Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 2, 2008 with permission of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Cornell Collects: A Celebration of American Art from the Collections of Alumni and Friends

Part II: Prints

By Nancy E. Green

 

Nineteenth Century

The history of printmaking is marked by changing imagery and a fluctuating popularity of styles and techniques, with new methods developed by each generation. In America prints were known and used early on. In the early 1800s John James Audubon, working with the famed London engraver Robert Havell, reproduced his drawings of birds and mammals in engraved form and sold them as portfolios. As he had hoped, the prints attracted a larger audience for his work, and their wide distribution caused Americans to change the way they viewed art created in this multiple manner.

The earliest print in the exhibition is Fitz Hugh Lane's View of Gloucester, Mass. (cat. no. 92). Known today for his luminist paintings, Lane began his artistic career apprenticed to a lithographic firm in Boston. At that time lithography was a relatively new technique used extensively by publishers for its illustrative properties. Lane's paintings and prints reflect his early draftsman's training, and this monumental print of Gloucester attests to the influence of that seafaring town's climate, geography, and topography on his work. Lane used photography, a medium then in its infancy, as an aid for his painting, a practice generally pursued only by succeeding generations of artists.

In the 1850s and 1860s, Currier and Ives's hand-colored lithographs made art prints available and affordable to the general public. During a span of nearly fifty years, they commissioned genre scenes from many well-known artists, eventually issuing almost seven thousand prints. Varied in size and subject, the prints appealed to a range of

Americans, and today they are in high demand as expressions of rural America. Indian Lake--Sunset (cat. no. 44) and Wild Duck Shooting (cat. no. 45) exhibit subjects particularly popular because of a growing interest in the mountainous areas of the Catskills and the Adirondacks as places for summer retreats. Also produced by lithographic means and often hand colored, they were affordable to a growing middle class, eager to decorate the walls of their newly acquired homes with rustic scenes.

From the time of Benjamin West, many American artists became expatriates in Europe, where the artistic inspiration was felt to be finer and the aesthetic pleasures more abundant than those that could be found at home. Mary Cassatt left the security of her Philadelphia family to study in Paris, where she came under the influence of Degas and the impressionists as well as the newly popular japonisme. Working with an etching plate, she became a superb printmaker, observing the scenes of everyday domesticity and translating them to simple yet elegant prints. Relying on the mere suggestion of line and form and on the softness of the drypoint burr, she did full justice to her subjects' hair and features. In both Tea (cat. no. 35) and Quietude (cat. no. 36), Cassatt creates images of women who appear both strong and content. These are passive women with hopeful lives and good friends and family, at ease in their domestic milieu. Cassatt never fully embraces impressionism: her figures remain articulate and distinct. The power of her etchings lies in her ability to render women as individuals.

Of a different temperament but equally celebrated as a printmaker, James McNeill Whistler left America for Europe in his twenties, never to return. His prints -- whether of Venice, sites in France, or the Thames -- are always evocative, demonstrating the intense involvement of the artist with the complete printmaking process. He carefully selected unusual papers, handpicked for that special quality he felt would enhance his images, and wiped the plates and printed them himself. One of his finest drypoints, the rare print Finette (cat. no. 155), is exquisitely inked in a soft rich black, every detail distinct and apparent. Whistler's mastery of the medium is evident here: the softness of the burr is used to perfection, softening the folds of the dancer's dress and complementing the clearly etched lines of her Parisian apartment. The tiny yet detailed view of the city seen from the window harks back to the views depicted in such minutae in Old Master prints. Whistler has exquisitely captured a moment of a period long departed.

