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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Contemporary American Etchers

( Originally Published 1932 )

IN browsing through the second volume of the Print Collectors' Quarterly for April, 1912, in the dealer's advertisement, I found such names as Van Dyck, Piranesi, Fitton, Bejot, Platt, Hague, Affleck, Brangwyn, William Walker, Whistler, Haden and Zorn. A decade later, in volume nine of the April, 1922, issue of the same quarterly, such names as Tushingham, Sparks, Johnston, Baird, Buhot, Blampied, Forain, Cezanne and Degas appeared.

Notice that some names have entirely disappeared, others have come to us for the first time and now in 1932 the consensus of the advertised names on this side of the ocean can be well placed within the sum of ten:-Arthur William Heintzelman, Frank Benson, Ernest Roth, Levon West, Childe Hassam, John Taylor Arms, Kerr Eby, Troy Kinney and John Sloane. For the continent you will notice that I limit the selection to France and England, simply because Holland, Sweden and Italy have produced no one single etcher or any exponent of the medium of Black and White who has made his mark on the horizon as yet. These men are James McBey, Sir D. Y. Cameron, Gerald Brockhurst, Edmond Blampied, Muirhead Bone, Dame Laura Knight, Arthur Briscoe, Robert Austin, Paul Cezanne, Henry Rushbury and Augustus John.

The great masters have remained at the top. Those men who, like authors, placed most of their gloriously stored-up thoughts into one spot soon lost the favor which blessed them for the moment. It would be wrong to say that one such plate created the slide on which the artist went tumbling down. Whistler always was willing to stake his entire reputation upon the master-piece, "Annie Haden". Seymour Haden was very fond of the "Breaking Up of the Agamemnon" and we know that he showed a partiality towards his "Sunset in Ireland". Rembrandt, of course, still exists on the merits contained within the remarkable "One Hundred Guilder" and even the "Three Trees." Of the contemporary men in this country the ones already mentioned are, perhaps, more in line for a lasting favoritism than the thirteen thousand others. I believe that all men are in art created equal. It is the way in which inherent possibilities develop that makes for a future greatness, and we have only to look at the early life of some men to find an explanation for their present status and for their future placing.

American etchers are, as Whistler might have said, "Creeping up". It wasn't so long ago that they held a most representative exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum and since then Europeans have respected the talents shown by the various distinguished Americans. In Paris, John Taylor Arms, Arthur William Heintzelman, Robert Logan, A. C. Webb, are probably better known than the others. In London Mr. Heintzelman again appears to be very much favored. Herman Webster and Kerr Eby are also very popular in art circles. It is a most significant fact that of these men, two are graduates of Yale University, Mr. Webster and Mr. Kinney. We must not forget for a moment that Frank Benson with his wild bird life is well liked everywhere. No one can pass a print gallery without recognizing the familiar birds.

Martin Lewis with his original treatment of New York life has recently created a place for himself. The happiest thought we Americans can have as to our etchers is that our own country is serving as an inspiration for the popular American prints. Even Mr. Heintzelman, who has resided abroad for the past eight years, can be well understood even though he seems to have become an habitue of the Parisian boulevards where he has so delightfully portrayed the glamorous and free life that surrounds him. The "Scene de Music Hall", a print which was published in "Fine Prints of the Year ig3o", probably derives its importance from the central figure, a dancer engaged in the emotional movements of a wild dance,-her entire body swaying to the accompaniment. The dark background serves its purpose very well in bringing out the effect of a most beautiful frock.

Of all the Americans I think Mr. Heintzelman in his fifteen years of etching has reached a point, especially so in his grand and glorious portraits of old men, children and women, where he is a bit ahead of men of the same age with the same experience. "The Philosopher" is a magnificent example of the artist's early work. Its distinctiveness in design sets a high tone to the portraits of men executed in the twentieth century.

John Taylor Arms has given us some of the finest examples of Gothic art, facades, stained windows, huge doorways. But when all is said and done there seems to be no looseness about his prints. It must be admitted that they are technically perfect but there can be such a thing as dullness. In "Lace in Stone", he reaches a pinnacle of superb craftsmanship.

