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.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

In the twilight zone: a mezzotint by Raphaël Drouart

Mezzotint is a method of creating a tonal intaglio image; the name means "half-tint" in Italian. The French term, manière noire ("black manner") expresses the particular nature of this printmaking method more clearly. The special quality of mezzotints is the the subtlety with which they graduate from purest black to white. For this reason the method is especially suited to muted and mysterious subjects, murky twilights and forbidden shadows. English readers will be familiar with the supernatural powers lurking in such a picture in M. R. James's classic ghost story "The Mezzotint".

Raphaël Drouart, Hermaphrodite et Salmacis
Mezzotint, 1922

Raphaël Drouart's mezzotint Hermaphrodite et Salmacis depicts just such a twilight moment. The story comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, though it is older than that. The fifteen-year-old Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, has left Mount Ida, and chanced upon the nymph Salmacis. For her, it is love at first sight, but Hermaphroditus rebuffs her. So the nymph waits for him to bathe in her pool and there, where she herself has semi-divine powers, she clasps him to her and begs the gods that they may be inseparably united. And so they become one dual-sexed being, the first hermaphrodite.

Raphaël Drouart, Faisans
Wood engraving, 1922

A painter and sculptor as well as printmaker, Raphaël Drouart took up printmaking after WWI, mastered every technique, and introduced many innovations of his own. Drouart was born in Choisy-le-Roi (Val de Marne), and studied under Fernand Cormon and Maurice Denis. Never a modernist, Drouart's art has its roots in Art Nouveau and Symbolism.

Raphaël Drouart, L'Été
Wood engraving in two colours (en camaïeu), 1924

Because the process of creating a mezzotint, using a tool known as a rocker, is extremely time-consuming and specialized, few twentieth century artists have favoured this method of printmaking. But although some of the effects of mezzotint can be mimicked in etching by use of a roulette and by mastery of aquatint, the mezzotint remains the most moody and mysterious of all printmaking techniques. Mario Avati is probably the most famous modern exponent of the process, but there are others. I've already posted about Georges Gorvel's atmospheric mezzotints of Paris under aerial bombardment in WWI. In a future post I will explore the work of two contemporary artists who favour the mezzotint over other intaglio methods, Michel Mathonnat and Michel Estèbe.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Scratching and biting: the art of Armand Coussens

The Provençal painter and printmaker Armand Coussens was born in Saint-Ambroix (Gard) in 1881. He studied at the Beaux-Arts, Nîmes, under Alexis Lahaye. Ambitious for his talented student, Lahaye encouraged Coussens to go to Paris to enter for the Prix de Rome. But the 7 years he spent in Paris from 1900 to 1907 were frustrating for the young artist, who spent his time studying the Impressionists and painting on the quais of the Seine, rather than following the stultifying course at the Beaux-Arts, Paris, which even at that date was still focussed on copying antique casts and intended to produce a new generation of history painters. Driven to despair by this academic approach, Coussens returned to Nîmes, to become professor of drawing at the Beaux-Arts there.

Armand Coussens, Amateurs d'estampes
Etching and aquatint, 1922

The nineteenth-century poet Thomas Hood, who trained as an engraver, wrote that etching "begins in a scratching and ends in a biting!" In this vividly expressive etching, Armand Coussens was certainly biting the hand that fed him. In the spirit of Daumier, it satirizes the very men on whom printmakers relied for their patronage, the "amateurs d'estampes". For such connoisseurs, print-collecting was a kind of competitive sport, in which refinement of taste was often tinged with snobbery and one-upmanship. Coussens, who began etching in 1912, had his first success in 1914 when he sold a plate to the master printer Vernant for a society of just such amateurs d'estampes. In 1919 the Musée du Luxembourg - where Coussens had spent so many days studying the Impressionist masters - bought eight etchings and a painting, as well as two watercolours by his wife, Jeanne Coussens, who had also studied under Alexis Lahaye. But this seems to have been the highwater mark of Coussens' career, and a sense of personal disappointment may lie behind the scratching and biting exhibited in Amateurs d'estampes. Although this etching and aquatint is in black only, Armand Coussens was an enthusiastic promoter of colour etchings, which were still regarded as inferior to black-and-white, despite the achievements of artists such as Raffaëlli in the previous generation. He died in Nîmes in 1935.