National Museum of American Art

Washington, D.C.

(202) 633-8998


Singular Impressions: The Monotype in America

April 4 - August 3, 1997


The first comprehensive exhibition of monotypes in America will be presented at the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, through August 3, 1997. "Singular Impressions: The Monotype in America" will feature more than 125 examples of this fascinating printmaking medium, in which a painted image is transferred through pressure to a sheet of paper, producing a unique impression. The exhibition will bring together works by 19th-century artists such as William Merritt Chase, Charles Alvah Walker and Frank Duveneck; key examples by Maurice Prendergast and Albert Sterner, who were among the first to make color monotypes; and works by artists of recent decades including Jacob Kainen, Richard Diebenkorn, Eric Fischl and Jasper Johns.

"Never have American monotypes been studied so completely as Dr. Joann Moser has done in preparation for this exhibition and the accompanying book," said Elizabeth Broun, director of the National Museum of American Art. "Now we are able to understand why this process has intrigued artists here for more than a century." Charles Alvah Walker invented the term "monotype" about 1880, although monotypes were made in Europe as early as the 17th century. While Walker and Albion Bicknell were exploring the process in the Boston area, Frank Duveneck and John White Alexander were among the first to experiment with the medium while working in Florence and Paris -- popular cities for American artists and students. The March 1899 edition of The Quartier Latin, the publication of the American Art Association in Paris, noted that making monotypes had become a favorite pastime among its members. Made in the spirit of improvisation and, often, as a group activity, monotypes encouraged a more spontaneous approach than was usual for artists trained in academic traditions.

Neither American artists abroad nor those in this country adopted the monotype as their primary art form, but instead experimented with it in conjunction with other drawing or printmaking activities. In the United States, the growing interest in the monotype developed soon after the etching revival of the late 1870s. Walker and Bicknell began their monotypes by making a sketch, and then translating it into a more finely composed and larger work. However, most artists worked without preparatory drawings.

As monotypes became more familiar, artists interested in Impressionism and urban realism began exploring the process. Prendergast began extending the possibilities of color printing of monotypes, creating full-color effects more closely related to painting than the earlier black-and-white examples. John Sloan, a member of the group of artists known as "The Eight," made monotypes for at least nine years, calling on his skills both as an etcher and painter. As artists left such cultural centers as Boston, New York and Paris in the early decades of the 20th century, they inspired interest in monotypes in San Francisco, Taos, Provincetown, and other places. By the early 1980s, unprecedented numbers of artists were attracted to the monotype.

Painters discovered a more spontaneous way to make prints; printmakers considered it a welcome alternative to the perfectly printed edition of identical images. Others began to approach the process in new ways, such as experimenting with large formats, while many used the "ghost" (a second, fainter print pulled from the ink or paint left on the plate after the initial printing). For many artists today, monotypes have become a favorite process.

"At every stage in my research, I considered why artists made monotypes," said Joann Moser, the museum's senior curator of graphic arts and exhibition organizer. "I was amazed to find that artists continued to find the same qualities appealing: its spontaneity, its potential for chance effects and its flexibility."

A comprehensive catalog, written by Moser, has been published by the museum and Smithsonian Institution Press. The 224-page book featuring 100 color and 100 half-tone illustrations, is the first reference on American monotypes. The book is available in hardcover for $60 and in softcover for $35 ($48/$28 for museum members). A free brochure also accompanies the exhibition.

In conjunction with "Singular Impressions," the museum has produced a short video demonstrating the monotype process. Narrated by National Public Radio's Scott Simon, it will run continuously at the exhibition entrance.

The exhibition is made possible by the William R. and Nora H. Lichtenberg Foundation and by the Smithsonian's Special Exhibition Program. The National Museum of American Art, the first federal museum, is located in the historic Old Patent Office Building at Eighth and G Streets, N.W. in Washington, D.C., above the Gallery Place Metrorail station. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily and admission is free. For more information, call (202) 357-2700; (202) 357-4522 (TTY); (202) 633-9126 (Spanish recording).


Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 1997 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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