#25 Heterotropus xanthothorax, Effl., 1945, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7468, Image no. SIA2012-7852.

World Watercolor Month at the Smithsonian

We’re taking a look at the various watercolors the Smithsonian Institution has collected both past and present, highlighting the diversity in artists, technique, unique painting effect, and versatility to create anything from insects to cityscapes.

During your childhood, do you remember receiving a coloring book, a kid's easel, or a sketch pad of some kind with a series of paint colors labeled "watercolors"? It's possible when you attempted to paint you felt like it was too light, as if the paint would just run off the page. Maybe you were introduced to watercolors at preschool, kindergarten, or in an art class. Watercolor is a beautiful art form that fuses colors and uses layering to create work that is transparent. The colors tend to bleed together, forming perfectly imperfect designs.  

Two women seated near a table, one on a sofa and the other in a chair	near a table with canvases a

The Smithsonian Institution has many collections centered around art, highlighting different mediums, materials, and forms in which they exist.  July is World Watercolor Month, a time where we can take a special appreciation for an art form that has existed for centuries and enjoy the works of artists— from portraits to landscapes and abstract paintings—from around the world. 

  • In 1906, indiustrialist Charles Lang Freer donated the world’s largest collection of watercolors by James McNeill Whistler to the Smithsonian. Due to a stipulation set forth in Freer's will, Whistler’s watercolors have only been housed and exhibited at the Freer Gallery of Art. in 2019, curators, researchers, scientists, and conservators prepared the works for the much-anticipated Whistler in Watercolor,  the first major exhibition of Whistler’s watercolors since the 1930s.
  • In 1928, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, formerly the National Gallery of Art, hosted the Washington Water Color Club’s 32nd annual exhibition, in the National Museum of Natural History.
  • Mary Vaux Walcott, artist and third wife of the Smithsonian Institution's fourth Secretary Charles D. Walcott, captured paintings of wildflowers during her adventures in the Canadian Rockies. Those were the focus of the Wild Flowers from the National Parks exhibition in 1939 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Photographs from that exhibition can also be found at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. 
  • Russian artists Roman Strekalovsky, Nicholas Strekalovsky, and E. Kassessinoff created a collection of 84 bee flies for use in the manuscript Bombyliidae of Egypt by H. C. Efflatoun. These paintings and an unpublished manuscript are included in Record Unit 7468 in the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
  • In 1841, English artist Joseph Drayton created a watercolor during the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 of a Cyprinoid fish, resembling a carp. Drayton captured this illustration during his observations near Fort Vancouver. 

Single stem of orange azalea flowers, with a few unopened buds and greenery from leaves.

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s Watercolor Worlds activity provides a few tips to help beginners get started exploring the use of colors, layers, and imagination to create art that you would be proud to hang in your home or share with others via social media. You can also visit and share your art fon the World Watercolor Month website!

Related Collections

  • North American Wildflowers Prints, 1925Mary Vaux Walcott, Accession 92-006, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Related Resources



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