Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Michelle Donnelly

Art of Dox Thrash

[caption id="attachment_23087" align="alignright" width="265"]A dark, rich, carborundum print of Thrash's childhood home: a cabin with a slanted roof, a twisting dirt path approaching it, and three figures on the porch. One stands in a dress, holding a child (likely intended to be Thrash) and another sits in a rocking chair. A light shroud surrounds the house. Cabin Days portrays Thrash’s childhood home, a former slave cabin in Griffin, Georgia, with crooked clapboards, broken shutters, and a tilted porch. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Dox Thrash (1893-1965) was an accomplished draftsman, printmaker, watercolorist, and painter, whose art reflected his experiences as an African American in Philadelphia. He became well known in the 1940s after developing the Carborundum printmaking technique at the Philadelphia Fine Print Workshop (311 Broad Street) of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. By rubbing coarse Carborundum crystals onto a metal plate with a heavy flatiron, he created prints with dense blacks, smooth, sculptural forms, and velvety textures. His dignified representations of African Americans in his portraits, genre scenes, nude studies, and landscapes deeply resonated with the black community in Philadelphia and earned him national acclaim.

[caption id="attachment_22842" align="alignright" width="264"]A color, oil self-portrait of the artist in a light blue collared shirt with the top button unbuttoned, and red suspenders.   The background is a dull green, composed of wavy, seaweed-like brushstrokes, not unlike impressionist painter Van Gogh's similarly-styled self-portrait.  He stares sternly off to the right (at a 45 degree angle). His hair is black, with some grey mixed in. Thrash created this bust-length self-portrait around 1938, the year he started to gain national attention for his invention of the Carborundum printmaking process. (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)[/caption]

Born in Griffin, Georgia, Thrash settled in Philadelphia in 1925 to pursue his lifelong ambition to become an artist. He had first studied art by taking correspondence courses as a teenager. In 1914, he enrolled in evening classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. His studies were interrupted in 1917 by the U.S. entry into World War I. After serving in the army for fourteen months in an all-black unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers, Thrash resumed his art education in Chicago. Eligible for government funding because of his war service, he registered as a full-time student for the first time in 1920. Over the next three years, he studied painting, drawing, mural design, commercial art posters, lettering, and decorative composition. He also received private tutoring from William Edouard Scott (1884-1964), a distinguished African American painter and muralist. Thrash then worked part-time jobs and drew portraits in Boston, Connecticut, and New York before finding work as a commercial artist in Philadelphia. He designed posters for the American Interracial Peace Committee, which held an annual Negro Music Festival, and the Tra Club, a cultural center founded by African American artists.

Accomplishments in Printmaking

Thrash developed his skills as a printmaker under the guidance Earl Horter (1880-1940) at the Graphic Sketch Club (which in 1944 became the Samuel S. Fleischer Art Memorial, located at 719 Catharine Street). There, he mastered a variety of techniques, including etching, aquatint, drypoint, mezzotint, lithography, and linoleum cut. He enjoyed experimenting, often combining several processes in one print and reworking his plates to create unique impressions.

[caption id="attachment_22837" align="aligncenter" width="575"]A print that captures two working men standing at the freight yard, the clock tower of city hall can be seen at the right edge. A dirt path and shrubs are in the foreground, with the city in the background. Executed for the WPA, Freight Yard is one of Thrash’s many prints that explores the role of workers in an urban-industrial environment. (Free Library of Philadelphia)[/caption]

In 1937, Thrash joined the Philadelphia Fine Print Workshop. His investigations of materials and techniques led him to invent the Carborundum printmaking process. With the help of colleagues Hugh Mesibov (b. 1916) and Michael Gallagher (1898-1965), he discovered that roughening the surface of a copper plate with Carborundum, a gritty industrial substance normally used to prepare lithographic stones, produced a wide range of rich tones and smoothly modeled forms. Thrash coined the prints he created “Opheliagraphs” in honor of his mother.

Thrash’s innovations in printmaking brought him widespread acclaim. Over the next two decades, he became a prominent artist in the Philadelphia region, exhibiting his work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Print Club of Philadelphia (the Print Center, 1614 Latimer Street), and Philadelphia Art Alliance (251 S. Eighteenth Street). His strongest support came from the Pyramid Club (1517 W. Girard Avenue), a black cultural society that included his work in its annual exhibitions and introduced him to an influential network of artists, curators, critics, and dealers.

