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PRINTMAKING. The first print executed in the American colonies is a crude woodcut portrait of the Rev. Richard Mather, made by the Boston artist John Foster in 1670. Some fifty years later, Peter Pelham, the émigré British artist who settled in Boston, created several mezzotint portraits of New England personalities between 1728 and 1751. The most celebrated American print from the eighteenth century is the silversmith and patriot Paul Revere's The Boston Massacre (1770), based on a print by Henry Pelham. At the outset, prints were intended to convey information: portraits of notable people, maps, views of cities and towns. Even after the establishment of the United States of America, these practical requirements dominated graphic arts well into the first quarter of the nineteenth century, although the technical caliber of etching, engraving, and lithography was quite high.

In 1857, Nathaniel Currier and James Ives formed a partnership to print lithographs that could be distributed and sold in large numbers. Their scenes of farmhouses, frontier scouts and covered wagons, or life in America's growing cities, became synonymous with popular American taste. But it was not until Winslow Homer etched eight large copper plates in the 1880s, each reproducing a painting by him, that an American artist working in the United States undertook to create important original graphic works. Homer rethought his painted compositions in terms of black and white etchings that capture the drama and energy of his oils, and are in no sense reproductive.

During this same period, many American artists went to Europe to study and visit museum collections. Not surprisingly, these artists experimented with graphic media. Most notably, Mary Cassatt, who settled in Paris, made a series of color aquatints that are among the masterpieces of American graphic art. James A. McNeill Whistler also made etchings in France and England, and his set of Venetian views from 1879 to 1880 became immensely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, with the prices of his prints soon equaling those of Rembrandt. Although the expatriate status of Cassatt and Whistler was no obstacle to their work being known in the United States, their example did not stimulate other artists to create graphic works of comparable originality.

The most revolutionary art movement of the first decade of the twentieth century, Cubism, had virtually no impact on American graphic art, excepting some small woodcuts by Max Weber, and John Marin's few etchings and drypoints that capture the pace of urban life, such as his celebrated Woolworth Building (1913). In contrast, the artists associated with the Ashcan School did create prints that reflect their fascination with incidents from everyday life in overcrowded metropolises. John Sloan produced numerous etchings of urban life, whether shopping on Fifth Avenue or the grim realities of tenement living. George Bellows, whose preferred medium was lithography, covered a wider range of subject matter than Sloan, from his famous prizefight image Stag at Sharkey's (1917) to the atrocities of World War I. Although not part of the Ashcan School, Edward Hopper's etchings, such as Evening Wind (1921) and Night Shadows (1921), evoke the poetry of the urban experience. At this time, few modernist painters made prints, the notable exceptions being Stuart Davis's black and white lithographs, and Charles Sheeler's coolly observed views of urban and rural America, such as his Delmonico Building (1926).

By contrast, Regionalist painters sought their subjects in rural, Midwest America. Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton made prints that portrayed the isolation and independence of the people living on these vast stretches of farmland. The drama and energy of Benton's lithographs was studied by Jackson Pollock who, before he made his celebrated "drip" abstract canvases, executed several lithographs of Regionalist subjects in a style that closely parallels Benton's.

The Great Depression made life much more difficult for American artists, and many found some help in the Federal Art Project, administered under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The program ran from 1935 to 1943 and included a section devoted to printmaking. The amount of activity was surprising: some 12,581 prints in editions of varying sizes, which were later placed on deposit in American museums. Artists employed by the WPA were expected to work in a representational style and to portray some aspect of American life. Overall, the graphic art produced under this program is unexceptional. It was only after World War II that American printmaking assumed a central position on the international scene.

World War II brought a number of European artists to America; for printmaking, the crucial figure was the British artist William Stanley Hayter, a gifted teacher whose "Atelier 17" in New York City introduced American artists to color intaglio techniques and the stylistic innovations of Surrealism. Another refugee artist was the Argentinean Mauricio Lasansky who arrived in the United States in 1943, and then founded his own graphic workshop at the University of Iowa in 1945. At Yale University the Hungarian Gabor Peterdi also ran a printmaking workshop. These printmakers shared the belief that the artist should be responsible for all aspects of a graphic work's creation, from the original conception to all stages of its execution and printing. In time, this quest for technical excellence was viewed as unexciting. By the late 1950s, print workshops were founded that aimed to create collaborative relationships between artists and printers. On the East coast, the Universal Limited Art Editions (founded in 1957) and the Pratt Graphic Arts Center in New York (founded in 1956) were complemented on the West coast by Los Angeles's Tamarind Workshop (founded in 1960). These workshops focused on the technically demanding medium of color lithography, which requires that an artist work in concert with a master printer.

American avant-garde painting stressed large size, bold gestures, and powerful colors, which placed formidable difficulties in the path of artists wanting to transpose these qualities into graphic works. Few early abstract expressionist painters were interested in printmaking, with the exception of Willem de Kooning. By the mid-1960s, however, most prominent abstract painters also made prints, emboldened by their fascination with the graphic media and guided by expert printers who of ten encouraged experimentation. A case in point is Robert Rauschenberg's color lithograph Booster (1967), an image that incorporates actual-size x-ray photographs of the artist's full-length skeleton. At the time it was one of the largest prints executed, and its scale, bold colors, and dramatic incorporation of photography as part of the graphic process, showed that prints could rival paintings in their impact.

American graphic art now claimed center stage wherever it was shown. Whether artists used Pop Art imagery of wire coat hangers (Jasper Johns), Campbell's Soup cans (Andy Warhol), or were inspired by comic strips and advertising (Roy Lichtenstein), their graphic works were seen on museum walls and in gallery exhibitions throughout the world. Even less approachable Minimalist painters such as Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, and Agnes Martin made their austere aesthetic more widely known through their graphic work, usually color lithographs. Contemporary artists have enlarged the scope of printmaking with computer-generated graphics, another innovation that has expanded the boundaries of graphic media.


Beall, Karen F. American Prints in the Library of Congress: A Catalog of the Collection. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1970.

Castleman, Riva. American Impressions: Prints since Pollock. New York: Knopf, 1985.

Shadwell, Wendy J. American Printmaking: The First 150 Years. New York: Museum of Graphic Art, 1969.


See alsoArt: Painting ; Pop Art .

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