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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Print Collecting - Chronology, Artist Versus Publisher

( Originally Published 1932 )

I have already dwelt on the subject of recommending certain specimens to be used as the nucleus of a collection. It is generally admitted that chronology must assume a most prominent part in attempting to bring about an interest in prints. In adopting this idea the young collector has the opportunity of limiting himself, if he pleases, to a particular artist to the exclusion of the rest. It would be vain to affect to tell him what his outlay would be in the attainment of a little collection because at first there is no mention of the number of specimens. The question of greater or less amount of expenditure will depend on who the more favored artist may happen to be.

For example, our present-day masters-the Englishmen, McBey, Bone, Brockhurst; the Frenchman, Forain; the Americans, Benson, Hassam, and Heintzelman-would necessarily make for more expenditure than the ten thousand others who are merely catalogued as names. However, it may be correctly assumed that a very respectable collection of prints by the artists named, embracing one, two or three samples of each, sufficient to show their varieties of style and modes of working, may be attained for a less sum than that at which the auctioneer now and then knocks down some one little choice painting of two feet square.

Adhering to the systematic way of collecting that has been recommended, there is a little apprehension, I think, that the collector will, by injudicious purchases, by amassing things that, as he grows wiser, he repents having bought, or by other accidents incident to proceeding in the dark, become disgusted with the hobby. On the contrary, he will ever be able, as he progresses, to look back with satisfaction on his acquisitions and feel a continually growing love of his pursuit and a continually increasing attachment to its objects. He will, by degrees, discover what artists best suit his fancy and he will perhaps find some so attractive that he will not be able to resist extending his collection of their works beyond the few samples he contemplated when setting out.

It is only right to say that during the progress of collecting, the ordinary person will be continually meeting with prints by artists who do not fit into the category of being worthy of having representative prints in one's collection. It is not wise to say also that a curb should be put upon this excursive disposition, but only to suggest that it should not be indulged until practice under competent training shall have conferred sufficient experience and judgment to justify breaking away from the leading strings.

A collector should never be impatient. It is better to have an occupation rather than a longing. One should wait for an opportunity and have the courage to seize it when offered. In making this last statement I mean it to apply to an experienced person more than to a beginner. In other words, it refers to things with which the young collector should not meddle in the beginning. When a collection has acquired a respectable bulk, it is time enough to look out for a few very choice and rare specimens. There are some prints not often seen that, of themselves, give value to a collection and lift it above the average. Once during a year a great print may find its way into the market. It never lacks a ready customer.

It is superfluous to observe that the price which such great prints would bring is such as to narrow competition for them. It is not wise to add these to the collection until a collection itself becomes worthy of them. This small portfolio that we have in mind would take years to form, years more in improving, and these years would be full of enjoyment without, on the one hand any painful craving, and without, on the other hand, any sense of satiety,-and the total outlay spread over so long and pleasurable a period should not be more than any person in moderately easy circumstances would be justified in paying for so rational a pursuit without any feeling of selfreproach or repentance.

I have indicated how greatly prints of a high class have increased in value. The rise has been such as to justify the hope that a collection having a considerable proportion of such examples should on the whole show a profit. Only when a collector places himself completely in the hands of a dealer, whose integrity and earnestness is beyond question, do we find anything near what might be termed a completely valuable collection.

The owner of an ordinary collection must not indulge so mercantile a spirit, or be so close an economist, as to expect interest for his money. He must consider that he has been all along receiving interest, in the shape of pleasure afforded to him by the enjoyment of his possessions. There is a question which the young collector will be desirous of asking. It is whether there be a reasonable ground to expect that ancient prints will be expected to rise in value or even maintain their present price, or whether they will be so excelled by modern improvements in art that by degrees they will cease to be held in esteem. There is no denying that if any given number of persons-other than artists or, connoisseurs-who have never been accustomed to ancient art, but to whom the splendid glories of our modern print publishers are familiar, were these persons invited to look through a folio of prints even of the finest class executed during the first two centuries after the invention of the art, nine out of ten of them would probably entertain a very mean opinion of their worth. It must further be admitted that if the finest old print was in this day published for the first time, it would find but few purchasers.

Notwithstanding this, I am inclined to believe that these old works will not only maintain their credit but continue to rise, as they have done, more and more in value. This expectation is based on several considerations. First, their in trinsic excellence which is visible enough to men of taste and judgment, though it may not be so to the multitude, but which will naturally be more and more appreciated as taste and judgment grow. Second, their scarcity, from which it follows that a few buyers are sufficient to keep up the price. Scarcity must increase more and more from several causes, such as casualties to which such things are liable; their wider dissemination, the occasional withdrawal of them into permanent depositories.

