Thursday, July 30, 2009

The paper of old prints

In previous blogs I have looked at the subject matter which appears in old prints, as well as the processes used to make them. Another important aspect of old prints is the paper upon which the impressions are made, so today we’ll take a look at this subject.

Prints have been made on papyrus, vellum, silk and other materials, but the vast majority of antique prints are made on paper. The quality and content of the paper has varied considerably over the years. Until the nineteenth century, paper was almost exclusively made from rags (primarily cotton or linen) which were soaked and stirred in vats until the fibers separated into a pulpy mixture that could be used to make sheets of paper. In the nineteenth century, wood pulp paper was developed, which used wood fibers. The wood pulp was created either by mechanical means (first developed about 1840) or shortly thereafter by chemical processes.

Rag paper is still being made but today the majority of paper is made from wood pulp, which is easier and less expensive to produce. Rag paper, however, is significantly superior. The fabric fibers are longer than wood fibers, which makes rag paper stronger. Also, wood pulp paper is usually acidic, which causes it to deteriorate over time, and also it contains significant amounts of lignin, which reacts to light and oxygen by yellowing. Rag paper is naturally non-acidic and it will last without deterioration as long as it is properly handled. This is, of course, why prints that are hundreds of years old are frequently found on almost pristine paper, while prints that are less than a century old are often brown and brittle.

There were two general types of processes used to made the paper pulp into sheets of paper. The first process creates what is called “laid paper.” Laid paper is made by the paper pulp being poured into a mold made of a wooden framework with a wire mesh on the bottom. Laid paper was made by hand and the size of the sheets limited by the practical size of the wooden mold. The way that laid paper can be recognized is by the pattern that is impressed into the paper by the wire mesh. If you hold up a sheet of laid paper to the light, you can see the pattern of the wires (called chain lines), which usually will have very closely spaced lines with crossing lines at wider intervals.

The fact that the wire mesh makes a pattern in laid paper led paper makers to attach wire designs, such as crests, dates or intials, to the mesh. This creates a matching design in the paper, called a “watermark,” and this can be used to help determine the date or manufacturer of the paper used in a print. It should be noted, however, that fake chain lines and watermarks can be put into sheets that are not actually laid-paper.

The other main type of paper is “wove paper.” This is mechanically-made paper, where the pulp is formed into paper on a woven belt. Wove paper, therefore, lacks chain lines. Though wove paper was invented in the eighteenth century and laid paper is still produced today, as a rule of thumb it can be said that the majority of prints made prior to 1800 are on laid paper and the majority of prints made subsequently are on wove paper.

Often when talking about a print, a size description will be used. These can be fairly simple, as in “octavo,” “quarto,” or “folio,” or they can be more complex such as “16mo.,” “royal octavo,” “large quarto,” “double folio,” and other similarly confounding phrases. Unfortunately, there is no standard definition of the sizes of antique prints and this can lead to considerable confusion. You can, however, achieve some understanding of these size idioms by learning the origin of the expressions.

The phrases used to describe print sizes originally applied to bound volumes and have since been derivatively bestowed on prints. In the earliest days of printing, the largest volumes produced were made from single sheets of hand-made paper folded once, thus making two leaves, or four pages. These are called "folio" volumes, after the Latin folium, meaning leaf. Volumes made with sheets of paper folded twice, creating four leaves, are called "quarto"; those made with thrice folded paper, forming eight leaves, are called "octavo"; those made with sheets folded four times, producing 16 leaves, are called "16mo."; and so on. This sounds simple enough, except for the fact that the size of sheets of paper varied considerably, creating an equal variation in the size of a folio or quarto or octavo book. Indeed, some quarto volumes are actually be bigger than some folio volumes made from different sized paper.

These book terms have, by common use, been transferred to paper and thus to prints. A folio volume is made from sheets of paper folded once, so a folio print is half the size of a full sheet of paper, and likewise a quarto print is one quarter the size of a full sheet, an octavo print one eighth size, and so on. A print made from an unfolded sheet of paper is called a "double folio" print.

