Monday, March 28, 2011

New York Etching Club: R. Swain Gifford

The first meeting of the New York Etching Club was convened on 2 May 1877 at the studio of James David Smillie. About twenty artists were present, half of whom had never etched before. The centerpiece of the evening was therefore a practical demonstration. Smillie laid a ground onto a small etching plate, on which an Algerian landscape was drawn with an etching needle by Robert Swain Gifford, the image was bitten into the plate by immersion in a tray of mordant, and then the plate was printed by the physician and amateur etcher Leroy Milton Yale. James D. Smillie remembered the occasion in a note in the first illustrated catalogue issued by the club: "The smear of thick, pasty ink was deftly rubbed into the lines just corroded, and as deftly cleansed from the polished surface; the damped sheet of thin, silky Japan paper was spread upon the gently warmed plate; the heavy steel roller of the printing press, with its triple facing of thick, soft blanket, was slowly rolled over it, and in another moment, finding scant room in the pressing crowd, the first-born of the New York Etching Club was being tenderly passed from hand to hand."

R. Swain Gifford, Algerian Landscape
(The first plate etched at the New York Etching Club)
Etching, 1877

The moment when that "first-born" proof emerged from Smillie's press heralded the dawn of the American Etching Revival, or the American Painter-Etcher Movement, which saw a craze for both making and collecting etchings sweep across the USA in the 1880s. The New York Etching Club was pre-eminent in this movement. Many of its members quickly established international reputations, and were also Fellows of Francis Seymour Haden's Society of Painter-Etchers, which was founded in 1880, and in 1888 became the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers (now Painter-Printmakers). Within the USA, their reputations were sealed by publication of their etchings in the American Art Review, edited by Sylvester Rosa Koehler from 1879-1881. So although there were other active local organisations, including the Philadelphia Society of Etchers, the Brooklyn Scratchers Club, the Chicago Society of Etchers and so on, the name of the New York Etching Club has understandably been applied retrospectively to the whole American Etching Revival. Although an early proposal to change the name of the club to the Society of American Etchers was rejected, it would have been a sensible move. When a separate Society of American Etchers was formed in 1888, its 20 members were all also members of the New York Etching Club.

R. Swain Gifford, Summer Storm
Etching, 1879

I've been developing an interest in the artists of the New York Etching Club, and intend to devote individual posts to several of them. It seems to me that in embracing the art of etching, with its intrinsic affinity with a more sketchy and impressionistic style of art, these artists laid one of the foundation stones of American Impressionism (and, indeed, they were very shortly joined by such giants of that movement as John Henry Twachtman and J. Alden Weir). They were not, however, looking to the Impressionists for inspiration; instead, their artistic models were the painter-etchers of the earlier Barbizon School, themselves precursors of Impressionism.

R. Swain Gifford, A Woodland Pasture
Etching, 1888

It seems appropriate to start these posts with the artist who etched that "first-born" plate, R. Swain Gifford. Robert Swain Gifford was born on Naushon Island off Cape Cod in 1840, but when he was very young his family moved to New Bedford, Massachussetts. Showing an early talent for art, he studied under the Dutch marine painter Albert van Beest, then resident in New Bedford. Working as R. Swain Gifford, he achieved an international reputation for his oils, watercolors, and etchings.

R. Swain Gifford, Flowers
Etching, 1880

Gifford produced his first etchings in 1865 or 1866, but like many etchers of this date his interest petered out. Etching materials were hard to come by, there were no specialist printers, no community of interest, and no market for the end result.

R. Swain Gifford, Palestine
Etching, 1880

Despite travels to England, France, Spain, Italy, and perhaps most importantly North Africa and the Sahara Desert, R. Swain Gifford remains best known for his studies of his native New England. The etching "Coal-Pockets at New Bedford", for instance, was one of many local studies produced in the summer months when Gifford retreated from the city to his residence in Nonquitt, six miles from his childhood home of New Bedford.

