Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Original etchings by American Artists

I’ve posted before about Sylvester Rosa Koehler and his role as godfather of the American Etching Revival – the revival that consolidated (in the late 1870s and 1880s) around the New York Etching Club. Now I have a copy of one of his rarest and most sought-after publications, Original Etchings by American Artists, published in 1883 by Cassell and Company. There is no indication that I can see of any limitation, but the print-run must have been quite small, both because the book is so rare now and because it is very large and would have inevitably have been extremely expensive when issued. I say book, but my copy has completely disintegrated, mostly through time, and also because 4 of the 20 original etchings have been previously removed. Luckily, the remaining etchings are all in very good condition, and I also have all of Koehler’s informative if sometimes rather waffly text. The four missing plates are The Inner Harbor, Gloucester by Stephen Parrish; The Ponte Vecchio by Joseph Pennell; A Cloudy Day in Venice by Samuel Colman; and A Tower of Cortes by Thomas Moran. Fortunately the rest of the Moran clan have been left for me, so I have a highly atmospheric Long Island landscape by Thomas’s wife Mary Nimmo Moran (with a wincingly twee title, taken from a Scottish ballad), and a true masterpiece by his brother Peter, Harvest at San Juan, New Mexico.

Mary Nimmo Moran, "'Tween the Gloamin' and the Mirk, When the Kye Come Hame"
Etching, 1883

Henry Farrer, Winter Evening
Etching, 1883

John Austin Sands Monks, Twilight
Etching, 1883

Of the three twilight scenes above, that of Mary Nimmo Moran is my favourite. Despite the Scottish title, the scene is on Long Island, where Thomas and Mary Nimmo Moran habitually spent their summers.

Kruseman van Elten, The Deserted Mill
Etching, 1883

R. Swain Gifford, The Mouth of the Apponigansett
Etching, 1883

James D. Smillie, At Marblehead Neck
(also known as A Bit at Marblehead Neck)
Etching, 1883

James Craig Nicoll, The Smugglers' Landing Place
Etching, 1883

George H. Smillie, An Old New England Orchard
Etching, 1883

J. Foxcroft Cole, The Three Cows
Etching, 1883

Original Etchings by American Artists shows a snapshot of American printmaking at a crucial time; all of the etchings were made especially for this work, and many are dated 1883 in the plate. The artistic and technical skill on display is very impressive, even if Koehler’s insistence that each etching is a masterpiece needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Impressionism hasn’t yet made any impact, and the key influence on the American landscapes, which predominate, is the plein-air Barbizon School. There are a couple of whimsical subjects: Church’s take on an Aesop fable and Gaugengigl’s faux-Meissonier fiddler. There are also four European scenes, one in Florence and one in Venice that have been removed, plus scenes in London and the Hague by Platt and de Haas. Of these, Platt's Whistler-esque scene of barges on the Thames at Woolwich seems to me particularly noteworthy.

Frederick Stuart Church, The Lion in Love
Etching, 1883

Ignaz Marcel Gaugengigl, And Drive Dull Care Away
Etching, 1883

Charles Adams Platt, Canal Boats on the Thames
Etching, 1883

Mauritz Frederick Hendrik de Haas, Fishing Boats on the Beach at Scheveningen
Etching, 1883

There are also three plates of particular interest for American social life and culture rather than landscape. Frederick Dielman’s The Mora Players, shows Italian immigrant children playing the ancient finger-counting game of mora or morra, in which the winner is the one who correctly guesses the total number of fingers simultaneously displayed by the two players. Koehler writes, “Italian bootblacks playing ‘mora,’ and yet a thoroughly American scene, enacted on a New York sidewalk!”

Frederick Dielman, The Mora Players
Etching, 1883

Thomas Waterson Wood, His Own Doctor
Etching, 1883

Thomas Waterson Wood’s His Own Doctor shows “an exhorter in a Methodist church and a ‘professor’ of white-washing” self-medicating against a fever. Wood’s African-American scenes show him to have had a keen sympathy with his subjects. However, to me his portrait of an infirm elderly African-American overplays the comic element. The hint of caricature detracts from the sharp observation of details such as the quilt robe.