African American Community

[caption id="attachment_23089" align="alignright" width="233"]A dramatic portrait (carborundum print) of a man wearing a hat, looking upward and to the left, with light shining on his face from that direction. He wears a collared shirt and the background is pitch black, with light accents around the edges of his hat. Thrash created more than thirty character studies of African American men and women that reveal the dignity and strength of the black community, as seen in Second Thought (My Neighbor). (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Thrash’s reputation quickly grew outside of the Philadelphia region. Beginning in the late 1930s, he participated in landmark exhibitions of African American art across the country. The philosopher, writer, educator, and leader of the Harlem Renaissance Alain Locke (1885-1954) selected his prints for the exhibitions Contemporary Negro Art at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1939, Art of the American Negro (1851-1940) at the Chicago Coliseum in 1940, and American Negro Art, 19th and 20th Centuries at the Downtown Gallery in New York in 1941. His work was also displayed in Chicago in the 1941 inaugural exhibition at the South Side Community Art Center, a racially diverse workshop run by the Federal Art Project. The following year, he had a solo exhibition of his graphic art at the historically black college Howard University in Washington, D.C.

[caption id="attachment_22840" align="alignright" width="210"]A print of an etching featuring light and dark hatching and cross-hatching. A woman sits on a stool or chair with one leg crossed over the other.  She uses a curling iron to curl her black hair. A chair is in the foreground, facing her, and partially obscuring her, and a table is at the back left.  Several objects sit atop it, including a small clock. This etching features a black woman performing a common yet rarely depicted ritual in American genre scenes: the curling of her coarse hair to prepare for a night out, as hinted by Thrash’s title, Saturday Night. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Thrash earned praise not only for his technical innovations but also his sympathetic representations of African Americans. As art historian Kymberly N. Pinder has noted, his art participated in the shaping of a positive black identity, as put forth by Locke and sociologist, writer, and educator W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). Challenging negative representations of African Americans as grinning buffoons that had circulated in mass visual culture since the nineteenth century, Thrash created sensitive, compelling portrayals of black individuals in a variety of media. His portraits, character studies, and genre scenes, such as Mary Lou (c. 1939-40), Second Thought (1939), and Saturday Night (c. 1942-45), depict black subjects with a sense of dignity and strength. Thrash also produced rural and urban landscapes that featured black actors. Prints such as Cabin Days (c. 1938-39) allude to his southern upbringing. Others, such as Freight Yard (before 1943), focus on Philadelphia industries, in dialogue with the art of the Social Realists of the 1930s and 1940s.

[caption id="attachment_22843" align="alignright" width="253"]A dark, velvety, charcoal-like carborundum print of a black riveter, perspective from below, garnering a feeling of grandeur and greatness, despite the worker's race and hard-labor job.  A big white cloud is behind him, creating a halo-like shroud around him.  Thrash produced Defense Worker, 1941, using the Carborundum printmaking method. (Free Library of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Thrash began to focus more strongly on black laborers during World War II when African Americans faced widespread discrimination in the rearmament program. Although he was a proud veteran, he was denied employment at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1942 because of his race. Prints such as Defense Worker (c. 1941) feature self-motivated black men productively contributing to the war effort. From his portraits to his genre scenes to his cityscapes, Thrash’s wide-ranging subject matter addressed pertinent issues faced by African Americans.

Thrash remained active in the Philadelphia art scene until his death in 1965. Despite the national attention the Carborundum technique achieved during his lifetime, it failed to be embraced by artists outside the Philadelphia Fine Print Workshop. The seminal 2002 exhibition Dox Thrash: An African American Master Printmaker Rediscovered organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art brought renewed attention to Thrash’s inventive approaches to printmaking and the salience of his subject matter to the black community of his era.

Michelle Donnelly is a Curatorial Fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She earned her M.A. in Art History from the University of Pennsylvania in 2014 and worked as a Curatorial Assistant at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 2013 to 2014. 