This last cause of scarcity threatens to operate very powerfully. National collections are now being formed by governments who never until lately turned their attention to the subject. We must look to Europe to find the real beginning of print collections. In 1844 the national collection of Berlin was rising into notoriety more from the energy displayed in the formation of it than from the number or importance of its acquirements in its yet infant state. At the same time a similar observation is applicable to, in a greater or less degree, the Royal and National collections of Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam, Dresden, and Munich.

Here in our country we did not take any steps to imitate Europe, until 1864, when the Brooklyn Art Association held the first exhibition of prints in this country. Eight years later, in 1872, a single engraving was presented to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and this single engraving represented the museum's entire print collection until 1874 when a bequest by Charles Sumner increased the total to eighty-five. By numerous small gifts and loans the collection grew from this modest beginning and, in 1887, a print department was established with a curator in charge. From then until now the gathering of prints has taken on such colossal importance that some 1 oo,ooo original prints are now in the museum. It was not until December, 1916, that the trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art created a print department. This gives a rough estimate of how far behind Europe we are at the present time. It is only within the past ten years that we have been able to do a bit of catching up.

The third and last circumstance to be noticed, as conspiring to uphold the value of prints executed during the early years of the art, is a certain security which they seem to enjoy against any rivalry in those qualities in which their excellence seems to consist. This last remark calls for some explanation. It is in the higher qualities of the art that our observations must be applied to drawing, simplicity of means, intellectual effect.

It is not to be supposed that I am entertaining an opinion as to lack of modern ability. On the contrary, I am willing to believe that there may be engravers of our time and in our own country who are capable, or who could make themselves capable, of executing works equal to any the old art can show. I am not inclined to engage in the invidious task of drawing comparisons between the ancients and the moderns.

I merely desire to notice some of the characteristic peculiarities of each, and to contrast the system and circumstances under which the works of the old school were produced with the circumstances and system of the present time. In this comparison, for the sake of brevity, only the best artists of the best periods of art will be considered. In other words, to those artists by whom are produced the works which gave rise to the discussion, the works which are considered secure from rivalry, and in regard to the modern system, there is no reference to the present state of art but to its prospects only.

Up to the period when the great Boydellunable to support his own reputation as an engraver-turned to dealing in publications of others, engravers had been themselves the publishers of their own works; each employed himself, for the most part, according to the natural bent of his own genius, curbed but little by mercantile restraint and ignorance and not compelled to labor against time.

The followers and improvers in the new line of trade, which Boydell chalked out, hold in their hands in great measure the reputations and fortunes of the engravers. The latter can never enter a gallery without the helping hand of this gentleman usher. These individuals nowadays influence the public's mind materially and, in many cases, unfortunately their interest requires that they cater to the prevailing taste rather than attempt to correct it or create a better one. It has become perfectly hopeless for an engraver to attempt to be his own publisher. An article offered to the public must be fostered into public notice through the medium of the class whose trade this is. The print publisher can frequently force into notice what may best answer his purpose independent sometimes of intrinsic merit. The dealers also have a united power for repression which merit is helpless to stand up against. They are the best judges of what subjects will be popular; they command all the capital embarked in print speculation. Hence it arises that, of very many of the most important prints, they are the originators. In many cases they dictate the subject, perhaps also the mode of treating it. The public is not indisposed to pay handsomely provided it receives for its money a fine show thing with elaborate execution. This last statement has perhaps worn itself out since the turn of the century for, in this country today, it is only the cheaper shops that contain showy things which have not the elaborate execution of the prints of yester-year. It does not follow, however, that the dealers have lost their hold. On the contrary, the publisher is naturally impatient to begin to realize; the engraver must therefore work against time. The artist who is requested to produce a plate of this sort uses manual dexterity and immense labor rather than talent; for talent is shown not in multiplying and complicating the means but in simplifying them; also, in producing the greatest effect in the most intelligible manner and with the least apparent effort.

The artist who is requested, by the publisher, to produce a plate prematurely prepared in design, size, paper, price and other phases, cannot but feel that he is placed in a degrading position, for he is sacrificing talent to commercial demands. If he has a real love for his art and if he is well educated in it, with an ambition to excel, you may well realize the condition of his mind when working upon something created almost by a machine. He cannot but feel that he is, at best, a foreman working under a master to whose control his own superior taste and judgment are compelled to submit. The first process towards engraving a plate, according to the most usual practice at present, is to etch the subject. A number of impressions are taken from the etching.

These are generally distributed to certain well known clients, perhaps one or two dealers in the trade, rather than with a view to sales. The engraving then follows and when finished, all but the signature at the foot is included. A number of impressions are taken off and these are called "proofs before signature". The signature is then added in faint, open letters and a further number of impressions are printed. Whatever the price of the print from the fully-finished plate may be, the first proofs are frequently charged at treble. In the old days the number of proofs taken extended to a degree that makes that term "proof" perfectly farcical. Some 500 proofs were printed from Raimbach's plate of Wilkie's, "Blindman's Buff". Today, however, an artist limits his production to, at the most, one hundred and fifty impressions and rarely even that. Copper plates become frequently worn down upon a succession of proofs being taken off. In this position the prints are slightly lighter in tone and class than those pulled at first. By limiting the number of impressions to one hundred and fifty or less, it is seldom that the plate must be retouched or repaired.