Many prints were made which do not fit neatly into these size categories. Not all prints were made from a sheet of paper to a particular fraction size, and other prints were made from rolls rather than from sheets of paper. Prints which were bound into books often vary in size because of the binders’ propensity to trim pages prior to gilding the ends, and of course there is the issue of different sizes of the sheets of paper. It is helpful that some paper sheets have names for their specific size, so that the prints made from these sheets can be unequivocally identified. For instance, the prints from John James Audubon’s The Birds of America are “double elephant-folio,” those from his work The Quadrupeds of North America are “imperial folio,” and those from the octavo editions of both works are “royal octavo.” Where there is no specific name for the sheets of paper used, general expressions such as "small folio," "medium quarto" or "large octavo" are sometimes used to give a more accurate description of size.

Understanding the history and nature of the paper used in making prints is important, but all these factors make this a fairly complex subject. There are the general rules of thumb, such as the fact that most prints made before 1800 will be on laid paper and most made afterwards on wove paper, but the best thing is to try to build as much experience looking at paper of prints where you know the history of the paper. An experienced dealer or collector can often give an approximate date for a print, or determine the originality of a print, by examining the paper and this is something which it is useful to try to learn for anyone interested in old prints.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

“Original woodblocks” by E.M. Washington: an art scam

Some time ago, an what seemed to be an exciting find appeared on the market, a collection of woodblock prints from the estate of an unknown printmaker, Earl M. Washington. At the time, this find was described as follows:
Earl M. Washington (1862-1952) was an African-American master wood-engraver and printer who between the early 1900s and the time of his death had amassed and printed from one of the largest collections of artists' wood blocks in the United States. Washington's career began at the age of 13, when he was apprenticed at a Southern printing shop. In 1880 Washington moved to New York, but encountered racial and social prejudice which barred him from employment at the larger printing shops in the city. Eventually finding a position in a small shop on the Lower East Side, Washington went on to perfect his skills as a master printer.

Washington's collection of wood blocks began accidentally, with blocks collected from the fire-ravaged print shop of a fellow-carver and friend. As he continued his printing work, Washington's circle of acquaintanceship widened, and he began to receive blocks from many different artists and publishers. These included the work of Hale Woodruff, (1900-1980) whom Washington met and befriended; Eric Gill, Lynd Ward, Rockwell Kent, M. C. Escher, Robert Gibbings, and others. Washington printed impressions for each of the wood engraved blocks in his collection, and in some instances, he used the designs of other artists to create new engraved blocks.

It turns out that this "find" was the result of an elaborate scam perpetrated by this printmaker's supposed great-grandson, also named Earl M. Washington. The evidence is overwhelming that even if the first E.M. Washington did exist and was a printmaker (both uncertain), he was neither the maker nor printer of these prints. Instead it is clear that the maker of these prints is the current E.M. Washington, who made "original" woodblock copies of prints by the famous printmakers who were supposed to be the friends of his alleged great-grandfather. Each of these prints is signed "E.M. Washington," which though said to be by the great-grandfather is certainly the signature of the great-grandson, and they are dated with dates when they were supposed to be printed, a clear misrepresentation.

The current E.M. Washington has spent a lot of time and effort (and I believe still does) marketing these prints to print dealers and at auction (they still come up on ebay). The story changes regularly, but usually the prints are misrepresented as being something that they are not and inappropriate prices are asked or suggested.

Although these prints were created as part of a scam and do not have the value they might have were the story true, their history is fascinating. This makes the prints interesting and thus some value (not to mention that the images are quite attractive). The eagerness with which they were initially accepted speaks to the growing modern interest in the work of early African-American artists and artisans. Though we know now that they are not what they seemed, these prints are still very good "original" copies of some very fine wood block prints, especially those of African-American figures and subjects. They are lovely images and fun to own, as long as you acquire them knowing what they are and for an appropriate price.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Charles Rand Penney

Today is the 86th birthday of "Uncle Charlie". What makes this relevant to this blog is that my Uncle Charlie is Charles Rand Penney, who put together one of the finest antique print collections of the twentieth century.

Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1923, Charles Penney acquired his BA from Yale University in 1965, a law degree from the University of Virginia in 1951, and in 1995 he was honored with a Doctorate of Fine Arts from the State University of New York for his life-long support for the arts. Charlie began his interest in collecting art in 1934 when he was given a watercolor by artist Robert Blair, his Sunday school teacher. Over the years, his collecting interests expanded until he had put together 100 collections! These ranged from the art of Western New York to World's Fair and Exposition souvenirs, from Staffordshire figures to coat hangers, and from quilts to Mr. Peanuts memorabilia.

Charlie’s collections grew in size and quality, as well as number, and by the 1960s he had completely devoted his life to his collections, which by then had received national and international recognition. He not only collected, but Charlie become a major donor to various institutions around the country. This culminated with the donation of his Western New York art collection to the Burchfield Art Center. This donation included paintings, sculpture, craft art, Roycroft objects, and 184 works by Charles E. Burchfield. In recognition of this tremendous donation, as well as his on-going support of the arts, the Burchfield Art Center was rededicated as the Burchfield-Penney Art Center in 1994.

Charlie’s interest in Western New York made it natural that he would collect prints of the region, including many views of that most iconic of American images, Niagara Falls. When I first went into business in 1982, Charlie and I talked about his print collection and we agreed that it would be wonderful to focus on prints of Niagara Falls and to try to put together a world class collection. For over a decade, Charlie and I searched for every printed image of the Falls we could find, adding them to the collection and documenting their history. When, in 1993, this collection went on display at the Castellani Art Museum, it was clearly the largest and best collection of these views ever assembled.

Collecting is definitely in Charlie's blood (and some of those genes seem to have reached me as well), but Charlie is more than simply a collector. He is scholar and a supporter of research and documentation of his collections. Over the years he has issued numerous catalogues of his collections and along these lines, he commissioned me to produce a complete documentary listing of his print collection and thematic analysis of the subject of Niagara Falls prints. The result was the catalogue Impressions of Niagara, which with its supplement is still the most comprehensive listing on the topic . Furthering his goal of making his collections available to scholars and researchers, Charlie arranged, partly through a generous gift, for the Niagara Falls collection to go to the Castellani Art Museum, where it now resides. [Click here to visit the collection's web site]

In my mind, Charlie is the consummate collector. He pursued every possible avenue to add items to his collections and worked tirelessly to gather and organize information on those collections. He also approaches his collecting, as he does life in general, with unbounded passion. I like to think I am enthusiastic about antique prints, but I don’t hold a candle to Charlie. The joy and gusto with which Charlie seeks and learns was an inspiration to me when I was first starting out and I still always feel recharged when I spend time with him talking about his prints, his sculptures, his African masks, or whatever. He turns 86 years young today and I am grateful that I have been able to work with him and know him for over half those years.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

American Historical Print References

One of the most popular, and valuable, types of antique prints are American historical prints. These include images of battles, portraits of important figures, and historical allegories. From the eighteenth century and into the early twentieth, historical prints have been published related to almost every American historical event or person and this provides a fertile field for collectors or those simply interested in American history. Luckily there are a number of excellent references which cover these prints. There have been many published on particular individuals (e.g. Lincoln) or particular events (e.g. the Civil War), but there are also some fine references that are more general. Today I will discuss those I would recommend in particular to those interested in the subject. A couple of these works are out-of-print, but can be found on the internet or in good libraries.

Political prints form one of the largest types of historical prints and luckily there is a terrific book which documents this type of print based on the collections in the Library of Congress (which has the largest collection of such prints in the world). This is Bernard F. Reilly’s American Political Prints. 1766 – 1876. This wonderful book documents and illustrates the thousands of political prints in the LoC, each entry including an insightful analysis of the subject matter of the print. This is a good thing, as many of the political events/personalities depicted are now quite obscure and the symbolism not readily understandable to us today. The work begins with a Paul Revere engraving from 1766 related to the Stamp Act and ends over 600 pages later with a pro-Democratic campaign cartoon from 1878. This book is currently out of print.

