Art & Design Magazine

New York Etching Club: R. Swain Gifford

By Adventuresintheprinttrade
The first meeting of the New York Etching Club was convened on 2 May 1877 at the studio of James David Smillie. About twenty artists were present, half of whom had never etched before. The centerpiece of the evening was therefore a practical demonstration. Smillie laid a ground onto a small etching plate, on which an Algerian landscape was drawn with an etching needle by Robert Swain Gifford, the image was bitten into the plate by immersion in a tray of mordant, and then the plate was printed by the physician and amateur etcher Leroy Milton Yale. James D. Smillie remembered the occasion in a note in the first illustrated catalogue issued by the club: "The smear of thick, pasty ink was deftly rubbed into the lines just corroded, and as deftly cleansed from the polished surface; the damped sheet of thin, silky Japan paper was spread upon the gently warmed plate; the heavy steel roller of the printing press, with its triple facing of thick, soft blanket, was slowly rolled over it, and in another moment, finding scant room in the pressing crowd, the first-born of the New York Etching Club was being tenderly passed from hand to hand."
New York Etching Club: R. Swain GiffordR. Swain Gifford, Algerian Landscape(The first plate etched at the New York Etching Club)Etching, 1877
The moment when that "first-born" proof emerged from Smillie's press heralded the dawn of the American Etching Revival, or the American Painter-Etcher Movement, which saw a craze for both making and collecting etchings sweep across the USA in the 1880s. The New York Etching Club was pre-eminent in this movement. Many of its members quickly established international reputations, and were also Fellows of Francis Seymour Haden's Society of Painter-Etchers, which was founded in 1880, and in 1888 became the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers (now Painter-Printmakers). Within the USA, their reputations were sealed by publication of their etchings in the American Art Review, edited by Sylvester Rosa Koehler from 1879-1881. So although there were other active local organisations, including the Philadelphia Society of Etchers, the Brooklyn Scratchers Club, the Chicago Society of Etchers and so on, the name of the New York Etching Club has understandably been applied retrospectively to the whole American Etching Revival. Although an early proposal to change the name of the club to the Society of American Etchers was rejected, it would have been a sensible move. When a separate Society of American Etchers was formed in 1888, its 20 members were all also members of the New York Etching Club.
New York Etching Club: R. Swain GiffordR. Swain Gifford, Summer StormEtching, 1879
I've been developing an interest in the artists of the New York Etching Club, and intend to devote individual posts to several of them. It seems to me that in embracing the art of etching, with its intrinsic affinity with a more sketchy and impressionistic style of art, these artists laid one of the foundation stones of American Impressionism (and, indeed, they were very shortly joined by such giants of that movement as John Henry Twachtman and J. Alden Weir). They were not, however, looking to the Impressionists for inspiration; instead, their artistic models were the painter-etchers of the earlier Barbizon School, themselves precursors of Impressionism.
New York Etching Club: R. Swain GiffordR. Swain Gifford, A Woodland PastureEtching, 1888
It seems appropriate to start these posts with the artist who etched that "first-born" plate, R. Swain Gifford. Robert Swain Gifford was born on Naushon Island off Cape Cod in 1840, but when he was very young his family moved to New Bedford, Massachussetts. Showing an early talent for art, he studied under the Dutch marine painter Albert van Beest, then resident in New Bedford. Working as R. Swain Gifford, he achieved an international reputation for his oils, watercolors, and etchings.
New York Etching Club: R. Swain GiffordR. Swain Gifford, FlowersEtching, 1880
Gifford produced his first etchings in 1865 or 1866, but like many etchers of this date his interest petered out. Etching materials were hard to come by, there were no specialist printers, no community of interest, and no market for the end result.
New York Etching Club: R. Swain GiffordR. Swain Gifford, PalestineEtching, 1880
Despite travels to England, France, Spain, Italy, and perhaps most importantly North Africa and the Sahara Desert, R. Swain Gifford remains best known for his studies of his native New England. The etching "Coal-Pockets at New Bedford", for instance, was one of many local studies produced in the summer months when Gifford retreated from the city to his residence in Nonquitt, six miles from his childhood home of New Bedford.
New York Etching Club: R. Swain GiffordR. Swain Gifford, Coal-Pockets at New Bedford, Mass.Etching, 1879
One interesting feature of the Coal-Pockets etching is Gifford's choice of an industrial subject. Although the aesthetics of the image treat the coal storage tower as if it were a lonely windmill or ruined castle, it is still refreshing to find the modern world, and the world of work, represented in a New York Etching Club etching. Despite the name of the club, the city of New York had to wait for the Ashcan artists to be preferred as subject matter over the New York Etchers' endless romantic landscapes and seascapes.
New York Etching Club: R. Swain GiffordR. Swain Gifford, The Path by the ShoreEtching, 1879
For all their conservative ideas about artistic subjects, the etchers of the New York Etching Club introduced a new rhythmic freedom of line and a new freshness of treatment into American art. The critic Sylvester Rosa Koehler wrote of R. Swain Gifford's etchings that, "He has learned to a high degree the art of saying much with little, and therefore makes every line tell." Gifford shows himself at his best, I think, in the atmospheric Summer Storm, and at his least interesting in the facile romanticism of The Baron of St. Castine.
New York Etching Club: R. Swain GiffordR. Swain Gifford, The Baron of St. CastineEtching, 1979
Robert Swain Gifford died in 1905.

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