American Watercolor Society records, 1867-1977, bulk 1950-1970

A Finding Aid to the American Watercolor Society Records, 1867-1977 , bulk 1950-1970, in the Archives of American Art, by Erin Corley

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Funding for the processing of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Table of Contents:

Historical Information

The American Watercolor Society still functions as an active artists' organization that was founded in New York City on December 5, 1866 as the American Society of Painters in Water Colors. The first president was Samuel Colman. Initially, election to membership was very selective, consisting of active members and honorary members (those living outside of New York City). From the beginning, the most important activity of the organization was its annual exhibition, open to both members and non-members, the first being held in the winter of 1867-1868.

The Society's first six annual exhibitions were held jointly with the National Academy of Design at the Academy's galleries. Beginning with the seventh exhibition, the society initiated independent annual exhibitions until 1899. The early exhibitions were very successful, and the society showed work from many prominent American and European artists such as Thomas Eakins, Abbott Thayer, Eugene Delacroix, and John Ruskin. 1888 marked the first year that the society awarded prizes to the best works. By the early 1900s the society had developed a program for exhibitions that included a jury of selection and jury of awards.

In 1903 the society was officially incorporated as the American Water Color Society, to "advance the art of water color painting in this country." Membership classifications changed slightly and artists were either classified as active (professional artists) or associate members. By 1904 the society was struggling financially, and annual exhibitions were held at various spaces around New York City. In 1905 the society established annual rotary (traveling) exhibitions. From 1922 to 1931, the society combined exhibition venues with the New York Water Color Club (founded in 1890), and in January 1941 these two organizations merged under the name of the American Watercolor Society and created a new constitution. This merger brought many female artists who were active in the New York Water Color Club to the society which had previously not recognized many women painters. In 1941 the society established their headquarters in one room at the National Academy of Design's new building where they also held annual exhibitions in the galleries.

Frederic Whitaker, a painter and businessman, became president in 1949 and brought a renewed vigor to the society. He reinstituted traveling exhibitions, created new committees, and increased the number of exhibition awards. He also established an office in the Flatiron building and hired an Executive Secretary. After he resigned in 1956, the society experienced a period of financial troubles that were immediately addressed when Mario Cooper became president in 1959. Offices were moved back to the National Academy, several new officers were appointed, and after a period of fiscal austerity, a scholarship program and central awards fund were established. In 1967 the society had its 100th annual exhibition and also had an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, entitled, "Two Hundred Years of Watercolor Painting In America, An Exhibition Commemorating The Centennial of the American Watercolor Society." Over the next few years the society organized and exchanged exhibitions with other countries, including Canada, Mexico, England, and Australia. Mario Cooper remained president until 1986, and the American Watercolor Society remains an active artists' organization today.

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Overview of the Collection

Scope and Contents

The records of the American Watercolor Society measure 3.6 linear feet and date from 1867 to 1977, with the bulk of the material dating from 1950 to 1970. The collection provides scattered documentation of the operations and activities of one of the oldest continuously operating artists' organizations in the United States and includes records of its administration and history, membership, and exhibitions

Records documenting the founding, history, and operations of the society are found in the administration and history series. Included are written histories and material on the 1941 merger with the New York Water Color Club, including an updated Constitution and By-Laws. Also found here are reports, committee documents, administrative correspondence, records of participation in national art events, and financial records.

The membership records include a membership roster notebook, dating from 1953-1961, lists of members, member biographies, and correspondence regarding membership. The society's exhibition files include a bound volume of the record of works shown in the annual exhibition from 1897 to 1904, as well as files on a few other annual exhibitions and exchange exhibitions with other countries. These files contain scattered correspondence, price lists, exhibition checklists and printed material.

A small amount of printed material in the collection includes a booklet entitled, Water-Color Painting: Some Facts and Authorities in Relation to Its Durability, distributed by the society in 1868, as well as news clipping about events and exhibitions, newsletters, and other published items. Photographs are of members, jurors, events, painting demonstrations, and artwork.

