; but it was not until the Renaissance that it became a commercial enterprise in Europe.


Unlike most renaissance period art, watercolour sprung to popularity thanks to German artist, Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) and the school of Hans Bol (1534–1593). While the Italians were focusing on the debate of disegno versus colore, those in Western Europe were perfecting their watercolour technique - particularly displaying images of flora and fauna. During the 18th and 19th centuries, young Irish and British gentlemen would venture to mainland Europe on their Grand Tours and often would record their experiences through the use of watercolours. The most recognisable of these Grand Tour documents are those by Robert Henry Cheney (1801 - 1866), particularly of views in Italy.


While most paintings you will see in galleries and museums are oil on canvas, one of the most well known and recognisable paintings in Irish art is actually a watercolour. Frederick Burton’s (1816 -1900) The Meeting on the Turret Stairs from 1864 is a watercolour and is easily one of Ireland's most notable works. The work shows Hellelil and Hildebrand, a pair of starcrossed lovers sharing their last moments before Hildebrand is killed by the seven brothers of his love. Due to the nature of watercolour and the age of this work, it is only possible to view it for two hours a week in the dark of the stained glass room of the National gallery of Ireland. The intensity of this watercolour and the detail likens it to an oil painting and no wonder, confusing viewers about the medium.


By the 19th century, watercolour had become an extremely popular art form for professionals and amateurs alike; so much so, that societies began to spring up internationally. Here in Ireland, the Watercolour Society of Ireland was set up in Waterford in 1870. According to the society itself, their mission is "to promote and develop nationally the use and appreciation of watercolour”, and this is something we agree with at O’Reilly’s.


In this month’s auction, we have a number of watercolours by notable Irish artists; Keith Mansfield, Pauline Doyle, Carmel Flynn, and Frances Bunch Moran to name a few. The subtlety of watercolours make them the perfect artwork for any room, and with their varying levels of detail, size, and opacity, there is always a watercolour to suit any style.

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