The World's Columbian Exposition, Paul V. Galvin 
Digital History Collection
 

 

ART & ARCHITECTURE - ETCHINGS IN COLOR

- In the comparatively restricted exhibit of the engraver's art in the Exposition may be found two or three examples of a novel and most skillful collaboration of the etcher and the printer in colors. This courageous combination of two of the most difficult and luxurious of the arts may be set down among the contributions of this century to civilization, and as a very distinct accession to the good cause of popularizing valuable works of art. Much of both the spirit and the letter may be thus reproduced; and, by means of the printing press, scattered throughout the continents instead of remaining in the comparative seclusion of galleries and collections. The examples selected for reproduction by this new art in the present publication have been taken from a number of the most worthy representatives of the different national schools in painting and sculpture at the Chicago Exposition, and, as will be seen, range through a sufficiently wide variety of theme and treatment. From the comparatively simple color subjects to which it was at first thought these color etchings would be best adapted as the pale and decorative tones of lightly washed tinted statuary progress has been made till the most complex and difficult of compositions as Chaplin's "Souvenirs," or DeBock's "Beech Trees" have been skillfully rendered. Both the artistic and the technical difficulties increase, as may be supposed, with the number and variety and value of the color tones to be reproduced.

One of the most distinguished of contemporary French etchers, M. Eugene Gaujean, is to be credited with the honor of first introducing this new and valuable addition to the art of the aqua-fortist, and it has been successfully adapted and modified and carried out in this country by an American artist, Mr. F. L. Kirkpatrick, who has executed a number of the plates here presented. Both the painter and the worker on copper will be interested in the variety of method by which such widely differing subjects as the Chaplin, and the De Bock have been both so satisfactorily treated. M. Gaujean devoted infinite pains and precaution to his plate, he made at first a careful color study of the original in the Luxembourg and then reproduced it on the copper with his best skill, etching as will be seen different portions of his composition on each of his four plates, the black, the red, the yellow and the blue. The delicate modeling on the lighted side of the face, the neck and the body of this voluptuous dreamer is executed nearly altogether with the lines bitten in the three color plates, the black being reserved for the shadowed portions; and the yellow, it will be observed, is printed both as lines of color and as a very pale solid tint for the whole flesh. By that skillful combination in printing common to all good color work these three or four simple colors become a great number of varying tones, and many a painter would be glad to get so dark and rich and luminous a color as that of the background above the lady's head. In his rendering of De Bock's landscape study Mr. Kirkpatrick has used the bitten line only for his black plate, the other four plates, red, yellow, blue and green, being prepared for the reception of their ink by the use of the roulette alone. In the painter's problem of reproducing the color quality of his original it will be generally conceded that the American artist has been quite as successful as the Frenchman. It is also worthy of remark that the latter expended more than a year's time on his work, while the five plates of the "Beech Trees" were executed in the space of ninety days.

The value of careful and artistic printing is of course enhanced by the complexity and difficulty of this process. The mere problem of exact registry is a formidable one, the paper requiring to be kept evenly wet throughout the whole five impressions under penalty of a misfit in the colors. The four or five copper plates are of exactly the same size, and are pierced with holes at the upper right and lower left hand corners for the registry pins. The black, in the "Beech Trees' was the key plate; the four color plates were printed with a clean wipe, leaving the ink only in the bitten portions, while the black which had about one-half the work of a finished etching was printed with only partial wiping, or retroussage. All these plates would present a more artistic appearance if mounted on a much larger sheet than the size of this publication will permit. It was with great difficulty that nay of the Parisian etchers could be persuaded to take up this difficult and elaborate art.

Its versatility and adaptability may be further illustrated by comparing its rendering of two apparently similar subjects, the female heads by Chaplin and by Corcos. The etching alone would never set forth so clearly the wide divergence between these two; the aide of color is necessary to carry out in each the painter's conception of his theme, and the etcher and printer, following after him, translate in one the pretty, chaste, well-ordered little harmony and in the other the glowing, passionate, disorderly love-burden with almost equal clearness and with far simpler means. The Tete de Jeune Fille, from Corcos' painting is etched in only two colors, blue and red, in addition to the black; the slight tint of the paper supplies the general flesh tone, the opposition and contrast of the colors making it seem warmer than it really is, and many of the slight modifications of the color tones are so delicate as to be scarcely perceptible. A proof of this etching is exhibited in the gallery of Gravure et Lithographie in the French section of the Fine Arts Building, and is the only exhibit of the very clever aqua-fortist, M. Maurice Deville.

Mr. Kirkpatrick's rendering of the dashing beauty in furs by the Warsaw painter, Zmurko, occupies a sort of middle ground between these two head, both in color and sentiment. The etching gives very well the peculiarly broad, decorative work of the painter, and much of his smooth, grayish color. In the two busts in tinted or colored sculpture, by Moreau-Vautier and Herbert Adams, the problem becomes somewhat simpler, and the etcher's fidelity to his original still closer. The "Saint Agnes' Eve" of the American sculptor is a simple and charmingly decorative bust, colored in the plaster in two or three soft tones that merely suggest the hues of life and nature without approaching too closely a disagreeable and inartistic realm. The Tete florentine of Moreau-Vautier, in ivory and bronze, with its green marble pedestal, is a much more ornate work of art and much more difficult to reproduce satisfactorily, the quality and texture of the varying materials being to simulate, as well as the changing color. This decorative bust, in the French sculpture exhibit, is one of the most ingenious, artistic and sumptuous articles of luxury in the Fine Arts department.

