by Lorena Overstreet Allen,M.Ed., ISA
As seen in Antiques& Art Around Florida,
Winter/Spring 1999


 Stephen Parrish

Formation Of Societe’ des Peintres-Graveurs in Europe and America. By the late 19th century a role had been created for American etchers to participate in the tradition of French and English peintre-graveur (artist as printmaker). American artists who became printmakers during the late 19th century were aware of how the technique of etching allowed them to draw without restraint. Also, since the technique of etching simulates characteristics of painting, it became a favorite medium for painters. In 1880, the Society of Painter-Etchers was founded in London and eventually a small group of American artists were invited to submit their works to be juried. Americans elected as “Fellows” to the London Society included artists Otto Bacher, Albert Bellows, F.S. Church, Frank Duveneck, John M. Falconer, Henry Farer, James Whistler, Robert Swain Gifford, James Smillie, Stephen Parrish, Thomas Moran, Mary Nimmo Moran and Charles Platt. The works of American peintre-graveurs were eagerly sought by American print dealers and collectors who had been collecting prints by European etchers. The shared goals of the American printmakers led them to establish etching clubs and societies throughout America. The New York Etching Club was founded in 1877. Its founding members included artists J.C. Nicoll, Henry Farer and R. Swain Gifford. Etching clubs in America grew rapidly and by 1890 The Cincinnati Etchers Club, The Philadelphia Society of Etchers, The Boston Etching Club, The New York Etching Society and The Society of American Etchers were established. It was largely due to the escalation of the etching societies in the late 19th century that connoisseurship in the printing technique of etching and the building of a portfolio of fine etched prints became a serious endeavor for many 19th century Americans.

A number of societies and galleries, devoted to the publishing of books, had original etchings bound into their publications, thus ensuring subscribers and simultaneously allowing the middle class an opportunity to own original art created by emerging and well known American etchers

Emergence of a Distinct American Style of Etching. In the later part of the 19th century a localism of subject matter was formed as much by the scenery as the prevailing social tendencies of the time. American etchers favored unpretentious landscapes with intimate glimpses of nature conveying the artist’s appreciation of etching as a medium responsive to quickly executed images. Such images of nature were usually etched on site, directly from nature,or after returning to the studio with preliminary sketches and without losing their spontaneous quality.

 J.A.S. Monks

Today, etchings created by 19th century American artists, in addition to performing an aesthetic function, are indispensable aids for American historians as visual recordings of a classic American past with their genre scenes, harbors, coastal towns, landscapes, fishing boats and old houses. Several etchings by noted American etchers which combine fine draftsmanship and skillful techniques in images that are “American” in character deserve recognition and are described herein: Stephen Parrish’s genre scene entitled Cape Cod captures a unique place and era while displaying a distinct etching style. J.A.S Monks, who raised sheep, was well known for his portrayals of sheep grazing in the shadows of haystacks as depicted in Evening After The Storm. Thomas Moran’s The Pass of Glencoe is a dynamic rendering of a landscape with expressive forms depicted in mysterious chiaroscuro effects. Mary Nimmo Moran, the wife of Thomas Moran and the only woman member of the New York Etching Club, was a Scot by birth and many of her etchings evoke a Scottish sensibility, such as Tween the Gloamin, actually created in East Hampton, Long Island. All of the above artists’ series of etchings are ardently collected today.

James A.M. Whistler, America’s Supreme Exponent of Etching. James A.M. Whistler, although an expatriate American living in London, contributed immensely to the development and guidance of his fellow American etchers. Whistler’s etchings are known for their sensitivity of etched line as well as atmospheric effects which he created by varying the inking of the plate in brown tones, a technique that was considered a novelty at the time. An example of this technique is depicted in one of Whistler’s many scenes drawn from nature in and around Venice, The Riva, Number 1, circa 1879, which captures its gondolas, Gothic doorways and patterned facades. Whistler was considered eccentric and controversial for his manner of entitling his etchings with a number as well as a title and for distributing white and yellow butterflies at his exhibitions. The butterflies were counterparts for his unique butterfly monogram which is usually imprinted on his etchings. Whistler’s etchings were printed in few impressions and are considered very rare. The British Museum has an abundance of Whistler’s work and the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C. has one of the largest holdings of Whistler’s etchings from 1887 to the 20th century.

Thomas Moran
Thomas Moran

Characteristics of Valuable Etched Prints. Etching is an intaglio printing process whereby an artist draws with a steel needle-like instrument into the surface of a copper, zinc or steel plate which has been inked or varnished. The theory of etching is that when the plate is covered with an acid resisting ground it will resist the acid, “biting” the etched lines which make possible a fluid and calligraphic manner of drawing. After the plate has been “bitten” and washed with water, it is ready to be inked and printed. An artist studies the first proof or impression from the press,making subsequent changes, and “pulls” a new series of proofs. The later impressions are called “second states of the print”. Several states can be produced until the final run of impressions is authorized by the artist.

The elevation of the art of etching began with the limitation of impressions. Elevation further increased with each proof being guaranteed by the stamp of the Society. Eventually etched prints were intended for a collectors’ market where rarity is valued. As the art of peintre-graveur became increasingly prestigious and rarity of fine prints lent additional inducements to building collections, the destroying of the copper plates gained favor during the late 19th century. Usually a plate capable of printing innumerable impressions was limited to the printing of small editions of seventy-five to one hundred, with each print signed by the artist. The plate was then canceled (scored across the plate with defacing marks). Multiple copies of prints may come directly from the hand of an artist and are closer to the actual spirit of the artist than reprints and reproductions. From Whistler comes the custom of signing the print in pencil. When the initials and/or signature of an artist are printed simultaneously with each impression, it signifies that each print is “signed in the plate”. Some of the finest treasures of etched prints fall into this category. When time has elapsed between first and subsequent printing, and if no alterations have been made in the plate, they may be “re-issued” and become “restrikes”, although they rarely possess the brilliance of the earlier impressions. Restrikes are considered an original work of art since they are printed from the plate of the first edition, although when considerable time has elapsed dates should be indicated.

James A.M. Whistler

James A. M. Whistler

Handcolored prints may further increase the value of the etching and encompass mediums of watercolor, acrylic, pencil or gouache for coloration of the work.

Collecting and Care of a Portfolio of Fine Prints. Collectors of prints should look at rarity as well as excellence of an impression. A buyer has a right to be informed if many years have lapsed between the first and last restrike. Other considerations are the importance and provenance of the artist and/or the speciality of the subject matter.

The building of a portfolio of fine early American prints can be enjoyable as well as a good investment. Many fine 19th century prints by American artists can be found by diligent searching and exploring of estate sales, print fairs, antique shops and out of the way print dealers in both Europe and America. The hammer prices of fine 19th century American etched prints are steadily climbing in the auction houses, with entire collections being bid upon.

About the author:
Lorena O. Allen, M.Art Ed., is an accredited member of The International Society of Appraisers, Inc. and president of L. Allen Appraisal Studios, Inc., specializing in 17th-19th century fine art of America, Europe and Asia. She instructs art history at Florida Atlantic University. 305-866-1023. All photos by the author.

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