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.