The flattened perspective in the Garden plate (cat. no. 156), from Whistler's prolific Venetian sojourn in 1880, shows the influence of Japanese art; Whistler is playing with such spatial arrangements as the foreground doorway reflected in the inner courtyard entrance, suggesting receding geometric forms. The sketchy quality of the figures and their surroundings suggests rather than declares. The inferred lushness of the garden is felt, and the crumbling walls add just a touch of the picturesque. But it is again in the inking that Whistler's luminescence shows through. The soft brown ink washes make the surface shimmer and glow, affirming Whistler's mastery as both artist and printer.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Venice's popularity as an artist's haven attracted other Americans who, like the impressionists, their European counterparts, were increasingly enthralled with the effects of light on surfaces; what better milieu than the waterbound city of Venice, whose light had appealed to such painters as Titian and Tintoretto for the same reasons. Frank Duveneck, the well-known American artist and educator, brought students to Venice to introduce them to the unique floating city. Unlike Whistler's personal manner of depicting everyday life-the alleyways and the intimate portraits of Venice, Duveneck approaches his subject in a more grandiose style, concentrating on the monumental and enduring beauty of the city. Ironically, three members of the Painter-Etcher Society of London once mistook Duveneck's work for Whistler's, creating a small scandal and causing much verbal abuse from Whistler. The artists' two distinct temperaments are readily distinguished by a comparison of Whistler's Garden and Duveneck's The Rialto, Venice (cat. no. 56); Garden is a personal glimpse whereas The Rialto, Venice appeals to a more general audience.

 

Twentieth Century

Just as the nineteenth century saw American artists leaving for Europe to hone their artistic skills at the academies there, the early twentieth-century art world, while still looking to Europe, was slowly evolving into an effectively "American" approach to printmaking and painting, and artists began to search their roots for new subjects and inspiration. It appears that no one medium was favored except within a given group. For example, Provincetown and California artists worked almost exclusively in color woodcut, imitating the eastern aesthetic in style as well as in technique. Other artists favored etching as a freer mode of expressing the hustle and hurry of newly industrialized life-styles. And the lithograph remained popular for its rich charcoal blacks, emphasizing the draftsmanlike quality of the image.

John Sloan, one of the original Ashcan School painters, was a keen observer of everyday city life. Trained as a newspaper artist, he tried to capture the essence of a scene with swift, skillful strokes. Sloan was a socialist, and his pictures, which show life as lived by the lower classes, give dignity to those who existed where degradation and poverty usually festered. In Swinging in the Square (cat. no. 141), Sloan depicts a scene of carefree girlhood, unencumbered by the troubles of the adult world. The two old men on the bench look enviously at the girl's unbounded exuberance. The act of the girl's swinging is aptly captured in the short, static strokes of the burin.

Fourteen years later, in Reading in the Subway (cat. no. 142), Sloan is still enamored of city life and depicts it with compassion and amusement. A girl, with stylish hat and coat, is fully immersed in her book, oblivious to the exposure of her stocking top. With a touch of irony, the sign on the wall behind her head reads "Rub with Sloan's Ointment." This combination of realism and romanticism and a fine touch of the comic makes Sloan's prints much sought after today.

Another painter and avid printmaker from this period George Bellows also had a keen eye for the satirical in everyday life. His subjects ranged from portraits and high society to drunks, boxing, and other sporting events. In 1916 Bellows began to make lithographs, and one of his first efforts Benediction in Georgia (cat. no. 18) clearly underscores the fine shades of hypocrisy in the scene of an evangelist offering prayers to a crowd of disdainful inmates. Their responses of boredom and disinterest register sharply on their faces, oblivious to the exertions of the preacher. Lithography was well suited to Bellows's style; he was an experienced draftsman, and even his early efforts attest to the ease with which he commanded the medium. Like Sloan's, his work has a peculiarly American flavor, rich with the details of everyday occurrences.

The influence of Europe had not, however, been completely dismissed by new artists. In the early decades of the century, John Taylor Arms created superb intaglio prints of both European and American subjects. A fine craftsman, Arms did much during his lifetime to advance the cause of American printmaking, particularly in etching and aquatint. Distinguished by their minute detail, beautiful rendering, and exact registration, his prints often confound the viewer with their perfection. The three states of The Golden Galleon (cat. no. 7) offer an unusual opportunity to observe his method of working. The first state exists as a linear outline of the galleon with hints of the attendant dolphins swimming below. In the next stage, Arms has printed an aquatint plate over the first plate, gaining the richness of shadows in the billowing sails as well as texture in the myriad details. In the final print, Arms has completed the image by adding color and by filling in the background of sky, mountains, and frothy sea. What appeared as a simple drawing in the first two stages has come to fruition through the artist's adept handling of the aquatint plates.

