A Box of Colors

W. Douglas McCombs, Chief Curator
If you're an artist or have children who like to be creative, you're probably familiar with boxed watercolor sets. These metal or plastic boxes open to display a rainbow of solid rectangular paint blocks. There may even be room inside for a brush. An early watercolor box in the Institute's collection has interesting connections and reveals some early history of watercolor in America.

W. J. Reeves & Son Watercolor Box and Two Hudson River School Artists

In 1966, Marion Gifford Shaw donated a watercolor paint box that descended through her family. It was signed by the Hudson River School artist Sanford R. Gifford and dated March 1st, 1848. In the Institute's records, the box was dated 1848 and believed to have been purchased by Sanford Gifford at an early stage in his artistic development. 
Having museum collections available online has proven to be an unending source of enrichment, and that includes for museum curators. About two years ago I received an email from Donald Christensen, a passionate and always informative Gifford researcher. He wrote to tell me he looked into the manufacturer of the watercolor set, W. J. Reeves & Son, and specifically the original labels that remain intact on both the sliding lid and the interior.
Interior label
Both labels clearly identify W. J. Reeves & Son at 80 Holborn Bridge, London. William John Reeves (1764–1827) and his son, James Reeves (1794–1868), went into partnership in 1819 at 80 Holborn Bridge, London. The business retained the name W. J. Reeves & Son until 1827, when William John Reeves died and a second son, Henry Reeves (1804–1877), joined the family business. After 1827 the two brothers changed the name to Reeves & Sons and in 1829 relocated to 150 Cheapside. The labels help date the watercolor box to the period between 1819 to 1827.
Label on sliding lid
When Gifford inscribed his name and date on the lid, just above the label, the watercolor box would have been at least twenty years old. It seems unlikely a local supplier of artist materials would have sold such an old box of paints to Gifford.
As Christensen also observed, the date of March 1st, 1848, was less than a month after the death of American artist Thomas Cole, a nationally recognized landscape artist and resident of Catskill, New York, which was located just across the Hudson River from Hudson, New York, the bustling industrial community where Gifford and his family were then living. As an aspiring landscape artist, Gifford must have been aware of Cole and may even have met him. Could Gifford have received the watercolor box from one of Cole's famiy members after paying his respects to the recently departed artist?
Gifford did use watercolors in his sketchbooks, including one in the Institute's collection that records his travels in Europe in 1856 and 1857. One of his sketches depicting an Italian musician is masterfully executed in pencil and watercolor.
Italian Musician by Sanford R. Gifford, 1856-1857
The watercolor box, however, shows only light usage and several of the cakes of paint appear to be unused, suggesting Gifford probably did not use the paints but rather kept the box as a cherished object, possibly once owned by the father of Hudson River School landscapes, Thomas Cole.
April 6, 2020