This eliminates a practice which may be done innumerable times until the call for impressions ceases. Such is the case with some oŁ the Rembrandt and Whistler plates. They have come down to us from past centuries and they are at the mercy of any unscrupulous person into whose hands they may have fallen. It is needless to say that hundreds of impressions have been taken from these over-worked plates.

Let us now, by way of contrast, take a summary of the system by which prints were produced during the earlier eras of the art. The old artist, in a great majority of instances, was at once a painter, engraver, printer and publisher. Generally speaking, he selected his own subject. He embodied his first thought in color on paper as he thought fit. He himself with his own hands transferred it to the copper. Sometimes, indeed, he originated it on the plate. He then perfected it, infusing at every touch the single, individual soul of the first conception, unmixed, undivided in all its complete unity.

If the engraver was not himself a painter, but a translator only of the first artist, he considered it necessary, in order duly to exercise this secondary profession, to acquire as a ground work the most important quality that goes to make up a good painter. Especially he thought it indispensable to make himself perfectly proficient in drawing. Further, he was impressed with the great importance of forming an intimate acquaintance with the mind of his original. He so studied his original as to imbibe a kindred spirit, to engender a communion of soul as existed between Marc Antonio and Raphael, between Bolswert and Reubens. The painter himself anxiously superintended the translation as it progressed, occasionally touching it with his own hand to perfect the idea. So entirely did the old engravers incorporate themselves with the original, so perfectly did they assimilate its spirit, that they ventured many times to act as if this idea were real, and they made alterations and improvements such as they felt their original would have done had he himself been engraving his work.

An instance of this is the work of Agostino Corocci. The main example of that great master's efforts in this line was "The Ecstasy of St. Francis", after Francis Vani. In this print Agostino has greatly improved the design of his original. The superior artist possessed himself of the whole idea of the painter, felt what was intended to be expressed, but which appeared inadequately carried out. He extended and perfected what the painter had conceived but wanted talent to express. That the design of the plate should be the labor of his own hand, led the ancient engraver to produce great effect by small means; to know how much it was needful to express and how much was better left to the imagination.

His judgment did not suggest nor did the taste of his age require that his whole paper be covered with microscopic working. He compensated for this by consummate knowledge and skill, by masterly touches and he contrived to leave long spaces of white paper untouched; but he gave more to the general effect than if he had loaded them with lines. He knew that minuteness of detail often diminished effect and he felt that the truth had been proclaimed applicable to such a subject twenty centuries before by the old Greek poet Hesoid, "It is better to learn a little well."

It is fully understood by intelligent connoisseurs that when a universal redundancy of labor appears such as present-day taste seems to require, it is not a cause for praise. They are rather prone to make for it a sort of apology with an implied admission that its tendency is prejudicial.

Having finished his plate, the artist did not contentedly dismiss it from his care. I speak in general terms because no specific instances seem to warrant it. He selected the paper for receiving the impression, choosing the texture and tint best harmonizing with his work. He himself condescended to ink the plate, exercising even in this almost menial department a science and judgment equal to any exhibited in the prior stages; and mind, this stage is of great importance in completing a plate. In many of the finest etchings the important advantages arising from this practice alone are apparently independent of the other excellences. The artist also arranged and regulated the press in his own house with his own hands and lastly he himself in due maturity of time published his work to the world. Invented and carried to its perfection by one mind and one hand, the print exhibited the effect of one continuously sustained feeling and intelligence, and sparkled forth all intellect, life and spirit.

The evil of the system which has grown up is very generally felt and admitted. Everyone seems contented to believe that it can not be prevented and that it is without hope of remedy. The print publishers assure us that they are compelled to resort to and encourage expedients that are so much to be regretted by reason of the great cost of publishing a plate. According to general feeling, the expense has increased far beyond the proportion to be expected from the change of times. Such blandishments are not to be taken as the criterion of the present day, simply because there are some artists whose publishers are content to let them lead their own thoughts to a successful conclusion, represented by a fine plate.

The circumstances that have been detailed, and the observations that have been made, will sufficiently explain the grounds on which we may form the hope that prints by the old masters will continue for an indefinite period of time to remain secure from rivalry in those high qualities of art in which their excellence consists. To emancipate art from its incongruous alliance with commercial speculation will require more disinterestedness, more intelligence, more singleness of purpose, more self-denial, more independence, more lofty motives.

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