Arrangement and Series Description

The collection is arranged into 5 series:

Subjects and Names

This collection is indexed in the online catalog of the Archives of American Art under the following terms:


  • Art -- Societies, etc. -- New York (State) -- New York
  • Watercolor painting -- 19th century -- United States
  • Watercolor painting -- 20th century -- United States
  • Watercolor painting, American
  • Watercolorists

Types of Materials:

  • Photographs


  • New York Water Color Club
  • American Water Color Society
  • American Society of Painters in Water Colors


The American Watercolor Society loaned material for microfilming in 1968, and, in 1978, donated some of this material. The bound volume of the record of works shown in annual exhibitions, 1897-1904, was microfilmed in 1972 and subsequently donated in 1978 by the American Antiquarian Society.

Separated and Related Materials

Originals of loaned material, including additional exhibition materials, correspondence, photographs, and administrative records were returned to the American Watercolor Society after microfilming. Loaned material is available on reels N68-8 through N68-10, but is not described in the container listing of this finding aid.

Additional records may be available by contacting the American Watercolor Society.

How the Collection was Processed

The collection was initially received as a loan and microfilmed on reels N68-8 through N68-10. Portions of the loan were later donated and received preliminary processing. The bound volume of the record of works shown in annual exhibitions was loaned and microfilmed on reel 497, and also later donated. The entire collection was fully merged, processed, arranged, and described by Erin Corley in 2007 with funding provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

How to Use the Collection

Restrictions on Use

The collection is open for research. Use requires an appointment.

Ownership & Literary Rights

The American Watercolor Society records are owned by the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Literary rights as possessed by the donor have been dedicated to public use for research, study, and scholarship. The collection is subject to all copyright laws.

Available Formats

The bound volume of the record of works shown in annual exhibitions, 1897-1904, is available on 35 mm microfilm reel 497 at Archives of American Art offices, and through interlibrary loan.

How to Cite this Collection

American Watercolor Society records, 1867-1977, bulk 1950-1970. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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Detailed Description and Container Inventory

Series 1: Administration and History, 1891-1970
(Box 1-2; 1.1 linear feet)

This series consists of records documenting the administration and history of the American Watercolor Society. Included is a draft of "A History of the American Watercolor Society: 1866-1950" and related notes, written by Frank Gervasi. Gervasi was appointed the first Historian of the society in 1949. Also found are documents about the American Watercolor Society Information Center which was established in the early 1950s to provide information about art and artists to the general public. Other documents include leases for offices and exhibition space at the National Academy of Design, as well as legal documents, voting ballots, and recollections by J. Scott Williams regarding the society's merger with the New York Water Color Club.

Additional records include the reports of Presidents Frederic Whitaker and Mario Cooper; records of the Gifts and Bequest Committee and Regional Committees; correspondence regarding publicity and other general administrative correspondence relating to board activities, events, the society's participation in national arts events, and other issues. Also included are specific files on the society's participation in the Fine Arts Federation of New York and Artists for Victory, Inc., and a file of several lists of awards given by the American Watercolor Society.

Scattered financial records in this series include account books and three general ledgers, monthly treasurer's reports, annual financial statements, other financial reports on matters such as catalog sales and exhibition expenses. Also found are tax documents, records of paid bills, payments, and bank deposits, and correspondence regarding financial issues. During the period covered by this documentation, Edgar A. Whitney and Cathy Altvater served as treasurer.

Items are arranged chronologically within each folder.