Sears Gallagher (1869) and Gifford Beal (1879) portray the fisherman of New England. The latter is a painter-etcher who has brought from the canvas a fine sense of composition and a grand suggestion of color. There is a great deal of human interest in his work.

It is needless to mention Frank W. Benson (1862) in terms of greatness. A significant fact, one worth remembering, is that his drypoints are generally considered superior to his etchings.

For those of you who have come out of the Middle West, the prairie land, rolling along for miles and miles, nothing in sight except a single railroad track and endless telegraph poles; that is the art of Andrew R. Butler (1896), quiet, and interesting, technically sound. In the village store you can almost live and see the checker-game by the stove, the people coming in for their mail, housewives for the daily rations. He is a new man in the field of etching and one to watch carefully. Kerr Eby (1889) has come fast around the bend. He is now entering the stretch where it is expected that he will do his best. "Harbor Lights" and "Night Loading", both have for their subjects an old schooner, making for a most perfect print. For those of you who like dark backgrounds, these prints will create an appetite so gluttonous that should you see them you will probably purchase instantly. This man has also given us his impressions of the coast of Brittany in such a delicate composition of color that his prints fairly breathe quietness and nicety. His work shows a remarkable feeling for design.

It would be hard to eliminate Childe Hassam (1859) from being a household name. His art is contained in himself. For years he has been making East Hampton, Long Island, his summer home, and it is from that town and the surrounding ones that we get most of Mr. Hassam's art. He loves the out-of-doors, light and space. "The Big Horse Chestnut" is really and truly American to the core; it will live through the ages. It is a fact that when his etchings are bereft of human figures they are a great deal better. Mr. Hassam has never quite been able to control the needle so cleverly with flesh as he does with nature.

One of America's leading painters, who unfortunately takes less interest in etchings, is Edward Hopper. He depicts American scenes as they appear to him, either in raw and bleak countrysides or unlovely city aspects. It is a pity that he has failed to bring out a single plate in the last four years. Who knows but that his next will contain much of the potential ability that he has been storing up these many days.

Among the newer etchers coming to the fore, Abbo Ostrowsky stands as one whose chief interest lies in defining the actual forms with his needle rather than suggesting them by means of shadows. This is apparent whether his subject matter is the quaint, beautiful old-world towns, or the American landscape.

Should Florence and Venice disappear from the face of the earth, in a moment's time we would have a most excellent conception of what they had both looked like from every angle. Ernest Roth (1880) has etched these two cities from every vantage point. He is a stickler for detail and his tone is a most delicate one,-a combination necessary for a successful plate.

Not so prolific, but a keen lover of Venice and Florence, is Herman Webster (1878). Before the war this delightful etcher was ready to produce work which would have stood any test. Unfortunately, he met with an accident to his eyes in battle and for seven years he withstood the urge to etch in order that he could rest his eyes in preparation for the time when he knew he would be ready. Of late, he has given to the world a new set of Venetian prints. Perhaps those years of bleakness, full of pent-up ideas, terrific straining, made him a better etcher; for, in contrast to his earlier plates, these later ones are superior. In Mr. Webster's plates there is light, there is color; and how vociferous seem the passing gondolas, the people and the barges!

Native New Yorkers familiar with the everpresent hurdy-gurdy, the strains of "The Sidewalks of New York", the toots and the whistles of the neighborhood merry-go-round, the everfamiliar rolling of hoops by little girls; these are some of the pictures that John Sloane (1871) renders. It is not for me to say whether he ranks high; it is sufficient to say that he gives us what we like, what is as representative of our present life as Meryon's prints were of the Parisians of 1821.

Charles Herbert Woodbury (1864) etches a picture that is a picture. He claims himself that his light stands for sensation as the ordinary word does for an object. You will agree that he is correct if you but see anything he has done, with water in the foreground. Water that is real, water splashing, shimmering, casting shadows, churning to the slice of an oar and casting off in circles before the bow of a small boat; to make the ordinary man feel these impressions is the personification of realness, genuineness.

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