In the last blog we talked about steel-engraved illustrations. These small prints were issued in very large numbers, usually bound into a book or magazine. Today we’ll look at another group of steel-engraved print, ones at the other end of the size spectrum.
Beginning in the 1840s and lasting primarily into the 1870s, very large steel engravings were issued as separate prints by publishers, intended for people to frame and hang for display. These prints were very popular as decoration in that period and they would have hung in many middle and upper class homes, not to mention in well-heeled offices. Similarly to the small steel engravings, these prints were issued uncolored and would have been displayed as such.
We discussed the advantages of steel engraving in the previous blog and many of these advantages apply also to the large, frameable steel engravings. For instance, steel allowed for the printing of very large numbers of prints without wear. While the large steel engravings were not issued in anywhere near the number of impressions of the book illustrations, they were still run off in large numbers. Also, steel engraving allowed for very fine lines and many of these large prints have an impressive amount of close detail.
One benefit of steel engraving which did not apply to the book illustrations was that it made it practical for printmakers to create larger prints than one could do easily with copper. Many of the frameable steel engravings of the period are quite large, often ranging in the mid-20 inch high by upper-30 inch wide size.
The American Art Union and up-market publishers like Goupil & Co. did produce some lovely genre engraving in steel, but most of the large American, steel engravings had historical subjects. Images of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and other famous American figures appeared time and again. Because of the size, these prints tended not to be just individual portraits, but were scenes at court, cabinet meetings, or other large gatherings of individuals. Political or historical allegories were also popular, and a number of battle scenes likewise appeared in this format.
When issued, these prints were considered not simply to be decorative, but also enlightening and ennobling. They were generally of high quality both in artistic rendering and skillful engraving; “fine” art, not simply “popular” art. They were “serious” prints, intended not just to decorate, but also to educate and inspire. It is interesting that at the time these prints were issued, these steel engravings were more expensive than the similarly-sized hand-colored lithographs, whereas today the opposite is true.
Their popularity seems to have been greatest in the antebellum period, and while they were issued later in the century, other types of large prints overtook them in popularity. At first, large hand-colored lithographs began to appear in greater numbers and then later in the century, large -sized chromolithographs offered just as much wall coverage, but for less cost and with color.
There was something of a revival of interest in large uncolored prints in the 1880s and 90s, with the etching revival, but by the 20th century such art fell well out of favor. It is because of this that many of these wonderful, mid-nineteenth century steel engravings were subsequently colored by printsellers, so that many are found "colorized" today. However, I am pleased to report this is beginning to change. A growing awareness of the historic importance and the visual appeal of these striking black & white images has led to a return of the appreciation of these prints both as fine antiques and as unique art for the home or office.