The broad and comparatively simple tones of Mr. Arthur Hacker's painting also lend themselves well to this art, and the etcher has made of this what will be considered by many one of the most satisfactory plates of the series. The beautiful maid whose death-bed in the desert sand is thus watched over by her brother is the dancer of Kingsley's "Hypatia," Pelagia, turned saint and recluse and found again by the young monk Philammon, just in time to receive the last sacrament from his hands. A different and more difficult problem is presented by the "Misty Morn" of the Norwegian painter, Otto Sinding, these vaprous, vanishing, uncertain atmospheric effects bristling with technical difficulties for the artist who is tempted to try and translate them in any medium whatsoever. As for the reproductions of the examples of minor German sculpture, in lighter vein, they leave but little to be desired, excepting that rendering of more than one aspect of the work the want of which makes itself felt in any representation in the flat of objects in the round. The gigantic, laughing negro and the protesting donkey are in tinted plaster, by the Munich sculptor, Rudolf Maison; the two spirited little groups of the deceitful faun and the foolish geese are in bronze, by Stefan Schwarz, of Vienna. The admirable technique of the sculptor shown in both these works, the virility and character and expression condensed in every detail of the modeling, all this is excellently translated by the faithful drawing and judicious choice of line of the aqua-fortist.

The three examples of this etching in color shown in the French section are Deville's pretty girl in blue, Gaujean's "Souvenirs" and his Abandonee, after Louis DesChamps, though the latter is entered in the official French catalogue as a gravure. This is printed from four plates, on the same general principles as the larger picture, and the forsaken little swaddled infant is perhaps better adapted to the methods of the new art than the lady. He is also somewhat more acceptable to the general reader than the big-eyed and rather mannered Madonnas and other mothers with which this painter first attracted notice.

This new art, or new process in art, seems to be on the whole but another manifestation of the general tendency of the noble art of etching in these later days to abandon its high original aims and subordinate its processes to the task of reproducing paintings, sculptures or even objets d'art. In the entire French display of Gravures, in which most of the principal etchers of the contemporary national school are represented, there are but some half-dozen who exhibit original eaux-fortes. The remainder show mostly careful and elaborate reproductions of paintings of other artists, and one or two, like Tissot, of their own. It is needless to say that this is not etching as Rembrandt, or some of the moderns, understood it. It is not probable that the original spirit of the art will disappear, but an interesting contribution might be made of this latest manifestation to that important chapter of the history of the line in art. Of the old-time reverence paid it as outline nothing now remains excepting in the work of the decorators and of the newer school of unconventional, imaginative draftsmen in black and white. It has served both as a medium of expression for the most primitive forms of art and for the most subtle and artistic; and in the latter it may be used both as the hardest and most definite of outline, and in every way but outline.

The color etchings may also be recognized as another tribute to the dominating influence of the painting in oil, to which so many causes contribute. This ancient and well-established supremacy is, perhaps, sometimes to be regretted, as the preceptors of artistic youth, among others, have demonstrated. It is true that the severe winnowing of circumstances serve to correct the inconsiderate ambitions which tend to precipitate into this one method of expression various talents and adaptabilities which might find a more ample development in the so-called minor, or industrial, arts, but this is effected frequently at an expense of time and labor which is to be deplored, humanely speaking. The painters, moreover, zealous in their pride of place, and conscious as no others can be of the difficulties, the subtleties, and the requirements of their technical process, resent the various attempts made by other craftsmen to assume these privileges, and among the obstacles which M. Gaujean and his followers will find in their path must certainly be reckoned this profound disbelief of those whose works they thus assume to repeat. As a tentative, as a breaking away from the conventional and well-trodden paths, as one of those ambitious and well-intended experiments in artistic processes of which no one should disapprove, this new art is entitled to all consideration, but as a reproduction of a painting in oil the painters-in-oil themselves will certainly have doubts.

"Art is yet an unexplained expression of the human mind," says Mr. Alma-Tadema; and the first requirement of a mathematical mind is imagination, say the mathematicians. On these shifting and uncertain foundations no positive theories can well be erected, but some things are sure, and many are very probable. One of these latter is, that the doubters who see omens of ill in these modern perfections of technical processes, these new adaptations of means to ends, are quite in the wrong. "It became an extremely searching and troublesome question with me," said Ruskin, three or four years ago speaking of the wonderful perfection to which the arts of etching, engraving and photographing had been brought since his younger days what was to come of al this technical perfection, and how it was to influence the "people of our great cities." "Are our lives in this kingdom of darkness [of development of the "black arts"] to be indeed twenty times as wise and long as they were in the light?" In all probability they are, and it is much too late to undertake to set up any such antiquated barriers to modern invention and progress, even in the matter of reproducing paintings in oil. The French etcher's brilliant and courageous attempt to bend his art to a new issue is to be commended on all grounds, and the Nemesis which waits on all bad art may be relied upon to correct any of its goings astray.

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Last Updated: January 26, 1999