Art of Thomas Eakins

[caption id="attachment_20335" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Seven people and a driver sit in a red coach driven by four brown horses.  They're positioned on a path in Fairmount Park, surrounded by grass and trees.  The lady wears a colorful dress and hat; the men all wear hats, the majority of which are top hats. Eakins referenced wax sculptures and Eadweard Muybridge's equine photographic studies in order to accurately depict horses in motion. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

The art of Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) is more deeply entwined with the city of Philadelphia than that of any other artist of the nineteenth century. Born in North Philadelphia in 1844, Eakins spent nearly his entire life in the city. He consistently took local residents as his subjects, portraying friends, family, and individuals he admired engaged in professional activities and leisure pursuits. His oil paintings, watercolors, sculptures, and photographs vividly reflected late-nineteenth-century life in Philadelphia and had a lasting impact upon generations of American artists.

[caption id="attachment_20326" align="alignright" width="230"]A colorful painted portrait of a woman in red and white, from the side.  Expressionist-like brushstrokes capture the folds of her clothing and a plume of feathers traveling backward from her hat.   The background is a warm brown tone of blurred, implied objects. The loose brushwork in Carmelita Requeña reveals the influence of Eakins's teacher, Léon Bonnat, who encouraged his students to emulate the painterly techniques of the Spanish Baroque masters. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)[/caption]

Eakins received his first art lessons from his father, Benjamin Eakins (1818–99). A writing master and teacher, Benjamin imparted to his son the precision of fine penmanship and calligraphy. Eakins employed his deft control of the pen in his drawing classes at Central High School, where he learned to create meticulous mechanical and perspective drawings. His growing interest in art led him to enroll at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA, then located on Chestnut Street between Tenth and Eleventh Streets) in 1862. He initially took antique-cast drawing classes—the main course of study for students—before he registered for life classes in the spring of 1863. Seeking greater insight into the structure of the human form, he supplemented his art courses with anatomy lectures and dissections at Jefferson Medical College (later Thomas Jefferson University).

After four years of instruction at PAFA, Eakins pursued further artistic training abroad. From 1866 to 1869, he attended the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. Under the guidance of the leading academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), he gained a strong command of drawing the nude figure. He also learned to sculpt from Augustin-Alexandre Dumont (1801-84), creating small maquettes as aids to painting—a practice he continued throughout his career. Eakins then spent the winter of 1869-70 in Spain, where he became enraptured with the dark colors and bold, gestural brushstrokes of the seventeenth-century paintings of Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) and José de Ribera (1591-1652). Stimulated by his artistic discoveries and emboldened by his academic training, Eakins created his first large-scale oil painting, A Street Scene in Seville (1870).

Early Athletic Scenes

[caption id="attachment_20330" align="alignright" width="304"]A landscape painting of a river, reflecting a close embankment to the left side and a more distant one on the right.  Two bridges run parallel with the horizon line, and the main subject of the painting is Max Schmitt, seating in a single, yellow scull, turned to his right to look at the viewer.  Another sculler is rowing away toward the bridges and horizon behind him. Eakins paid homage to his childhood friend, a champion oarsman, in his painting Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (The Champion Single Sculls). (Metropolitan Museum of Art)[/caption]

Eakins returned to Philadelphia in July 1870. He set up his studio at his childhood home at 1729 Mount Vernon Street, where he lived for the rest of his life. He painted relatives and friends, predominantly women, engaged in everyday activities in domestic interiors. He was also inspired by the outdoor sports he had enjoyed since youth: rowing, fishing, hunting, and sailing. Eakins embarked upon a series of oil paintings and watercolors of male athletes at identifiable locations in the Philadelphia region. As such scholars as Elizabeth Johns and Martin A. Berger have argued, Eakins’s sporting pictures reflected his community’s growing interest in modern leisure and its changing constructions of masculinity. After the Civil War, a rise in economic prosperity and an increasing preoccupation with physical health led Americans to pursue recreational activities outdoors. Although both sexes participated in athletics, physical fitness became associated with manhood; a strong body demonstrated a strong mind. Sculling was a particularly popular sport among middle-class men in Philadelphia, one that required rigorous discipline.

An avid rower since the 1860s, Eakins created approximately fourteen sculling works. The first and best known of these is Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (The Champion Single Sculls) of 1871. Eakins portrayed his longtime friend Max Schmitt (1843-1900) in a boat on the Schuylkill River, which was located near the artist’s home. As with all of his major works of art, Eakins created the painting through a laborious artistic process, which, as scholar Michael Leja has argued, involved the combination and reconciliation of multiple systems of knowledge: linear perspective, anatomical research, and mathematical calculation. Eakins’s methodically crafted composition celebrated a popular Philadelphia activity and paid tribute to the mental and physical dexterities of his friend, a champion oarsman.