Portraits of U.S. Presidents have been popular since Washington, with individual prints and series produced in engravings and lithographs of all sizes and quality. Noble E. Cuningham’s excellent Popular Images of the Presidency from Washington to Lincoln is the standard work on the topic. It documents and illustrates a wide range of Presidential prints, putting them into the context of their historic period and the history of print publishing.

E. McSherry Fowble’s Two Centuries of Prints in America 1680-1880 is an insightful documentation and analysis of prints from the Winterthur Museum Collection. It covers many more types of prints than simply historical ones, but there are many on this topic included and the descriptions of the prints made both in Europe and America explain the prints and put them into the wider context of American history and culture. This book is currently out of print.

These are an excellent place for someone interested in American historical prints to start. Beyond these, most of the print references are about specific topics and of these are there many terrific ones. This is a field of research that is booming and each year seems to produce a new crop of fine references. I'll be discussing new publications as they appear.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Prints: Art for a Down Economy

This week I am in France on vacation (yeah!), so I've asked Kelli Lucas for another of her interesting blogs. Here it is:

I've been doing some research lately on twentieth century print clubs and have noticed that, though some of these groups were born in the midst of the heady 1920s and survived past the prosperity of the 1950s, their heyday really took place during the spare decades of the 1930s and 1940s. During years when artists needed to sell things and consumers needed to buy things cheaply, prints became the darling of the art world. Looking at the clubs and societies that flourished in those decades is giving me a little insight into long-term popularity of prints and--perhaps--a bit of wisdom for art collectors weathering the current economy.

Since the invention of the printing press, one of the most attractive features of prints has been their inherent accessibility. Produced at a smaller scale than most paintings and in greater numbers, they are inherently easier to possess and display and more affordable than paintings or sculpture. The link, though, between those who make prints and those who would buy them is rarely self-evident; that is, the average, middle-income art collector is not always in direct contact with the average, eager-to-sell etcher or lithographer. Enter the print club.

Print clubs and societies have taken various forms over the last two centuries, but they have had at their core one goal: the introduction, in varying degrees, of consumerism to art (and art to consumerism). Chris wrote earlier about the American Art Union, which was really the first such organization in the United States. As the Etching Revival gained steam in the late nineteenth century, groups rose up to support a new generation of printmakers, artists whose primary medium was prints rather than paintings or sculpture. These decades really became a golden age for print clubs, with popularity that peaked during the 1930s. As disposable income plummeted during the Great Depression, artists needed a way to sell their work and collectors needed a way to buy it in such a way that would maximize benefit for both.

In New York City, Reeves Lewenthal opened a gallery called Associated American Artists, commissioning artists for $200 to produce editions of prints that would sell to the public for $5 per piece. To this day, Associated American Artists prints can be found in print shops and print collections across the country and represent work by such fine printmakers as John Steuart Curry, Frank Bishop, Grant Wood, and others. Other groups, like The Woodcut Society, adopted a subscription structure.

The Woodcut Society was established in 1932 by print enthusiast Alfred Fowler to promote the appreciation of woodcuts and help provide opportunities for American woodcut artists. The society issued 44 prints between 1932 and 1954, some by the best artists of the period. For an annual subscription fee, members were entitled to receive a print from editions of 200, mounted inside a letterpress printed folder with an artist's foreword or critic's essay. Ready to be framed, the prints could also safely be kept in their folder of issue, making the woodcuts they contained even more affordable (as they did not require elaborate, immediate display mounts).

The subject matter addressed by Woodcut Society artists was a wide mix, mainly presented in a representational style. Some artists dealt with Regionalist topics, including men at work in rural settings. Others addressed classical themes like the female nude and still life. Landscapes from New England to Arizona also appeared over the years, as did animals, domestic and wild.

