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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Introduction To Etchings And Prints

( Originally Published 1932 )

It MaY be best to consider this as a handbook for the general reader and a digest for the collector. It seems to me that every educational book is an argument for study. Any person with a maturing mind may decide in a few hours whether it would be advantageous and interesting to continue to learn about "black and white."

One needs to look back only twenty years to find that most of our museums were devoid of anything that looked like a print room. In the tables on pages at back are listed twenty of the most important institutions in this country. In respect to each there is certain information which should be carefully perused. At the turn of the century interest began to kindle and, at the present time, we find that a flame is ready to blaze. The fact that such a metamorphosis has occurred does not mean that the situation was brought about entirely by the public. In some cases this was so, but in others it might have been induced by the diligence of certain curators who, in their positions and together with their knowledge, created a profound interest through the media of talks, exhibitions, monthly publications and print clubs.

I call attention to the method employed by the Boston Museum in enriching the value of its print department. The Director of the museum has the right to use a portion of the annual income for the express purpose of helping the Curator of the print department to continue his studies in Europe. It is recognized that a competent expert must be at the head of the department. He must have a complete and accurate knowledge of the process of etching, engraving, mezzotinting, woodcuts and other media. This plan is carried out in similar style in three or four other museums.

It is primarily up to the Curator-who, in his role, plays the part of a teacher-to supply new vigor and new thoughts on this his chosen subject. He has taken upon himself the full professorship of art, and it is well known that full professors are encouraged by accumulative funds to make constant journeys abroad in order to enlarge their encyclopedic facts.

We may wonder just what place the etching dealer occupies in the community. The best answer would be one in which we could use a generalization of banking terms-the three C's: Credit, Character and Capital. Perhaps in this business the dealer should be looked upon for more character than cash, assuming that his credit is acceptable. Should he meet these requirements, he will by all signs control a respect and well merited dignity as an asset to his neighbors. If he fails, we know it is because he is endeavoring to sell anything at any price regardless of value. In no way does he represent faith.

In a later chapter this subject will be discussed in more detail, since it is the primary aim of this book to straighten out for the beginner certain ideas which may have become fixed in his or her mind, in order that collecting may become a pleasure and not a series of disagreeable experiences.

The museum itself is directly responsible to the community for various benefits in respect to prints, probably more than any other individual subject. The Curator assumes almost as heavy a burden. We are all familiar with the fact that, in order to succeed, a promotional scheme needs a backer-in other words, money. Wall Street would be as any other street were it not for its reputation for containing within its immediate area more people with ready capital waiting for opportunities to put it to use than any other highway in existence. We may liken the donor of prints to any print department, to a man with capital. He is fostering a move whereby students, amateurs, connoisseurs, may have the chance to study these items which ordinarily would be remotely situated.

The first actual print department was begun in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1872. At that time the original collection consisted of one print. To-day it contains over ioo,ooo specimens with quite an increase annually. The Brooklyn Museum of Fine Arts instituted a Print Room in 1915,-one year in advance of a similar project started by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Brooklyn institution has had no considerable advance in quantity; to-day there are some 2700 prints in the permanent collection. It is the policy of this museum to hold numerous exhibitions throughout the year. Prizes are given for the best examples of landscape, portraiture and other particular types of prints. A large percentage of the permanent collection represents the contemporary print-makers.

On the surface it appears that the Metropolitan has selected a program which calls for a group diversification, which would eliminate the concentrated interest in the moderns. On the contrary the underwriting process is so well taken care of, by the necessary funds, that most of the moderns are well represented. There is, however, the problem of donations, which must be dealt with. It is unfortunate that some museums rely on the ultimate end of well-known collectors for the acquisition of their prints. It has to be borne in mind that the individual may live quite a long time. During this period the public is the only loser since it has been deprived, through the selfishness of the department, from studying and appreciating the works of "John Doe" and "John Smith". This is comparable to the small investor in a bank where the officials, whose business it is to buy and sell bonds, keep the best and sell to the client the ones with little or no prospects for enhancement. What chance has the uninitiated to diversify his or her interests and reap rewards?

Certain groups have combined their efforts, so to speak, in promoting a series of most interesting and educational exhibitions in the colleges throughout the United States.

One group offered a prize for a critical essay on prints to all those viewing the collection; why such and such a print was the best in that particular set. The compositions sent in were more numerous than expected. The knowledge displayed in most of them was sufficient evidence that a keener appreciation was growing at all points, North, South, East and West in this country. This is exactly the right spot in which to meet the amateur upon the correct footing. He or she is still wavering towards a hobby, still feeling one way and then another in an effort to become really enthralled with one special interest.

Those fortunate enough to have the means to study the subject are, at an early age, a little more advanced than the perfect amateur whose questions are always begun and ended with one word, "Why?" "What?" "Where?" "How?" From early childhood most of us have been collectors. If it wasn't marbles it might have been stamps; if neither, it might easily have been match-boxes or programs. If a marble collector, we never bought or traded scratched agates, and we usually preferred something with color in preference to steelies. How easily this pertains to "black and white."

We can never afford to purchase a print with any devastating marks on it, and invariably choose something with chiarascuro (color, shading). Just as easily can we liken stamps to prints. How many times do you remember having seen a beautifully designed stamp of Korea or a handsome animal picture of Liberia that you really ,wanted and yet turned aside because of a thinness of paper exactly in the center of the stamp? An etching containing thin spots looses a great deal of its value. It suffers further in value from not having a border sufficient to extend itself from the extremities of the actual plate mark.

This condition also exists in stamps. A perfectly centered stamp is a treasure compared to one with margins not equal. If we remember never to paste an etching or a stamp directly onto a background, we will hardly ever cause ourselves grief with "thin spots". It seems that all we are doing from an early age is advancing through different stages. When we finally reach a certain point, unless we specialize in one type such as etchings, drypoints, lithographs, etc., our problem will be so complex that a lifetime will be spent and still our quest will not have been satisfied. It is usually best to adapt ourselves to a final resolution that one style and one man's work, or probably two, will be sufficient for as long as we care to continue collecting, unless, of course, the purse strings are unending.

As the literature at the disposal of the print collector is very rich-some books being devoted to the subject generally, others to individual masters and schools,-no one will expect more than leading principles and general hints within the compass of a single volume. It is hoped, however, that in this book enough will be said to give the beginner a fair start. As an indication of the wide range which will quickly present itself, let the amateur take a print into his hands and consider the number of questions that will suggest themselves.

"What is the style of the engraving? Line, stipple, mezzotint or etching? If it be a portrait composition, what are the pictorial qualities making for its desirability?"

In another chapter, the amateur and collector will have brought to his attention this most elementary fact,-that we usually start a hobby with one idea in mind. As marine subjects interest almost everyone we may therefore choose the subject of marine prints as an excellent guide to certain phases of the art of etching.

It will serve to introduce certain etchers whose reputations are acknowledged, by both amateurs and collectors, as being stable. It will, also, I hope, create a desire to see these prints.

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