Box Folder
1 1 History of the American Watercolor Society, 1950-1952
1 2 American Watercolor Society Information Center, circa 1954
1 3 Certificate of Incorporation (photocopy), 1902-1903
1 4 Constitution & By-Laws, 1940
1 5 Lease Agreements with National Academy of Design, 1950-1967
1 6 New York Water Color Club Merger Documents, 1929-1942
1 7 "Comments on Water Color Club Merger", by J. Scott Williams, 1952
1 8 Voting Ballots for New York Water Color Club Merger, 1940
1 9 President's Reports to A. W. S. Members, circa 1950-1963
1 10 Administrative Notebook (disbound), 1950s
1 11 Gifts and Bequests Committee, 1954-1956
1 12 Regional Committees, 1954-1956
1 13-14 Publicity Correspondence, 1955-1967
(2 folders)
1 15 General Administrative Correspondence, 1937-1970
1 16 Press Releases, 1955-1959
1 17 Annual Meeting and Dinner, 1954-1956
1 18 Fine Arts Federation of New York, 1962-1963
1 19 Artists for Victory, Inc., 1943
1 20 Lists of Awards given by American Watercolor Society, 1952-1960, 1966
1 21 Corporate Resolutions, circa 1955-1963
1 22 Ballots (blank), 1954, 1963-1967
1 Financial Files
1 23 Record & Account Book, 1891-1898
1 24 General Ledger, 1960-1964
1 25 General Ledger (disbound), 1966-1967
1 26 General Ledger (disbound), 1967-1968
1 27-28 Treasurer's Reports, 1957-1966
(2 folders)
1 29 Annual Financial Statements, 1960-1966
1 30 Various Financial Reports, 1957-1966
1 31-32 Tax Information, 1958-1966
(2 folders)
1 33-34 Paid Bills, 1961-1963, 1966
(2 folders)
1 35-36 Records of Payments, 1957-1960
(2 folders)
Box Folder
2 1 Bank Deposit Lists, 1956-1960
2 2 Correspondence, 1943, 1954-1966
2 3 Notes, circa 1959-1960

Series 2: Membership, 1941, 1951-1960s
(Box 2; 0.7 linear feet)

Included in this series is a membership roster notebook (disbound) for the period of 1953 to 1961 which includes a notebook page for each artist, arranged alphabetically. The information on each artist includes name, address, years that they paid membership dues, and the amount paid. The notebook is arranged with active members listed first, followed by categories for artist's whose status had changed, including life members (who no longer had to pay dues), deceased members, dropped members, and resigned members. Also found is a separate list of former members as of 1951 also listing the years that they were active, and lists of membership issues that had to be addressed by the board, such as new members and inactive or dropped members. This series also contains many member biographies; questionnaires that members filled out for the American Watercolor Society Information Center. Information on these forms includes name, address, family background, education, memberships, awards, etc. Some artists also attached additional biographical materials such as news clippings and resumes. Also found in this series are signed membership agreements after the merger with the New York Water Color Club in 1941, and correspondence regarding membership questions and status, payment of dues, and membership resignations.

Items are arranged chronologically within each folder.

Box Folder
2 Membership Roster (disbound)
2 4-7 Active Members, A-Z, 1953-1961
(4 folders)
2 8 Life Members, 1953-1961
2 9 Deceased Members, 1953-1961
2 10 Dropped Members, 1953-1961
2 11 Resigned Members, 1953-1961
2 12 Lists of Former Members, 1951
2 13 Membership Lists for Board Action, 1960s
2 14-20 Membership Biographies, A-Z, 1950s
(7 folders)
2 21 Signed Membership Agreements, 1941
2 22 Correspondence Regarding Membership and Dues, 1954-1963

Series 3: Exhibition Files, 1867-1910, 1955-1975
(Box 2-3, BV02; 1.2 linear feet)

This series consists of files relating to exhibitions organized by the American Watercolor Society. Included is a large bound volume containing the record of works shown in the annual exhibitions from 1897 to 1904. This record lists the registry and catalog number, title of work, name and address of the artist, the owner and price, agent, and shipping company. A few loose letters, notes, and lists were also found within the pages of this book and have been placed in a separate folder. Exhibition catalogs found here are for the society's annual exhibitions prior to 1910, including the catalog for the first exhibition, held in 1867-1868 as a joint exhibition with the National Academy of Design. A few catalogs from this run are missing, and found here are catalogs from 1867-1869, 1875, 1878-1881, 1883-1897, 1899-1902, 1904, and 1907-1910.

Other files in this series are for various exhibitions held between 1955 and 1975, but do not document every exhibition held during this period. Files are for both annual exhibitions and exchange exhibitions held with the Canadian Water Color Society, the Art Institute of Mexico, and others. Files may contain correspondence about the exhibition, exhibition checklists, price lists, lists of award recipients and donors, receipts, exhibition announcements, clippings, and other printed material. Traveling exhibitions are also covered here. This series also contains exchange exhibition ballots (probably for the Australian exchange exhibition), jury selection records, and miscellaneous items from other exhibitions.

