Etching is a process art. Definite steps produce it, change it, bring it into being. A warm copper or zinc plate is covered with an asphalt substance. The substance cools and hardens on the plate and can then be drawn into with a stylus. The plate will then be submerged in acid until etched in the exposed areas, then inked, wiped and printed. Most of the work seen here was printed by a professional printer, since presses are expensive, and unwieldy. The one thing required to etch is the ability to draw, and the prints in “Etching Revival” truly attest to that.
This particular exhibit hinges largely on landscapes, the choice of the era. Portraits are amazing in their detail (better seen with the magnifying glasses provided by the museum). There is only one print by the master draftsman Degas in simple,but perfect line. Other portraits, complete with delicately modeled features illustrate the scope to which etching offers the perfect medium for intimating personality.
Dock scenes are popular here, seascapes, forests, modest farm homes, the workers in the field, and, of course, Venice. Venice was the favored tramping ground of James Whistler, followed by Duveneck and “Duveneck’s Boys” which led to one of the many tales of Whistler’s career. Duveneck was not known in the heady world of Whistler’exhibits and when one of Duveneck’s prints somehow appeared in a show titled as Whistler’s, it became one of Whistler’s many sore points. However the prints of Duveneck and his followers were very similar to Whistler’s, easily acknowledged in this show.
While truly celebrated artists’ names pop up everywhere, not necessarily recognizable in prints, etchings served several purposes. As Van Gogh said in a letter to his brother, Theo, “The act of printing has always seemed to me as a miracle….One drawing is sown on the etching plate….and a harvest is reaped from it.” This ease of distribution was a public relations bonanza. It was a way to become known and promote collections. To Van Gogh it was seen more importantly as a way to provide the average family with art.
The art form became quite popular in the late l9th century. Etching clubs and publications abounded. In the hall overlooking the main entrance to the CAM, are the works of the Cincinnati Etching Club, begun by Mary Louise McLaughlin as the second American etching club after the New York Etching Club. It didn’t last long, but some truly fine work is seen here.
The Barbizon artists exhibited here, Corot, Millet, and even Daubigny, produced works in which the play of lights, darks and patterns in nature were masterfully treated. These pieces in particular offer an opportunity to examine the styles of familiar masters. Most obvious is the work of Corot in comparison to others in the group. He takes the marks as casually as the brush work in his paintings, paying little attention to the gravel in the road as much as to the depth of black in the trees beside it. Everything is looser, more confident, and brushier
than his fellow artists. In fact, notice the difference in etchings by names associated most with painting, and those who stuck to prints and drawing. That brushy quality keeps emerging as the painters interpret a scene. This same ease is evident in the later works shown as more innovative and experimental steps in printing become known.
Then, there is the matter of “states”. Scratched on copper is not written in stone. Etchings can easily be changed with a burin. There is a table available showing the tools and materials used in the process and the burin is the eraser. With a smooth rounded side, lines and areas may be deleted or altered simply by burnishing them smooth. Or lines not as deep and dark as intended can be reworked after a proof is run. The plate is never finished until it’s cancelled.
In a room full of names like Twachtman, Blum, Meakin, Farny,
Whistler, etc., it’s easy to slip by lesser known participants. Some brave forays outside the box beg a serious examination: Camille Pissaro’s wooded view which was worked down into an abstract composition of branches ( in eight stages) is more than intriguing. So is the Henry Moore-ish etching by Winslow Homer of two statuesque girls simply drawn and worked with linear modeling. It didn’t sell, and Homer never made another etching.
There are 100 pieces of art history on display telling a story of an era and discovery.
Much is said today of “looking” at art. Not just walking by and judging, but taking in every stroke, every nuance and color variation. “Looking” at this show is a reward
you owe yourself.