Accessibility was the name of the print club game then, and, to a great extent, still is. The prints from such societies have become highly collectible, depending on the artist, but many are still affordably priced. Though we (of course) are biased toward antique prints, there are still clubs that exist in the same fashion as the Woodcut Society: annual membership dues get you access to some really fine prints. Locally, Philagrafika is doing fine work, but these organizations are thriving across the country. The lesson to learn from the Depression-era print clubs, in my opinion, is that collecting art is not an inaccessible luxury limited to flush economic times. Even when budgets are tight, it is possible to seek and find good art, and chances are that when you start looking, you'll find what you're looking for in a print.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Zeno Map: mythical islands of the North Atlantic

In 1558, Nicolo Zeno (1515-1565) published De I Commentarii del Viaggio, which purported to be the story of the travels of Nicolo and Antonio Zeno, ancestors of the publisher, based on a fragmentary document that had come down in the family. The account told how in the late fourteenth century the Zeno brothers had sailed, in the employ of Henry Sinclair, the Earl of Orkney, to Iceland, Greenland and elsewhere in the North Atlantic. Two islands they supposedly visited were Frisland (on the way to Greenland) and then Icaria (somewhere past Greenland). Also, purportedly, they had heard a report by a fisherman that he had visited lands to the west of Greenland, called Estotiland and Drogeo, and the Zenos may have sailed in search of these lands.

The account was accompanied by a map showing these islands/lands and it caused something of a sensation when it was published. Today there is debate as to whether the brothers made some or any of the alleged voyages, but the consensus is that the account was wholly fabricated by Nicolo in order to try to prove that it was his Venetian ancestors, not the Genoese Columbus, who had first landed in the New World. Though a fictional tale, the story and particularly the map had a great impact in the subsequent mapping of the Northern Atlantic.

In 1561, shortly after Zeno’s original publication, Girolamo Ruscelli issued a version of the Zeno map, showing all these fabricated places. The non-existent islands of Frisland and Icaria are shown just below Iceland, and further to the south are Estotiland and Deogeo. These latter are drawn running to the edge of the map, indicating that they might be part of the North American continent. [Click here to see labeled image of the Ruscelli Zeno map] The geography of the Zeno map was picked up by other important cartographers, including Gerard Mercator and Abraham Ortelius. The former showed these fictional lands on his great world map of 1569 and even included an inset map of the non-existent Frisland on his map of the North Pole (cf. images below), while Ortelius produced a map of the North Sea that was a somewhat augmented version of the Zeno map (cf. image at top of blog). With these two heavy-weights lending their authority to the Zeno myth, it is not surprising that this geography persisted for some time before it was taken off the map.

It is a very interesting case study to see how the Zeno myth had subsequent impact on future exploration and mapping. In 1576, Martin Frobisher, looking for the Northwest Passage, sailed to Iceland, then Greenland, and then up into the Labrador Sea, finally reaching what is now Frobisher Bay in Baffin Island. The problem was that Frobisher was looking at a map based on Mercator’s 1569 cartography, which included the non-existent Frisland, and thus Frobisher didn’t realize where he was. When he had arrived at Greenland, he looked at his map and figured he had landed on Frisland (he actually claimed Frisland for Queen Elizabeth!), and so when he got to Baffin Island he figured he was at Greenland. So, his report of what he saw on Baffin Island was ascribed by mapmakers to Greenland.

