“Whistler, Hassam and the Etching Revival" at the Museum of Fine Arts is a beautiful show and I encourage you to see it.
Everything else I will say about it should be read in that context because as worthy as it is, the exhibition will be a challenge and possibly a frustration for many viewers.
It's vast. About 100 etchings line the walls of the two main galleries in the Hazel Hough Wing. Prints, as you know, are typically not large and these, of course, have no color. So a first impression — row upon row of small monochromes — is daunting.
It has been organized into seven sections, both thematic and chronological, which is helpful, and the wall texts and labels are concise and well-written. But still, it was TMI for my brain as I walked from print to print, trying to assimilate the data. I felt the need to return for a second go-round the next day, which I never do for purposes of a review, only for my own enjoyment. In this case, I felt as if I were cramming for a final exam.
And that sense of inundation is at the heart of this show's problem. It is admirably comprehensive and illustrates the point made in an introduction that the museum is, indeed, well-represented in 19th and early 20th century etchings. And it proves its overall thesis that this era was a time in which the medium was revived by important artists and appreciated by the collecting public.
But a finely detailed print requires a lot of concentration. You can study a painting for a lifetime, of course, and always find something new and illuminating. Generally, though, we can get a quick perceptual impression and a visceral pleasure from a brief look. You need to get a lot closer and look much longer before these works will reveal their virtues.
I would suggest that when you go — and, again, I urge you to go — you approach the exhibition in one of two ways unless you are a veteran fan of fine prints.
Visit during one of the regularly scheduled docent tours. These volunteers have studied the art and their job is to edit it down for an overview, to provide information that will allow you to return and take the show in more thoroughly if you choose but to get a sense of the show even if you don't.
Or you can self-edit as I did. At some point, I stopped trying to be academic in my approach and just started looking around. When something caught my eye, I would give it a deeper exploration. I compared my favorites with each other. The overall context of the exhibition emerges. I saw why artists loved etching. I began to love it, too.
Etching is much more artist-friendly than engraving, which people can confuse since they use the same basic process, called intaglio. Lines are drawn into a metal plate, ink is pressed into it and wiped away. The ink in the recessed lines remains and the image is impressed on paper. Etching is more fluid since the plate is coated with wax — much easier to incise than metal.
Probably the greatest etcher was Rembrandt, a great innovator in the 17th century who elevated the medium from merely illustrative to high art. He not only used the process as if it were drawing, but he perfected the technique of leaving ink on parts of the plate to create more subtle tonalities. For whatever reason, etching became semiforgotten for about 100 years.
One of his etchings is in the museum's collection, and you can see how it inspired artists in the mid 19th century who resurrected the medium.
I enjoyed examples by French and Dutch artists and their approaches. Theophile-Narcisse Chauvel's Deer in the Forest is densely drawn compared to Johan Barthold Jongkind's Sunset, Antwerp Harbor, for example.
Seek out works by Francis Seymour Haden (1818-1910), a hero of the movement known as the Etching Revival. Haden was a surgeon and expert on Rembrandt's etchings who taught himself how to produce masterful etchings and taught the process to his brother-in-law, James Whistler. Whistler, who is well represented in the show, became another great master of the medium. You can see how he progressed from a traditional, 17th century approach to more modern interpretations and compositions (which also caused a rift with Haden the purist).
Alice, Portrait of a Woman Fixing Her Hat (1895) by Paul Cesar Helleu isn't one of the best etchings in the show but is one of my favorites. Helleu had a successful career painting portraits of beautiful society women at the turn of the century. (He also, incidentally, painted the celestial sky on New York's Grand Central Terminal.) This work looks unfinished because the woman's hand is visible through the transparent brim, but the lines are so elegant and as graceful as the subject.
Jacques Joseph Tissot also gained fame and fortune for portraits of beautiful, wealthy women. The emotional depth of this one caught my eye before I knew anything about it. Portrait of Kathleen isn't just any subject. She was Tissot's great love and was dying of tuberculosis when this etching was made. I love her shadowed eyes. Contemporary critics thought this too overworked but they didn't especially like Tissot anyway. (He's sometimes known as James after he changed his first name in homage to Whistler.)
Again, not among the greats here but anecdotally interesting is a group by the Moran family. Thomas Moran was the most famous of the group for his majestic, monumental landscapes, especially of what would become Yellowstone National Park. His wife, Mary, and brothers Edward, John and Peter were also artists. All but John are represented. The surprise is learning that Mary Moran was very successful in her day with her etchings of landscapes and much more accomplished as a printmaker than her husband.
The Childe Hassam etching Fifth Avenue, Noon, New York City (1916) is among the best in this show. Hassam, like some of his peers, began as an illustrator with training in engraving and woodcuts. He became the celebrated American interpreter of French impressionist painting. We can see the ease with which he translates the principles of impressionism. This print not only captures an impressionist sense of light but also one of the subjects that most fascinated Hassam, "humanity in motion."
These are a few of my discoveries in "Whistler, Hassam and the Etching Revival." I have more to share but I'd rather you find your own. You will have many from which to choose.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.