Peter De Wint (1784-1849) was technically one of the finest watercolor painters of his time. The son of New York physician who emigrated to Stoke-on-Trent (Staffordshire), from his boyhood De Wint was passionately devoted to drawing. He moved to London in 1802 as an apprentice to the mezzotint engraver John Raphael Smith, and four years later he began painting lessons with John Varley and at the "academy" of Dr. Thomas Munro. He entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1809, joined the Old Water-Colour Society and married in 1810. By that time De Wint was an established drawing master, and spent the remainder of his life in a quiet routine of teaching and painting most of the year in London, traveling each summer to sketch in the field and teach drawing to affluent rural families. He preferred to paint in north England and spent much time in Yorkshire, Cumberland and Westmorland. He frequently visited his wife's home city of Lincoln, where he produced many panoramic landscapes; he briefly visited Normandy in 1828, and toured Wales several times between 1829-35, declaring it "a painter's country." He was relatively prosperous after c.1820, popular with both students and collectors, a shrewd businessman, with an irritable, stingy and devout personality. He died in London, at age 65.

Apart from some early still lifes and studies of Lancaster streets and markets, nearly all De Wint's works are landscapes. De Wint's reputation (and the prices of his paintings) rose substantially after his death: he became one of the "old masters" of the 19th century English watercolor. In contrast to the usual Victorian era canvases of gaudy colors and moralizing kitsch, his works were particularly admired for their earthy color warmth, plainspoken style and nostalgic views of the English countryside. He used a limited palette (essentially the 18th century classical palette of gamboge, vermilion, purple madder, earth pigments, prussian blue and indigo), and obtained all his effects of perspective and atmosphere through skillful contrasts of color. Torksey Castle, Lincolnshire (c.1835, 29x46cm) displays De Wint's characteristically expansive feeling of space and muted, warm hues. There is often a gentle diagonal slope to the horizon, a sky filled with dense and heat hazy clouds, and a broad expanse of glassy water. De Wint was never especially effective at architectural motifs, although he does indulge a little in the romantic practice of exaggerating the height of mountains or castles for visual effect, a trick common in paintings by J.M.W. Turner and others. More often, however, De Wint painted everything just as it appeared to his eye, without heightened chiaroscuro, sentimental groups of figures or picturesque rainbows. His sense of understatement and truthfulness, as much as his sophisticated use of a limited palette, conveys the slow and peaceful tempo of the English summer countryside.



In the early decades of the 19th century watercolor painters, who now used watercolors in a wider range of settings and in the field, developed the watercolor sketch to a new level of sophistication. De Wint in particular was known for the quality of his sketches and studies, which showed his infallible accuracy and warmth of color to good effect. Cornfield, Windsor (1841, 29x46cm) is a real place, at a familiar time of year; the town outlines in the distance are accurate and recognizable, the rural attire is authentic, the stooping postures of work observed from life. The painting captures the particularly oppressive heat of harvest time by shifting the tonal center from yellow toward violet; in comparison to the previous work, the sky is a light purple, and the greens close to black. Everything is rendered in loose, broad strokes; the figures and the contours of trees are shaped as masses, with little or no detail. The secret to his technique was his handling of washes in one pass, without fussing or overpainting; colors are built up by floating in more pigment, or different colors, while the rough textured paper was still wet. Highlights (in the central haystacks) were picked out by careful scraping with a knife. De Wint's technique is most impressive precisely when it must work quickly and impressionistically, and in most of his sketches it creates a sense both of solidity and inspired immediacy. These stylistic traits were sympathetic to the new, romantic esthetic of unaffected and spontaneous communication, and De Wint's landscape sketches were a major factor in the rise in importance of the sketch in watercolor exhibitions.

De Wint was also capable of "finished" exhibition watercolors, and though these convey a somewhat stiff feeling during his early career, they evolved toward a looser, relaxed style in his maturity — and become sketches in a higher key. On the Dart (1848, 56x95cm), which shows a bend in the Dart River (Devonshire), is the last major picture De Wint exhibited. The biography of De Wint written by his widow mentions his love of rivers: "rapid streams delighted him much, and the Wharfe, the Lowther, the Dart and others were studied with the greatest intensity." A critic of the time singled out this work for praise, noting the delicious rendering of the water, the full range of dark and light, the simplicity and lack of romantic rhetoric. However, the original sketch for this painting still exists, and comparision of the two shows how De Wint approached an exhibition work. The farm animals, herdsman and farm cottage nestled in the trees at left are all later additions (dressing up landscapes with decorative figures was a common practice). De Wint has refined the tone and color of the water, clarified the changing levels and placement of large rocks, and added the decorative road at lower right. He has also used bodycolor and gum varnish over the darks to increase the depth and solidity of the colors, and used scraping out to add textures and highlights. But the shape and massing of the trees, the feeling of space and the soft gradations in light are remarkably similar between sketch and exhibition piece: these were probably the core of the inspiration which his skill enabled him to capture simply and accurately.

The primary reference for De Wint's life and work is the exhibition catalog Drawings and Watercolors by Peter De Wint by David Scrase (Cambridge University Press, 1979). Martin Hardie's chapter on De Wint in Water-Colour Painting in Britain: II. The Romantic Era (Batsford, 1967) provides a knowledgeable summary of his technique and artistic achievement. A good selection of works, with commentary, is available in The Great Age of British Watercolors by Andrew Wilton and Anne Lyles (Prestel, 1997).