The confusion went further, however, for when Frobisher sailed into what is now Frobisher Bay, he thought he was sailing into a strait, not a bay. Thus, after Frobisher returned with the report of his exploration, mapmakers put a strait (not the correct bay) at the end of Greenland (not correctly on Baffin Island). So here we have one cartographic myth, Frisland, creating another such myth, Frobisher’s Strait at the tip of Greenland!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Collection themes

In my blog about what it is to collect, I talked about the importance of developing a theme or topic for a collection. As I noted, the theme of a collection is that characteristic which the prints share that turns the assemblage into a single entity, rather than simply a group of prints. Today I will discuss this topic a bit more in depth, considering some suggestions on how to pick a theme for your collection and a look at popular and overlooked themes.
A theme can consist of a single subject--such as views of Niagara Falls; a printmaker or group of printmakers--as in prints engraved by Philadelphia craftsmen or prints after Hogarth; a printmaking process--such as mezzotinting; or any other shared characteristic--such as newspaper bonus prints. A theme can be comprehensive for the chosen subject or limited to prints issued in a certain period, such as prints published before the nineteenth century. Pretty much any subject related to prints can be a theme; the important notion is that a theme limits the universe of prints to be collected; a theme is what ties the individual prints together into the united entity which is a collection.

The theme determines not only the nature of the resulting collection, but also the experience which the collector will have in putting together the collection. It is thus important that a potential collector spend some time thinking about what theme to choose. Following are a few basic considerations to keep in mind.

Most obviously, the theme should be something of interest to the collector. Much of the value of prints comes from their content and history, and unless a collector enjoys those things, he/she will not derive any of the enjoyment that can come with finding and owning objects in which one is interested. It really doesn’t make sense to collect something simply because it sounds impressive or because the value of the items (and thus of the collection) is high, for not only will you be missing out on an important component of collecting, but it is likely that you will not want to continue to collect over the years.

Besides this, there are some practical considerations to take into account in choosing a theme. You want a theme which will include enough prints so that you will be able to find prints to add, but not so broad that prints that fit come along all the time. If your theme is too narrow, then you will never find prints the acquire and that certainly isn’t much fun. On the other hand, part of the fun of collecting is that there is an element of the hunt, with its accompanying thrill of discovery, and of serendipity, with its resulting pleasures of surprise. If every time you go to an auction, walk into a gallery or browse a flea market you come across prints that fit your theme, I suspect it will soon become a bit boring.
Another important consideration is the cost of prints that fit your theme. You might find early Dutch world maps to be fascinating, and they can be found on the market, but these tend to be very expensive. If you decide to collect these and can spend only several hundred dollars or so a year, you will not find many such maps you can afford. It might be better to collect early Dutch maps of some other area less expensive, say of France, or to collect world maps from the nineteenth century. One trick is to pick an “obscure” or “overlooked” theme (cf. below), where the prints will not be so desirable or not as much collected, for then you are likely to be able to find more opportunities to purchase prints that fit your theme and have an affordable price.
The theme that a collector chooses is the foundation of the collection and so the collector should spend time in selecting the subject. The collector should always allow a bit of lee-way in the thematic criterion, and the theme can, of course, change over time. Also, the collection can be culled or expanded as the collector's interest changes.

Popular themes

For maps, the most typical theme is to collect maps of a particular place. This is an obvious theme if you are interested in a particular city, county, state, country, or continent, and such collections can be very interesting in showing the growth of knowledge of that place over time. This also allows you to collect maps from many different periods in a wide range of styles, sizes, and price ranges. This sort of collection can be particularly good if knowledge of the subject changes considerably over time (where new discoveries are shown on maps as time passes). It is important to note, however, that different places can be relatively more or less expensive, so that, for instance, maps of Texas will usually be two or three times as expensive as maps of Pennsylvania. In our experience, the most common of this type of collection are maps of the World, the United States, Texas, and maps showing California as an island.

Views are similarly collected mostly by place. Views of cities are very popular, with the larger cities both having more prints done of them and more people collecting them. Colleges and schools are also popular as subjects, though for most educational institutions not many prints were made of them. Some will collect types of views, be their vue d’optiques or the bird’s eye views of the nineteenth century.

