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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Water Babies

Photo: Paul Macapia

Water Babies


John Covert

Born Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1882; died Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1960

An obscure 1860s English children's novel, The Water-Babies, describes a young man's transformation into another form of being, a "water baby," who lived in an aquatic world of other kindly and virtuous innocents. The novel's author, the Reverend Charles Kingsley, argued that a belief in unseen things such as water babies—as metaphors for the human soul—represented another realm of knowledge altogether. "No one has a right to say that no water babies exist till they have seen no water babies existing, which is quite a different thing, mind, from not seeing water babies." 

Covert developed this painting from a photograph of a doll, as seen refracted in a glass of water, in order to create a visual image of the idea of two realities: the actual physical world and the truth that is our individual perception.
Oil on paperboard
25 1/4 x 23in. (64.1 x 58.4cm)
Gift of Paul Denby Mackie in memory of Kathleen Lawler and Nona Lawler Mackie
Provenance: The artist to Kathleen Lawler (1881-1952), probably 1923; by bequest to her sister, Nona Lawler Mackie, Bellevue, Washington, 1952; by bequest to her husband, Paul Denby Mackie, Bellevue, Washington; to SAM, 1959
Photo: Paul Macapia
Not currently on view


Exhibition HistoryNew York, M. de Zayas Gallery, Exhibition of Paintings by John Covert, Apr.19-May 1, 1920. Cat. no. 9

Dallas, Texas, Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts, American Genius in Review, No.1 , May 11-June 19, 1960. Text by Douglas MacAgy. Cat. no. 22, reproduced.

New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, The Decade of the Armory Show: New Directions in American Art 1910-1920 [Sixth Loan Exhibition of the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art], Feb. 27-Apr. 14, 1963. Cat. no. 15, p. 71.

Olympia, Washington, State Capitol Museum, Governor's Festival of Arts, March 3-31, 1968. No cat.

Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, John Covert 1882-1960, Sept. 16-Nov. 14, 1976. Text by Michael Klein. Cat. no. 18, pp. 13, 50-51, reproduced p. 51.

Seattle, Seattle Art Museum, Modern in America, July 8, 2004-Feb.27, 2005. No catalogue.

Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris, Feb.19-May 14, 2006*. Text by Leah Dickerman. Cat. no. 309, pp. 285-286, reproduced p. 341. [* circulated to Paris, Musee national d'art moderne, Centre Pompidou; and Museum of Modern Art, New York, but painting shown at National Gallery only].

Published ReferencesAskew, Rual. "Bypassed Artists to Gain Fresh Study," The Dallas Morning News, April 26, 1960: Section 1, p. 12.

Askew, Rual. "Mementos Current and From Recall," The Dallas Morning News, May 15, 1960: Section 5, p. 4.

MacAgy, Douglas. "Five Rediscovered from the Lost Generation," Art News 59, no. 4 (Summer 1960): p. 40, fig. 4.

Davidson, Abraham A. "Two from the Second Decade: Manierre Dawson and John Covert," Art in America 63, no. 5 (September-October 1975): p. 54, reproduced.

Tashjian, Dickran. Skyscraper Primitives: Dada and the American Avant-Garde, 1910-1925. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1975, p. 166, reproduced.

Klein, Michael. "John Covert and the Arensberg Circle: Symbolism, Cubism, and Protosurrealism," Arts Magazine 51, no. 9 (May 1977): p. 113.

Strazdes, Dianna. "John Covert, 1882-1960," in American Paintings and Sculpture to 1945 in the Carnegie Museum of Art. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1992, p. 148.

Mazow, Leo and Michael Taylor. John Covert Rediscovered. University Park, Pennsylvania: Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University, 2003, p. 33.

Craft, Catherine. "Dada, Paris, Washington and New York [exhibition review]," The Burlington Magazine 148, no. 1240 (July 2006): p. 505, reproduced no. 87.

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