Collecting Vintage Prints: A Personal Perspective

I have to begin this post with a thank you to my colleague Donna Parsons, Gallery Director at Dryden Gallery / Providence Picture Frame for giving me a preview of their incredible Archives Sale, which opens this Friday, June 12 and will run each Friday and Saturday through the end of July from 11am - 4pm each day. Providence Picture Frame is a 100+ year old art business and an institution in itself. It will soon be moving out of the converted textile mill it’s called home for many years and this exciting sale of work from the company’s archive is, what a seasoned collector I know referred to aptly as a “once-in-a-generation sale”.

I was supposed to be visiting Providence Picture Frame earlier this week on official business on behalf of the Providence Art Club. This sneak peak at the objects that would be for sale was supposed to grant us a chance to find some appropriate frames for naked paintings we own, as well as an opportunity to pick up a piece or two to add to our permanent collection. But, of course, I naturally lost all semblance of self control and bought a couple of items for myself.

I am extremely interested in the prints made of New York in the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s and was genuinely thrilled to have the opportunity to add two etchings from this period to my personal collection at this intriguing sale. After getting the work home, I did a bit of research and found out some incredibly fun facts about the makers of the pieces I selected. Collecting historic works of art can be interesting, and even dare I say, fun, and I hope sharing what I found and why I love these two pieces might inspire some other would-be collectors.

Nat Lowell,  Lower East Side , etching, 1930’s

Nat Lowell, Lower East Side, etching, 1930’s

The first etching is by the Latvian-born Nat Lowell (1880-1956), who trained at the Art Students League of New York and was a prolific printmaker, capturing the unique vibrancy of the City. This scene of the Lower East Side, probably from the 30’s, shows off the bustling harbor, which itself already dated back 300 years to the Dutch settlement of the island. It may be forgotten today to some extent, but for most of its history New York served as one of the most important ports in the world.

In Lowell’s dynamic image, he contrasts the masts of the sailing ships in the foreground with the spires of the city’s financial hub on the tip of Manhattan Island behind. It’s worth noting that the term “skyscraper” was originally used to describe the height of ships, not of buildings. The riotous sea faring vessels before use accentuate the solidity of the City, as do the billowing baroque clouds over head.

Nat Lowell,  Lower East Side , etching, 1930’s (detail)

Nat Lowell, Lower East Side, etching, 1930’s (detail)

I am unable to find this specific image online thus far, but works by Lowell can be found in the Metropolitan Museum, New York Public Library, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, The Library of Congress, and other important collections. One of the reasons I find original prints so exciting is that for an incredibly reasonable sum, you can live with museum quality work.

Karl Dehmann,  Metropolitan Museum , etching, 1928

Karl Dehmann, Metropolitan Museum, etching, 1928

The second etching is by Karl Dehmann (1886-1974), who was born in Germany and trained both in his native country and in Paris. He made his living for a short time as a copyist at the Louvre and wrote home at one point to complain that he wished he could make more money at his trade. Don’t we all, Karl?

This beautiful nocturne depicts the glowing Beaux Arts facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1928, which one source reports as the year Dehmann emigrated to the United States. This exact print can be found in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York as well as the Metropolitan Museum itself, which acquired it the year it was printed.

Karl Dehmann,  Metropolitan Museum , etching, 1928

Karl Dehmann, Metropolitan Museum, etching, 1928

You might notice that the seemingly cramped steps and horseshoe driveway in this image are not the hallmarks of The Met recognized today for its gracious cascade of stairs. This entry was dramatically altered in the early 1970’s under Thomas Hoving’s directorship. But this print captures a moment in time while also expressing the innate grandeur of the Richard Morris Hunt building abutting Fifth Avenue, as well as the drama of the well-lit facade against the inky night sky.

Both of these images are richly detailed and executed in a style that was extremely popular in this period. They are intricately and lovingly detailed. They exude two polar qualities of New York: the gritty excitement of downtown in the middle of the workday and the meditative night of a staid and cerebral uptown. They also express some of the wonderful technical qualities found in the medium of etching: the specificity of the line work, the graduated tones of dark and light, the possibility for an image to be descriptive, narrative, and abstract all at once.

It is also worth noting that both of these images, as well as many others crystallizing the singular personality of the place that Brooklyn-born poet Walt Whitman called “America’s great democratic island city”, were executed not by native-born artists but by individuals who came to the United States from abroad. This fact has a message for all of us living in the US in 2019.

Historical works of art can add so much to a collection because in looking at them we can know and understand their makers and their context in ways that do not always translate to artists and artworks of our own time. We know the way the places depicted have changed and that makes these works romantic, doesn’t it? We understand the impact that this school of printmakers had on the shaping of art history and that makes these works educative, doesn’t it? And, if we let the lessons inherent in works like these wash over us they can change our mind or make us see the world differently, can’t they?

Although one of today’s more popular art memes goes something like “buy work by living artists, the dead ones don’t need the money”, there is an alternative saying in the museum world about art-makers who are no longer with us. “The only good artist is a dead artist.”

In the case of collecting there are many great things about buying the work of living artists you might know and like, of course. But there is also something to be said for broadening, deepening, and enriching your collection with works by artists whose careers ended decades ago and whose productions were influenced by an entirely different set of social, political, and artistic realities than we know now.

When I look at the prints I recently purchased, I see not only the New York of Lowell and Dehmann, but I feel inklings of my own experience in the City. I also see indications of familiarity on the part of these printmakers with artists whose work I will never be able to afford like Edward Hopper or Martin Lewis. And for a much more affordable price I can bring prints that capture the zeitgeist of their time with technical precision and artistic flourish into my home.

I removed these prints from their frames and pulled them out from under glass and I honestly cannot stop looking at them. They are a delight and I know I will enjoy them for years to come.

And that is truly the best art investment money can buy.

Providence Picture Frame’s Archives Sale is on July 12, 13, 19, 20, 26, and 27 from 11am - 4pm. They are located at 27 Dryden Lane in Providence, Rhode Island.