Art

Watercolour World: Access 100,000 Pre-1900 Watercolor Paintings

Explore this archive collating 100,000 watercolor paintings created before 1900, which have been recovered by the Marandi Foundation

Long before photography existed, artists, explorers, and scientists used watercolors to capture the world around them and record moments from everyday life. While lots of museums and organizations have recovered a great deal of material, there are still millions of priceless paintings out there waiting to be discovered.

Although most of the authors are anonymous or unknown painters, the Marandi Foundation has committed itself to finding, digitizing, and categorizing these artworks for its Watercolour World archive, which includes more than 100,000 watercolor paintings. You can use their search engine to explore their catalog and download images for free in high resolution. Collaborative efforts have led to the foundation discovering where a lot of these paintings come from and what they were trying to say.

Artist drawing in the park. By James Wells Champney (1880). Archive: Watercolour World.
Artist drawing in the park. By James Wells Champney (1880). Archive: Watercolour World.

The purpose of watercolors

Until 1900, watercolor paints were the medium of choice for artists, explorers, teachers, and people who simply wanted to bear witness to reality. Given how easy the paints were to transport and how quickly you could use them to create a drawing, watercolor paintings were the "polaroids" of the time. They allowed people to see faraway places.

Royal Palace of Madrid. By David Roberts (1832). Archive: Yale University.
Royal Palace of Madrid. By David Roberts (1832). Archive: Yale University.

Over past centuries, watercolor paintings, especially botanical drawings, were used to educate. Those who could identify plants and their medicinal properties were highly respected. Botanical artists not only needed artistic skill but also precision, detail, and knowledge of plant biology.

Galatza rozy. Unknown author (1820). File: Watercolour World.
Galatza rozy. Unknown author (1820). File: Watercolour World.

Watercolor paintings also had a journalistic purpose, as it was the only way to show relatives, friends, or strangers the magnitude of an event that had happened in a particular place.

"Fire in the garden.” Unknown author (1882). Watercolour World Archive.
"Fire in the garden.” Unknown author (1882). Watercolour World Archive.

Watercolors were also a record of private practices of the time, such as writing love letters.

"Love letter." By Claude-Jean-Baptiste Hoin (1760-1817). Archive: The Clark Art Institute.
"Love letter." By Claude-Jean-Baptiste Hoin (1760-1817). Archive: The Clark Art Institute.

A fragile work of art

Watercolors were a vital way of conveying information; however, the artworks themselves were very fragile. Over time, the paintings began to fade unless they received special care or were looked after by museums and foundations. For centuries, many watercolor paintings have sat in boxes in family homes, warehouses, and antique markets, with their features disappearing.

Recovering history

Not only did the British Marandi Foundation decide to start working across the globe to track down important images that had been lost, but it has also worked on recovering, digitizing, and categorizing the images so that anyone with access to the internet can find them in the Watercolour World database.

Cologne, Germany. Unknown author (1900). Private collection.
Cologne, Germany. Unknown author (1900). Private collection.

How do I search for images?

The British Marandi Foundation’s search engine allows you to explore its archive as well as be redirected to other museums, organizations, and foundations. Most of the images you find will be available to download for free in high resolution.

You can search their archive of recovered watercolor paintings by continent, country, collection, artist, category, and tag. You can locate yourself on a map before you begin your search.

Seal. By William Panormo (1796-1867). Archive: Zoological Society of London.
Seal. By William Panormo (1796-1867). Archive: Zoological Society of London.

Team effort

While looking at the paintings is interesting enough, reading the online conversations that they cause is also fascinating–many end in big discoveries. In fact, in the “Can you help?” section, the site asks users to help identify the places portrayed in the painting that they’ve not yet been able to uncover.

Unknown location. The "Can you help" section asks for help identifying the location.
Unknown location. The "Can you help" section asks for help identifying the location.
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