New-York Historical Society

New York, NY




Forgotten Etchers: Nineteenth-Century Prints from the Collection of Reba and Dave Williams

October 6, 1998 - January 10, 1999


Henry Pruett Share (1853-1905), after Milton James Burns (1853-1933), Homeward Bound, 1885, etching


Reba and Dave Williams' collection of American prints numbers over 5,000, includes 2,000 artists, and is thought to be the largest of its type in private ownership. A new exhibition from this collection, opening at the Historical Society on October 6, 1998, features 19th-century American prints.

The exhibition includes many little-known or remembered "lost" artists of the period, such as Blanche Dillaye (1851-1932), William St. John Harper (1851-1910), William L. Lathrop (1859-1938), Anna Massey Lea Merritt (1844-1930) and Charles Yardley Turner (1850-1918). Rare works by well-known artists are also represented, including a Thomas Nast (1840-1902) self-portrait, Thomas Moran's(1837-1926) Mountain of the Holy Cross and Winslow Homer's (1836-1910) The Signal of Distress, perhaps the only extant copy of this print.

The exhibition also contains skilled reproductive etchings-those made as copies of paintings-a genre rarely on view in museums, such as a print by James S. King (1852-1925) after the painting Young Anglers by John Leon Moran (1864-1941).

Left: Frank M. Gregory (b.1848), Old Trinity & Wall Street, c. 1886, etching

The exhibition also focuses on New York printmakers and publishers. Etchings of New York on display include New York Harbor by Reginald Cleveland Coxe (1855-1926) and Old Trinity & Wall Street by Frank M. Gregory (b.1848). New York publishers represented in the exhibition include Christian Klackner, Bryan, Taylor & Co. and Fishel Adler & Schwartz. Other New York printmakers represented in the exhibition are Henry Farrer (1843-1903), Charles Frederick W. Mielatz (1864-1919), Walter Shirlaw (1838-1910) and Thomas Waterman Wood (1823-1903). The exhibition guest curator is Lauren Hewes.

Etching Revival

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century there was renewed interest among American artists in the creation of original etchings. Today termed the "Etching Revival," this period was characterized by a dramatic increase in the number of prominent painters who practiced the art of printmaking, particularly etching.

Right: Reginald Cleveland Coxe (1885-1926), New York Harbor, etching and drypoint

Etchings are prints which are made by scratching a design in a film of resin that covers a metal plate, usually copper. The plate is then placed in an acid bath which eats away at the exposed copper, creating grooves to hold ink. In the nineteenth century, the technique appealed to painters because they could draw freely and quickly in the resin film with a needle and were able to produce prints without the assistance of a professional printer.

Many artists took part in the American etching revival, and yet the etched work of only a few of the most outstanding individuals has been examined in detail. This exhibition brings together the work of over thirty lesser-known printmakers, individuals who are often overshadowed by the artists whose work set the standards of the day. Examination ofthese prints and the lives of the artists who created them permits a broader view of the etching revival movement and defines the nature of the participants more fully while also revealing the wide variety of prints produced in the era.

Left: Frederick W. Freer (1849-1908), Honeysuckle, c. 8887, etching and drypoint on silk

The Reba and Dave Williarns's Collection of American Prints

Reba and Dave Williams's print collection includes over 5,000 objects and focuses mainly on works created in the twentieth century. During their years of collecting, however, the couple also has acquired several hundred prints made in the nineteenth century, most of which date from the etching revival period.

The Williams's collection of nineteenth-century prints began with the acquisition of wood engravings by Winslow Homer, but today primarily reflects the collectors' ongoing interest in etchers whose work has dropped from critical and public attention. Through the collection and exhibition of the work of these "lost" artists, Reba and Dave Williams have revived interest in and helped advance the reputations of many forgotten American printmakers.

Right: William Henry Shelton (1840-1932), The Bugle Signal, 1885, etching

When asked about the nineteenth-century prints in their collection, Mr. Williams notes: "As with all of our print collecting, we quickly became interested in the less well known artists. That was easy with the nineteenth-century prints, because it seemed as if nearly all of the artists were less well known, or totally forgotten." He adds, with the eagerness of a collector enthused by his subject, "There's always more to see and to learn. The nineteenth century recedes further away as we approach the twenty-first century, but there are art treasures yet to be discovered from this period, and we'll continue to acquire them."

Reproductive Etchings

Many of the etchings produced in the 1880s and 1890s were intended to be purely reproductive and, as such, have long been ignored by scholars and collectors. However, consideration must be given to the fact that prints produced by all participants in the American etching revival are relevant to the formation of a complete definition ofthe era, whether the work captures a startling original vision or carefully renders the brushwork of another artist's painted composition.

Left: Henry Farber (1843-1903), Untitled (New York Dock Scene and Brooklyn in Distance), 1881, etching

Some reproductive prints are outstanding examples of the etching technique, and many reproductive etchers were among the more respected printmakers of their day. Their prints, while not original in composition, were often featured in exhibitions and sales as original etched work. The Williams's collection includes an excellent sampling of nineteenth-century reproductive etchings, most of which were produced and sold in New York City.


Rare Impressions

The Reba and Dave Williams's collection contains a number of unique and rare prints made by artists both well known and forgotten. Eight of these prints have been selected for inclusion in this exhibition. Although the prints were not all produced by "forgotten" printmakers (images by Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran are included among the rarities), the opportunity to exhibit prints of this caliber occurs so infrequently that exceptions were made in order to feature the rarest nineteenth-century impressions from the Williams's collection.

New York Printmakers and Publishers

In the United States, and especially in New York City, the decades between 1880 and 1900 were a time of great productivity and change. Modern factories and office buildings were built, new railroad lines linked the nation together, and thousands of immigrants were arriving on our shores.

At the same time, the New York art world was experiencing a period of unprecedented growth as the city became the center of the national art scene. Art students from around the country arrived to attend classes at the National Academy of Design or the Art Students League, and many remained to establish studios in town. Structures like the Tenth Street Studio Building were established to provide much needed work space for artists.

Organizations such as the Salmagundi Sketch Club and the New York Etching Club were formed in the city and held regular exhibitions and meetings. In addition, a national art market developed as entrepreneurial art dealers opened galleries and held auctions in New York, selling both European and native paintings and prints to eager American collectors.

In the 1880s, New York was also a center for print publishing. The publishers were mostly art dealers who at first considered income from prints as supplemental to their main business but, during this period, saw steady profits from the sale of etchings. The publisher Keppel & Co., for example, reported in 1875 that a mere 2% of gallery profits was generated by the sale of modern prints. In 1883, that percentage increased dramatically to 73% as more and more collectors and the general public purchased etchings. The "etching craze" was certainly profitable, and New York publishers helped to advance the national interest in print collecting by producing affordable and attractive prints for the buying public.

Text and images courtesy of the New York Historical Society

Read more about the New-York Historical Society in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 7/23/10

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