R. Swain Gifford, Coal-Pockets at New Bedford, Mass.
Etching, 1879

One interesting feature of the Coal-Pockets etching is Gifford's choice of an industrial subject. Although the aesthetics of the image treat the coal storage tower as if it were a lonely windmill or ruined castle, it is still refreshing to find the modern world, and the world of work, represented in a New York Etching Club etching. Despite the name of the club, the city of New York had to wait for the Ashcan artists to be preferred as subject matter over the New York Etchers' endless romantic landscapes and seascapes.

R. Swain Gifford, The Path by the Shore
Etching, 1879

For all their conservative ideas about artistic subjects, the etchers of the New York Etching Club introduced a new rhythmic freedom of line and a new freshness of treatment into American art. The critic Sylvester Rosa Koehler wrote of R. Swain Gifford's etchings that, "He has learned to a high degree the art of saying much with little, and therefore makes every line tell." Gifford shows himself at his best, I think, in the atmospheric Summer Storm, and at his least interesting in the facile romanticism of The Baron of St. Castine.

R. Swain Gifford, The Baron of St. Castine
Etching, 1979

Robert Swain Gifford died in 1905.


Vincent said...

O, to have been alive in those days and to be a collector of such pieces, and to suggest to a young lady, “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?”

Neil said...

Vincent, I suspect not only the collectors but some of the artists may have used that line...

Groslier said...

Très belle gravures, merci de faire connaître ces œuvres là car elles ont beaucoup de qualités qui ne pas forcément facile à défendre aujourd'hui… je ne sais.
(Je ne suis pas de ce genre d'artistes ou de collectionneurs dont vous parler plus haut… ici on demanderait à une jeune fille de lui montrer sa collection de "papillons à vapeurs")

Neil said...

One of the things that strikes me about these New York etchers is that they are very confident in their role as American artists - although they're obviously influenced by Barbizon, you don't get the feeling that they feel in any way inferior. The Barbizon style was already passé in France, but still exciting and modern in the USA, and the New York Etching Club artists adapted it to the American landscape with verve and attack. I think they are well overdue for re-assessment.

Thomas, I like "papillons à vapeurs" - would that just mean a tray of mounted butterflies? Joking apart, I think the New York etchers were quite a correct bunch, and they are notable for welcoming women into their ranks - Mary Nimmo Moran is the most famous. By 1888 the Union League Club of New York could stage an exhibition of Work of the Women Etchers of America that included 500 prints by 35 artists.

Groslier said...

Il me semble que ce genre d'œuvres peuvent avoir aujourd'hui une véritable intérêt y compris pour de jeunes artistes, qui peuvent très bien interroger le réel comme le faisaient les artistes à Barbizon ou ailleurs. Certes, les "paysages"ont changer, le monde a changer, mais la réalité est toujours là, à notre disposition et elle souvent plus imaginative que nous…

Jane Librizzi said...

I can't recall hearing of the New York Etcher's Club before but I'll be interested to hear what connection there may have been between that group and the Tile Club, founded in autumn 1877. Gifford was a member of that group as well, ditto Weir and Twachtman. Ronald Pisano's fine book "The Tile Club" introduced me to them. Like the Luminist painters, they side-stepped Impressionism. Just as well, in my opinion.

Neil said...

Thomas - I think the key element here is a very precise and focussed act of looking.

Neil said...

Jane - I hadn't heard of the Tile Club, and must look up Pisano's book. These Victorian gentlemen certainly liked their clubs, and all the rules and regulations attached to them.

Jane Librizzi said...

Neil, the architect Stanford White, the artist Thomas Wilmer Dewing, and several other well-known turn-of-the-century Manhattanites also belonged to 'The Sewer Club', a group devoted to - as they put it - "frivolity." Suffice it to say that their wives didn't know about this club.

Neil said...

Jane - I have often stayed in New York in the Gramercy Park Hotel, which I believe is on the plot of Stanford White's home - and perhaps built over the Sewer Club also. Wasn't White murdered by a jealous love-rival?

The Clever Pup said...

Neil, my local junk store has "Path by the Shore" for $48.00. It looks original. Should I buy it.

Neil said...

Hazel, I think that's a bargain price, so if you like it, go for it. It's never going to have a big re-sale value, so it's definitely one to buy because you want to own it. Probably the best thing to buy what you love anyway.