Peter Moran Harvest at San Juan, New Mexico
(also known as Threshing Grain at San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico Territory)
Etching, 1883

Peter Moran’s Harvest at San Juan is to me an incredibly beautiful, important, and moving work. Peter Moran was one of the first artists to come to terms with the American Southwest, and in this etching he responds with grace and respect to the ancient cultures of the Pueblos. There is nothing here of the comedy to be found in Thomas Waterman Wood’s His Own Doctor. Nor is there any false romanticism. Sentimentality and guilt have no place in this etching, which focuses completely on the spiritual weight of the here and now. The centripetal force of this composition intrigues and delights me. Sylvester Rosa Kohler explains the scene thus: “The Indians use horses instead of oxen to thresh their wheat, and they are just driving them into the threshing circle indicated by the upright poles. The ground occupied by the horses is the cleaning floor, the raised ground which forms part of a circle in the foreground, is the earth banked up in levelling the floor, and the refuse of several years threshing.” Peter Moran seems to have instinctually understood that he was observing something with more meaning than a simple harvest, for he invests the scene with a thrilling sense of significance. The traditional method of threshing depicted seems to have been discontinued from 1920, replaced by the use of a threshing machine.

The setting for Harvest at San Juan is the New Mexican Pueblo now officially known by its Tewa name of Ohkay Owingeh (“place of the strong people”). This was the birthplace of the great 17th-century Pueblo spiritual and political leader Po’pay (or Popé), who briefly united the Pueblos against Spanish rule. I have, quite separately from my print collecting and dealing, a strong interest in Native American culture, and Peter Moran’s etching speaks eloquently to me—as eloquently as the Tewa “Song of the Sky Loom”, as translated by Herbert Joseph Spinden in his Songs of the Tewa:

Oh our Mother the Earth, oh our Father the Sky,
Your children are we, and with tired backs
We bring you the gifts that you love.
Then weave for us a garment of brightness;
May the warp be the white light of morning,
May the weft be the red light of evening,
May the fringes be the falling rain,
May the border be the standing rainbow.
Thus weave for us a garment of brightness
That we may walk fittingly where birds sing,
That we may walk fittingly where grass is green,
Oh our Mother the Earth, oh our Father the Sky!


Jane Librizzi said...

Neil, Thomas Waterson Wood's "His Own Doctor" is an arresting image, especially in this company. The quilting on the robe is beautifully done.
Once I got past the overly cute title, the Mary Nimmo Moran work really does deserve pride of place as the most satisfying landscape of the grouo.
Technical merits aside, these works suggest that these American artists were longing to be in Europe. Even the cows look French to me - les vaches!

Atelier Conti said...

What an incredible find Neil. Congratulations! Your collection of prints is just astonishing. The Harvest print is just beautiful. I also like very much The Smugglers Landing Place. So evocative. I was particularly happy to see Mary Nimmo Moran's charming etching. We have so few women represented during most of art history. To Jane's point on Americans longing to be in Europe, if you haven't read "The Greater Journey" by David McCullough, you should have a look at it. It's fascinating.

Neil said...

Thanks, Jane. I think some of these artists were quite conflicted about wanting both to create a new, distinctly American, art, and yet still looking longingly at the Old World. The influence of the French Barbizon School is very strong. Joseph Foxcroft Cole studied in the atelier of the Barbizon artist Charles Jacque, where he frequently met others Barbizon artist, including Corot, Troyon, Diaz, and Daubigny.

Neil said...

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris sounds fascinating, Nancy. It seems to be out of print at the moment, but I shall see if I can find a copy. The Mary Nimmo Moran is the best of hers I have seen. She gets those strong atmospheric effects with use of the roulette; I think she also went at the copper plate with sandpaper. Sometimes she uses a mezzotint rocker, too, though not on this particular plate.

Anonymous said...

pretty nice blog, following :)

Neil said...

Thanks, Skyline. I have some new posts in the pipeline...

Jen Wolcott said...

I picked up an etching by J Foxcroft Cole in a Junk shop, discolored by the pine backing boards, signed in the plate. no date, no title, no edition numbers, and here it is. "The Three Cows". There is another member of this edition (?) in the Addison Museum at the Phillips Academy.
Do you know for sure that the prints were made just for this book or might some artists have reprinted older plates? I had been guessing the print dated from his time in europe in the 1860s given the "dutch" flat landscape.

Neil said...

That's a nice find, Jennifer. I believe all the etchings were previously unpublished and that all were made specially for the book, but you never know. I take your point about the "Dutch" landscape. It's perfectly possible the plate dates from before Cole's return to American in 1877, but it's equally likely he simply continued to produce work in a European idiom after his return.