Trained as an architect, Arms's fascination with detail is particularly apparent in his studies of European edifices, including many Gothic churches with their elaborate gargoyle adornments. In Gothic Spirit (cat. no. 10), the grinning creature virtually leaps away from the building toward us. As the title suggests, he is the epitome of the medieval spirit. Again, Arms has masterfully used aquatint to achieve the feel of the stone, the undulations of its texture, and the variations of light and shadow. Unlike most artists of his generation, Arms worked solely as a printmaker, and the consistently fine quality of his work attests to his great skill in intaglio.

Also trained as an architect, Armin Landeck turned to printmaking, particularly etching and drypoint, when he was unable to find work in his field during the depression. Like Arms, he found intaglio perfectly suited to his aim of rendering the city's architecture in meticulous detail. In York Avenue, (cat. no. 91; looking north along York Avenue toward Cornell Medical College), Landeck gives us a view of upper Manhattan unusually framed by the underside of the Queensboro Bridge. The bridge defines the space both vertically at the right and horizontally. The street is completely deserted, a reflection of both the lazy life of a New York Sunday morning and the lack of activity inherent during the depression years. Landeck, like Edward Hopper, captures the loneliness that can be felt even in a metropolitan city inhabited by millions of people.

The city's landscape fascinated many artists as the migration from country to urban centers gathered speed. A friend of Landeck the Australian-born Martin Lewis reflects the influence of both Hopper and the Ashcan School in his prints. A fine example of Lewis's skill as an etcher, Arc Welders (cat. no. 94) approaches with great precision the challenge of depicting the welders working at night. The rich burr of the drypoint lines, deeply printed, emphasize the layers of blackness, grays, and ultimately the palely etched circle of light where the act of welding is taking place. Like Sloan, Lewis enjoyed observing these "slice of life" scenes, taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary by manipulating the textures through use of both drypoint and sandpaper ground.

Howard Cook, a contemporary of Lewis, also captured the essence of city life in many of his prints. As a student of Joseph Pennell's at the Art Student's League in New York City, he learned how to make prints in all media-etching, lithography, woodcut, wood engraving, and aquatint. In his delightful image Studio Bed (cat. no. 40), he veers away from city life to show us a more personal image. The model appears to have fallen prey to the languor of the summer afternoon and has slipped off into a dream state. The setting is Cook's own studio in Granville, Massachusetts, and as in Sloan's work, the artist has stolen a special private moment to preserve for eternity. The model appears unconcerned by our attention, her sleep undisturbed by any observing eyes.

The early decades of this century also witnessed a rebirth of an old printing technique-the woodcut. In Germany artists looked to their native forebears, prime among them Albrecht Durer, to appreciate the virtuosity of this technique. The German expressionists adopted woodcut as their own for its stunning expressive qualities. Blocks were gouged and slashed, reflecting the rage of the artists against the political situation in their country.

Lyonel Feininger went to Europe as a young man to study music, but soon found himself more interested in the fine arts. He took up painting and later printmaking, which he learned from his future wife, Julia Berg, and he assiduously pursued various graphic media-etching, lithography, and woodcut-excelling in the last. The war had made materials scarce and printing facilities even scarcer, so Feininger turned to cutting woodblocks, often using cigar box tops for this purpose and then printing them with the pressure of his hand.

In the exhibition we are fortunate to have two stunning examples of Feininger's prodigious output in woodcut. Both Villa Am Strand IV (cat. no. 59) and Railroad Viaduct (cat. no. 61) illustrate his facility with the woodcut, the simplest and most direct printing medium.