For historical prints, the two most popular themes are those of a particular person or war. For the latter, prints of the American Revolution are always popular, with those of the Civil War coming in close behind. The other wars are less popular, but there still are many people who collect the French & Indian War, the Mexican War, the War of 1812, and to a lesser extent the Spanish American War. Presidential portraits are the most common type of collection of individuals, with Washington and Lincoln being by far the most common. Political prints are also popular, especially political cartoons and campaign prints.

Sporting prints are mostly used for decoration, but there are collectors of specific sports. Baseball, polo, and rowing are probably those we see most often. Likewise, natural history prints are less collected than purchased for the use of decoration, but people do collect prints of particular plants, say Fritillaria or Magnolia, and others seek prints of specific animals, say Beavers or Cardinals. It probably won’t be a surprise that the most popular animal themes are prints of particular species of dogs (the problem with the latter subject is that many times breeds have appeared only in modern times and even if not, the breeds often have changed their appearance considerably over time).

There are many collections where the theme is a particular maker. This can apply to those who collect maps by a particular cartographer (Mercator, Speed, Tanner), or those who collect prints by a noted naturalist (Audubon, Catesby, Redoute). The most common printmakers collected, however, are probably fine art artists, be they old master (Durer, Rubens) or modern (Benton, Pennell). Print publishers are also collected by many, with prints by Currier & Ives probably the most commonly collected of all antique prints.

Overlooked themes

The themes mentioned above can make great collections, but their popularity means both that you will be competing with more people to find these prints and that the prices of these prints are likely to be higher. If you are going to collect one of these themes, it can be a good idea to pick a less popular place (say a region of France), a more obscure person (say William H. Taft), or a less loved bird (say the Cat Bird). It can also make sense to pick a less common type of theme. As long as you find the theme to be of interest and there are a reasonable number of items that fit the bill, an obscure theme can give you all the pleasures of collecting without the stiff competition and high prices of the common themes.

For maps, you could seek maps with sailing ships in them, with different types of compass roses, or ones that show volcanoes, and there can be any number of other themes that could tie your collection together. We had a collector who collected prints that included the American Eagle, but only if it was not a standard ornithological print. The Eagle appears as symbol in many different prints and this was a collection we had a great time helping the client with. Another collector sought anything (prints or other antiques) that included a handshake and it was surprising how many prints you could find with a handshake once you started to look.

We have often suggested to people collect some of less popular printmakers. There are many, many Currier & Ives collectors, but very few who collect the hundreds of other American popular printmakers of the nineteenth century. You can put together a wonderful collection of both small and large folio prints for just a fraction of the cost of a similar collection of Currier & Ives prints, simply because less people collect them. Almost any Currier & Ives print you find will have a strong, market price on it, but you can still find bargains by many of the other important publishers such as Louis Prang, the Kelloggs, P.S. Duval and others.

There can be collections on almost any subject you can imagine and it can be fun to come up with your own, unusual theme. Now don’t get me wrong; I think collecting Currier & Ives is a terrific thing, and one of the most important collections I ever worked on was a collection of views of Niagara Falls. My point is simply that if you are so inclined, you can often do much better by following the path less well traveled.

Monday, July 13, 2009

De Jode Emblema

We get all sorts of interesting prints that pass through our hands and I have asked our staff, that when we get something they would like to research, to be willing to write a blog on that print. Victoria Koursaros was particularly interested in a fascinating allegorical print engraved by Peter De Jode and issued about 1600. Here is her thoughts in this wonderful allegory:

After a visit to the Philadelphia Art Museum the other week, I was reminded of how much a work of art can have to say. The artist uses tricks of composition, color, symbols, or gestures to communicate with the viewer. Even a simple still life could, in fact, be a vanitas, a reflection of vanity and one’s ultimate mortality. What types of fruits are used, or how much wine is in a goblet, all says something about a life led. So with that in mind, I thought why not dissect some of the prints that we have here in the shop...

One of the best time periods to analyze is the Baroque Era. Situated in between the balanced perfection of both the Renaissance and Neoclassicism, the Baroque was about theatricality and ornamentation. Diagonals break out of the composition, shifting the overall sense of visual balance to that of exuberance.