Items are arranged chronologically.

Box Folder
2 23 Record of Works Shown in Annual Exhibitions (bound volume), 1897-1904
(See BV02)
2 24 Loose Items from Record of Works Shown in Annual Exhibitions, 1897-1904
2 25-28 Exhibition Catalogs, Annual Exhibition, 1867-1889
(5 folders)
Box Folder
3 1-6 Exhibition Catalogs, Annual Exhibition, 1890-1910
(6 folders)
3 7 88th Annual Exhibition, 1955
3 8 91st Annual Exhibition, 1958
3 9 Royal Society Painters in Water-Colours and American Watercolor Society Exchange Exhibition, 1961-1962
3 10 92nd & 93rd Annual Exhibitions, 1958-1961
3 11 94th Annual Exhibition, 1961-1962
3 12 95th Annual Exhibition, 1962-1963
3 13 96th Annual Exhibition, 1963
3 14 97th Annual Exhibition, 1963-1964
3 15 100th Annual Exhibition, "200 Years of Watercolor Painting in America", 1964-1967
3 16-17 Art Institute of Mexico and American Watercolor Society Exchange Exhibitions, 1968-1970
(2 folders)
3 18 Canadian and American Water Colors Societies Exhibition, 1971-1972
3 19 Australian Exchange Exhibition, 1974-1975
3 20 Exchange Exhibition Ballots, 1974
3 21 Exhibition Jury Selection, 1965-1966
3 22 Miscellaneous Exhibition Documents, 1956-1970
BV02 Record of Works Shown in Annual Exhibitions (bound volume), 1897-1904
(See also Box 2, F23)

Series 4: Printed Material, 1868, 1943-1972
(Box 3; 6 folders)

Scattered printed material includes a booklet entitled Water-Color Painting: Some Facts and Authorities in Relation to Its Durability, printed by the American Society of Painters in Water-Colors in New York in 1868. This publication was co-edited by A. F. Bellows, William Hart, C. P. Cranch, John M. Falconer, and Gilbert Burling. Also found in this series are news clippings about events, exhibitions, and featured members of the society, newsletters distributed to members, and two issues of American Artist which include several articles about watercolor painting. There are also a few reproductions of artwork from an unidentified publication.

Items are arranged chronologically within each folder.

Box Folder
3 23 Publication, Water-Color Painting, 1868
3 24-25 News Clippings, 1943-1962
(2 folders)
3 26 Newsletters, 1962-1965
3 27 American Artist Magazine, 1970, 1972
3 28 Reproductions of Artwork, circa 1950s

Series 5: Photographs, circa 1940-1977
(Box 3-4; 0.5 linear feet)

Photographs are of events, members, exhibitions, and artwork. Photographs of events include dinners, award presentations, and exhibition openings. None of the photographs of juries or events are labeled. There are group photographs of jury members and photographs of members, both professional portraits and photographs of artists in their studio, arranged alphabetically by artist's last name. Of note are photographs of Don Stone, Charles Hawes, and Tom Nicholas giving painting demonstrations at the annual exhibition in 1966. This series also contains numerous photographs of watercolors exhibited in shows; almost all are labeled with the artist's name and any awards that were received for the painting on the back of the photograph. Photographs of watercolors are arranged alphabetically by the artist's last name.

Box Folder
3 29-30 Photographs of Members, A-Z, circa 1940-1960
(2 folders)
Box Folder
4 (hol) 1 Photographs of Juries, 1950s
4 (hol) 2 Photographs of Painting Demonstrations, 1966
4 (hol) 3 Photographs of Events, circa 1950s
4 (hol) 4-9 Photographs of Watercolors, circa 1955-1977
(6 folders)
4 (hol) 10 Negatives of Photographs of Events, circa 1950s
4 (hol) 11 Slides of Unidentified Exhibition, circa 1960