Although his designs are often monumental in conception, the actual cutting is simple and bold, emphasizing the design quality of the block. In Villa Am Strand IV the scene is fragmented decisively, acknowledging the influence of the cubists. The diagonal shards invade the space in which the lonely house sits, contradicting the traditional representation of a village scene. In Railroad Viaduct the city is divided into several areas of activity: the moving train, the figurative groupings, the vistas through the archways. The overall effect is one of bustle and hurry, an interesting reminder of the rebuilding of post-World War I Germany.

Although woodcut was his favored medium, etching also had an important role in Feininger's prolific graphic output. In 1924 he created one of his last two plates, entitled Dorf (Cat. no. 60). At the time he was head of the graphic workshop at the Bauhaus in Weimar, where he had easy access to all necessary printing paraphernalia. Of simple design, Dorf shows a village scene with the church spire overpowering the buildings below. In this impression the artist accentuated the simple scene by hand coloring the image-the only proof of this print to which he was known to have added color. Feininger's graphic oeuvre is enigmatic and ultimately appealing because of his compelling view of Germany during its reconstruction as seen through the eyes of an American who fully empathized with his adopted country. Feininger is often included in exhibitions both of German artists and of American artists; it is a testament to the quality of the artist that both nations claim him as their own.

Simultaneously with its growth in Germany, woodcut -- particularly color woodcut -- caught on in America. The German-born artist Gustave Baumann grew up in the Chicago area and later returned to Germany, where he learned to cut blocks. From 1913 to 1919 he spent time in Provincetown, the artists' haven that would in later years become synonymous with the color woodcut print. Idle Fleet (cat. no. 15) shows a harbor view, seen from above as if the artist were watching the scene from atop a hill. Printed in pastel shades, it is a perfect rendition of a lazy summer day, conveying a timeless sense of relaxation and ease. Baumann, a master of combining color with a sense of place, later moved to New Mexico, where he adapted his intense saturated colors to reflect the power of the Southwest.

Color woodcut also gained popularity on the West Coast, and Frances Gearhart, an artist who had studied with Charles Woodbury and moved to California, produced lush landscapes influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e prints. In Spring Morning (cat. no. 69), color is again used to establish time and place. The blue border, in particular, is a Japanese technique used to define and shape the image. Colors are clear and definite, accurately describing the landscape before her. Frances Gearhart often exhibited -- as did her sisters May and Edna -- and was an active member of the Printmakers Society of California.

In the East the American impressionist Childe Hassam captured the dappling effects of light in his Old Mulford House, Easthampton, L.I. (cat. no. 78). By 1926 the Hamptons had already acquired their reputation as vacation spots for wealthy patrons from New York City. Hassam, like Whistler and Duveneck before him, was fascinated with reproducing in etched form what the European artists were doing in color. Mulford House appears stolid, a tribute to generations of wear and endurance. Hassam painstakingly etches the lines of the leaves' sunlit reflections on the tile roof, the group of chicks picking grain on the front lawn, and the individual panes of glass: the impression of light is strong.

In the twenties, too, a response to European modernism was effected by a group of Americans later known as the precisionists. One of these artists, Louis Lozowick, was profoundly influenced by both Feininger and the Russian constructivists, particularly El Lissitsky. Working almost exclusively in lithography, Lozowick approached the subject of the city in a much more detached and impersonal way than either Sloan or Bellows. Like John Taylor Arms, he looked to architecture for his inspiration but directed his attention to the newly industrialized architecture of the railroads, the blast furnaces, and the factories, which offered a new symbolism of man's power over nature. In Blast Furnaces (cat. no. 97), the structure is being venerated and immortalized, and with Lozowick's skill as a lithographer, the rich blacks and subtle grays create an image of stark strength. In 1933 Lozowick was still working on such typically American scenes, and his Train and Factory (cat. no. 98) from this period offers an icon of the twentieth century.