The use of pictorial allegories has been popular throughout most of art history. A figure, usually female, represents a virtue, science, or whatever, indicated by what she is wearing, holding, or doing. It was a way of communicating with the viewer. Saints, Gods, and historic figures also frequently show up as emblems. Here is a prime example of this. Published in the early Seventeenth Century, the lavish double page “Emblema Tabula II,” by Pieter de Jode, is bursting at the seams with allegories and meaning. [ Click here to see large images of this print ] For instance, Perseus’s slaying of Medusa, in the top center, represents not only good over evil but knowledge’s power over the old world’s ignorance and superstition. The Renaissance enabled artists to finally break out of purely religious subject matters and started a renewed pursuit of knowledge. These seeds which were planted in the Renaissance, culminated in the Eighteenth Century’s Age of Enlightenment. As seen here, the iconography is derived from Classicism, not the Bible, and the overall meaning of the image is the strength of the intellect.

To begin with, the horizon line is perfectly centered, thus starting the composition in complete balance. The center emblem seems to represents a mathematical ideal of the human form, similar in concept to Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. Three figures are broken down by a series of angles and circles, implying that science and mathematics offers equations for ideal proportion and form.

Two female figures stand on either side of the emblem. Justice, with her scales and sword, is on the right and Courage, with her shield and submissive lion, stands guard on the left. In front of them are four seated females. I am not completely sure of their identities, but here are my best guesses.

On the far right, is Wisdom. She has a light shining above her head representing the light of knowledge and also is very reminiscent of Paolo Veronese’s “Wisdom and Strength” from 1565. The figure next to her is representative of the Sciences. In one hand she holds a geometric type of apparatus, whilst the other hand is holding a sword with a snake, which is commonly linked to medicine. To the left of her, is History. She sits listening and recording all that is taking place. A partially clothed woman sits next to her. She symbolizes time and life itself; in one hand she holds the hour glass and her foot rests on a wheel. The wheel, being on its side, indicates the chance events of human existence.

In the foreground, are two chariots being pulled by a leopard, dog, lion, and a centaur. The animals, and especially the centaur, represent the unbridled primitive nature of man which can be “reigned in” by the disciplines of the intellectualism. The chariots are driven by Ares (Mars), the God of War with his shield and helmet, on the right, and Hercules on the left, as indicated by his wooden club and lion’s skin. Both of them are representative of strength.

Along the top, is the above mentioned Perseus in mid-slay. To the right of him, are Hermes and Athena, both of whom helped Perseus in that particular task. Hermes (Mercury) is the young man with wings (though, he more commonly has the wings on his shoes) and a helmet. He is the God of Messengers. Athena (Minerva) is the Goddess of Wisdom and War. We know it is her because of her helmet, shield, owl, and olive branch. The small female figure with the winged helmet is a mystery to me. Perhaps she represents Victory, because of her wings and the fact that she is holding a globe. Next, appears to be Hephaestus (Vulcan) as he is the God of Fire. At the far left is, most likely, Bellona, the Roman Goddess of War. Here she sits on an elephant, which is a representation of strength and fortitude.

Seemingly Masonic images abound throughout the print. I cannot be certain these are Masonic, but these symbols certainly point to this interpretation. Most obviously are the craftsman’s tools like the rulers and the compass. Other indications are the checkered floor, the variations of column styles, the bright light shining down at the top center, and the fact that the main element is divided into three sections. The number three is significant because it represents the three degrees of the craft or three stages of personal development. Though Masonry didn’t become really popular until the Eighteenth Century, it did begin to flourish in the Seventeenth Century. The Masonic ideal of knowledge and enlightenment seems to tie in with the overall feel of this print as well.

All of this is, of course, only a beginning! Each stone figure along the top and in the alcoves of the walls is communicating something, as are the two female figures atop the columns (Fame and Fortune perhaps?), and all the symbols engraved into the columns. Still I hope that this brief interpretation will serve as an example of the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words!”