Though almost any conceptual bifurcation will inevitably have many exceptions, I think that prints can in a general way be divided into those that are “fine art” prints and those that are “commercial” prints. A fine art print, in this sense, is one where the “art” of the image—that is its appearance, quality, and manner of production—was the primary focus of the printmaker. The intent of a fine art printmaker is to produce a work of art. A commercial print, in contrast, is one where its content was the primary focus of the printmaker, not its aesthetics. While the aesthetics of a print is usually important to any printmaker, commercial prints are those that were issued first and foremost in order to serve a practical function, such as decoration, advertising, illustration or conveying information. As the intent of each type of print is distinct, so it makes sense that the manner in which they are documented will differ.
Usually, the most important aspect of a commercial print is its content and so the title is of primary importance in its documentation. A title can explain not only the subject matter but also often the intent of the printmaker in depicting the subject. An additional description of the imagery is also often important in documenting a commercial print, for this can further elucidate the subject matter and provide more information on the intended purpose of the print. Notes on variations between different examples of the same image—the appearance of a beard on a previously bare chin or the addition of a new bridge to an urban environment—are always of interest for commercial prints. Such variations do have significance for fine art prints, as these can show the progression of the artistic conception of the artist, but as the content is the message for a commercial print, a description of variations in the rendering of such prints is particularly important.
For a fine art print, the artist was the main and often only person involved in the production of the print, creating the design, working the matrix and often doing the printing as well. Commercial prints, in contrast, usually were produced by a team of printmakers, where the artist often was only the designer of the image. Once the design was created, it was either transferred or copied onto a matrix, where a craftsman—wood carver, engraver, or lithographer—would create the matrix so that the print could then be run off on a press by the printer. This whole process was usually overseen by a publisher, who among other things sometimes collaborated with the artist in determining the appearance of the design, who might call for revisions to the matrix, who decided on the format in which the print was issued, and who controlled the overall quality and appearance of the print. It was not just the artist, but all members of the printmaking team who are the printmakers of commercial prints.
Because a fine art print is the artistic expression of the printmaker, a fine art print which was copied from an image by another artist is said to “by” the printmaker “after” the original designer of the image. Thus a copy of a Jan van Huysum painting by mezzotinter Richard Earlom is said to be engraved by Earlom after Van Huysum. In these cases, the original art was created for the purposes of the original artist, and the print was created for other purposes, those of the printmaker. Thus the resulting print is essentially derivative or reproductive, a secondary image “after” the primary art work.
In contrast, for most commercial prints the original art work was designed specifically in order to lead to the production of the print. It was the print that was of primary importance, not the original art work. The secondary nature of most original renderings is demonstrated by the fact that in many cases the artist’s picture was destroyed in the making of the print or it was made only in an unfinished state, with, for instance, scribbled notes for the craftsmen and only partial coloring. The print was the raison d’etre for the artist’s creation and even while the artist usually did not place the image on the matrix, the print was intended to be the physical manifestation of his artwork. The craftsmen who formed the image onto the matrix and those who made the impressions were supposed to realize the design of the artist onto paper, not to add their own artistic input.
David Tatham wrote, in his Winslow Homer and the Pictorial Press, of the illustrations Homer provided for newspapers such as Harper’s Weekly, “It is inaccurate to describe them, as some museum and publications have done, as works ‘after’ Homer, for this description implies that an engraver adapted an image by Homer and in the process contributed something original to it….There is no reason to suppose that any of his engravers contributed anything of positive substance to any image he drew on the block.” (p. 15). While the technique of different engravers varied and so affected the final appearance of the illustrations, “these were minor variations in the execution of a drawing, and not interpretive or collaborative efforts.” Thus it is that we say these prints are “by” Winslow Homer, not “after” Winslow Homer. Similarly the aquatints by William Lizars or Robert Havell from John James Audubon’s Birds of America, should be said to be “by,” not “after,” Audubon, and likewise for other commercial prints.
Still, because the other members of the team of printmakers were crucial in the appearance and nature of a commercial print, it is important to identify these individuals where possible. The publisher of a commercial print often had the greatest impact after the artist on the nature of a commercial print, often determining the medium, size, style, quality and so forth. Thus identification of the publisher is always of significance for a commercial print. In some cases the publisher was even more important than the artist, with the latter simply being an employee whose identify is not even listed nor can ever be found. For the majority of the prints issued by Currier & Ives, and other popular print publishers of the nineteenth century, the images were drawn by staff artists who were rarely identified. These prints reflect the vision and intent of the publishing firms, not of the artists, and so they are identified simply as, e.g. Currier & Ives prints, with the artist not mentioned at all. This is much the same way that today many Christmas cards have no artist identified, instead being known simply as, e.g. a Hallmark card.
While the craftsmen who formed the image onto the printing matrix are sometimes not identified on commercial prints, where known, these individuals should be documented in any description of a commercial print. The wood carvers, lithographers, and engravers all had their own styles, so that even though they were supposed to simply copy the designer’s image onto the matrix, their craft had a great deal to do with the final appearance of the print. The process used—woodcut, wood engraving, intaglio, lithography—also had a lot to do with the final character of the print, as did the format in which the print was issued—as a broadside print, wall hanging, or illustration in newspaper, book or magazine. All these factors are crucial in how well a commercial print was able to achieve its intended purpose and so these are all facts which need to be documented and considered in the study of commercial prints.