STEEL ENGRAVINGS AS WORKS OF ART.
Editor Popular Science Monthly;
In the article on bank-note engraving, published in your March issue, the writer classes the engraving of bank notes among the fine arts, and describes it as the last and highest step in a long series, beginning with the wood and metal engravings of Albrecht Dürer. Just what analogy the writer finds between the metal engraving of Dürer and modern bank-note work is by no means obvious, although his statements in regard to this artist are doubtless authoritative, as they are taken entire, with scarcely the change of a word, from Philip Gilbert Hamerton's article on Engraving in the eighth volume of the Encyclopædia Britannica, page 441. But, as Dürer was an artist and not an animated cycloidal lathe, he is scarcely to be compared with the modern engraver of bank notes. There is not even similarity between the materials used, for Dürer's medium was copper or wood, while the modern bank-note plate is of steel. I can not forbear slight criticism, because, in an article otherwise instructive and valuable, the writer manifests a complete and utter misapprehension of the meaning of art as such. Mr. Dickinson hopelessly confounds steel engraving and etching, and deplores the lack of "original artists" in these lines of work, for, says he, "steel engravings have found a place in the hearts of the people of this country that no other class of art can ever replace." It is somewhat ludicrous to think of placing Seymour Haden, Rajon, or the immortal Whistler on the level of the producers of steel engravings, which are, in general, the most inartistic and lifeless things ever allowed to masquerade under the name of art. Of copperplate, the scroll and papyrus of our etchers, Mr. Dickinson speaks disparagingly because it wears out "in one thousand impressions, while ten or fifteen thousand can be taken from steel." He generously adds that it is "still used to a considerable extent for visiting cards," and "in some cases for the cheaper classes ..of picture work, such as book-illustrations," evidently ignorant of the fact that numbers of our greatest artists — Reinhardt, Gibson, Frederic Remington, Irving R. Wiles, and W. T. Smedley, among others — consider their art in no wise cheapened or degraded when turned into the enormously profitable channel of "picture work, such as book illustrations."
Says Mr. Dickinson, "Here [in a banknote portrait] we have a beautiful specimen of pure line engraving, much better than most of that done by some of the old masters and now considered classic." Now, it is not the fault of the bank-note portrait that scarcely anything more mechanical, more uninteresting from an artistic point of view, has ever been produced, but it is doubtful if ever before it has been looked upon as possessing genuinely artistic value. And this difference between mechanism and art is just what Mr. Dickinson has utterly failed to perceive. A work of art lays claim to that title only when the means of expression remain subordinate to the thought which is expressed. Technique alone will not save any work of art from more or less speedy oblivion, while a serious thought, even though inadequately expressed, will remain a dominant tone in the chord of the world's art for all time. The technically faulty works of the early Italian artists, and even of Dürer himself, give ample proof of this. Then, too, a work of art is never more than merely suggestive — never, as in the case of the bank note, is it elaborated to painful completeness. A mechanical draughtsmanship, such as is displayed in the bank note, crams the same conclusion down the consciousness of each and every onlooker. The genuine work of art remains obstinately silent, or else pours out its wealth of color and song lavishly, according to whether the spectator be a poet at heart or a dolt.
In a bank-note engraving, on the other hand, the sole interest aroused is in the process, and this interest is heightened in proportion as the process involves greater intricacy of detail and more rigid and unvarying evenness of line. Since that so-called perfection is due chiefly to the accuracy of machinery, "the ruling machine, and cycloidal and geometrical lathes," a bank note can have no other than a purely mechanical interest. The engraving of it is doubtless a valuable factor in the commercial world, but to compare it to the work of Dürer, crown and flower of the German Renaissance, is quite like comparing a lathe-turned table leg to the Moses of Michael Angelo.
Grace Green Bohn.
Chicago, March 2, 1895.