In contrast to this glorification of the city, Grant Wood, working in the Midwest, was purposefully intent on his own brand of American art, known as regionalism. Wood, along with Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, presented the public with images of an America many felt had long disappeared. The nostalgia for an earlier simplicity suspended in the midst of the country's economic depression appealed to a wide audience. His series of lithographs Fruits, Tame Flowers, Vegetables, and Wild Flowers (cat. nos. 158, 161, 159, and 160) is a wonderful group of works, all hand colored under Wood's direction by his sister and brother-in-law, Nan and Edward Graham. These four prints expound the essence of country life-its ease and bounty. The subtle coloring enhances Wood's designs and is reminiscent of some of Currier and Ives's still lifes. These pictures, created during the depression and just prior to World War II, seem completely untouched by the real world.

As a transitional figure from modernism to abstraction, Milton Avery created works ripe with humor and charm. He considered himself a painter and thus resisted printmaking until the 1930s, when he received a gift of copper plates from his wife's sister. He began tentatively, often putting aside the plates for years, but in 1949 he suffered a heart attack that put a temporary stop to his painting. Recuperating in Florida, he took up monotype, and his joyous depictions of birds, fish, and sea show a man enthralled with images of life. In the delightful Birds and Sea (cat. no. 11), six birds swoop gracefully and dive over a playfully agitated sea. The hand of the artist is apparent; in some areas it almost looks like a child's finger painting. This innocence and simplicity notionally looks back to a more guileless age, but it also looks forward to the stripped-down images of the next generation.

Printmaking changed radically in the fifties and sixties, keeping pace with the shifting abstraction of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. In 1956 Tatyana Grosman established the first printing workshop in the United States, in her home on Long Island, and called it Universal Limited Art Editions. She invited artists to experiment with lithographic stones, and Jasper Johns, one of the leading painters of the New York School, was among the first. With no previous experience, Johns soon became a proficient lithographer, urged on by the enthusiastic Grosman. Other artists, including Larry Rivers and Robert Rauschenberg, joined in the learning venture, and Grosman took to the road, selling their original prints to museums throughout the country.

In the sixties printmaking became the vehicle by which many artists made their work and their names known to a wide audience. Generally smaller than paintings and less expensive, prints often allowed the artist to be more innovative and to embark on a creative collaboration with printers and publishers. By the end of the decade, most artists had some experience with printmaking, working with one of the major workshops that had cropped up all over the country to meet the rising demand for quality printers.

 

About the author

Nancy Green is senior curator of prints, drawings, and photographs at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. She joined the Johnson Museum staff in 1985 and since has organized dozens of exhibitions at the Johnson Museum and elsewhere. While the subjects of these exhibitions are wide-ranging, her principal interest is in American and European art from the 19th century to the present. She has published numerous articles, exhibition guides, and catalogues including, most recently, Byrdcliffe: An American Arts and Crafts Colony (2004); Surrealist Works on Paper from the Drukier Collection (2003), Dreams, Myths, and Realities: A Vincent Smith Retrospective (2001), Arthur Wesley Dow and American Arts and Crafts (1999), Susan Rothenberg: Drawings and Prints (1998), and Master Prints from Upstate New York Museums (1995). She is the recipient of research fellowships from the Getty, Winterthur, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, the Paul Mellon Centre, the Wolfsonian, Huntington-British Academy, and a grant from the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design. She is currently working on a catalogue and exhibition A Room of Their Own: The Artists of Bloomsbury. Green received her B.A. from Connecticut College and her M.A. in Art History from Williams College.

 

Resource Library editor's note

The above exhibition catalogue text, without illustrations, was reprinted in Resource Library on August 2, 2008, with permission of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University and author Nancy Green. The permission was granted to TFAO on July 23, 2008. Ms. Green's essay pertains to Cornell Collects: A Celebration of American Art from the Collections of Alumni and Friends, which was on view at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York August 21 - November 4, 1990.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Liz Emrich, Exhibitions Assistant/Rights and Reproductions of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, and Stacey Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above texts.

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