Science and Anatomy

In April 1875, Eakins created what would become known as his masterpiece, The Gross Clinic. The monumental painting features Dr. Samuel D. Gross, a pioneering Philadelphia surgeon with whom Eakins had become acquainted at Jefferson Medical College. Gross is shown performing a bone operation with the help of five doctors in Jefferson Medical College’s surgical amphitheater. Through his dignified efforts to the save the limb of an ailing patient, Gross appears as both a healer and a teacher—the hero of a modern history painting. Eakins specifically created The Gross Clinic for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The art committee rejected the painting, however, offended by its bloody subject matter. Eakins displayed it in the exhibition’s medical section, where it drew attention to Philadelphia’s long history as an advanced medical center.

[caption id="attachment_20328" align="alignright" width="274"]Eakins notoriously emphasized the study of the nude during his first year of teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Eakins notoriously emphasized the study of the nude during his tenure at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Eakins began working at PAFA the same year as the Centennial Exhibition. Informing his teaching with his interest in science and anatomy, he shifted PAFA’s emphasis from the study of plaster casts to the study of the nude. He insisted on the use of live models (both human and animal) in drawing and painting classes and added dissection courses to the curriculum. He also gave lectures on anatomy and invited surgeons to speak. Eakins felt that only by gaining a thorough understanding of skeletal and muscular structure could students adequately represent the human form. He exerted such a strong impact upon the institution that within only six years, he was appointed director.

Eakins’s teaching practices were deeply controversial, however. His insistence on the study of the nude in mixed-sex classes and his frequent use of pupils as models led to repeated conflicts with faculty, students, parents, and PAFA’s board. Objection to his teaching methods escalated after an incident in January 1886 in which, during an anatomy lecture on the pelvis, Eakins infamously removed the loincloth from a male model in front of female students. Exasperated by what was perceived to be consistently inappropriate and insubordinate behavior, the board forced Eakins to resign.

Despite his tarnished reputation, Eakins continued teaching after he left PAFA. He ran classes at the short-lived Art Students’ League of Philadelphia (1429 Market Street), an artists’ cooperative formed by loyal male students who seceded from PAFA after his resignation. He also lectured occasionally at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, the National Academy of Design in New York, and Cooper Union in New York, always insisting upon the importance of the study of the nude.

Photography

In addition to oil painting, watercolor, and sculpture, Eakins experimented with photography in the 1880s and 1890s. Using a wooden view camera and glass plate negatives, he produced platinum prints of great tonal richness. The majority of his photographs are figure studies and portraits of students, family, and friends; most were created as independent works of art. In the few instances in which Eakins utilized his pictures as preparatory aids to painting, he rarely copied them directly. More typically, he took elements from a variety of photographs and transformed them in the final work.

[caption id="attachment_20338" align="alignright" width="260"]a black and white time-lapse image of a nude male pole-vaulting.  It captures the figure at timed intervals, resulting in about eight apparent semi-transparent overlapping figures going through the singular motion of pole-vaulting. In the mid-1880s, Eakins used the photographic technique of Étienne-Jules Marey to study how the human body moved through space. (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)[/caption]

In the 1880s, Eakins produced a series of photographs that engaged with an Arcadian theme. He took pictures of PAFA students posing in classical drapery and in the nude, and he made several excursions with his pupils to photograph them in idyllic outdoor settings. The photographs taken on a trip to Dove Lake near Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, led to Eakins’s painting The Swimming Hole (1885). Relying upon his photographs as general references, he depicted a scene of nude young men on a rocky outcrop. Scholars such as Berger, Lloyd Goodrich, and William Innes Homer have described the painting and its related images as homosocial, or explorations of male companionship. Others, such as Whitney Davis, Jennifer Doyle, and Michael Fried, have argued that the works are homoerotic because of their emphasis on the male physique. Regardless of their reading, Swimming Hole and its related photographs reflect Eakins’s enduring interest in the human body.

Eakins also used photography to study human and animal locomotion. In 1884, he was part of a committee at the University of Pennsylvania that oversaw the work of Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), who had gained international renown in the 1870s for his equine photographs. Seeking to discover whether horses lifted all four hooves off the ground when galloping, Muybridge set up a series of cameras alongside a track and took sequential shots of the animals’ movements. Eakins relied upon Muybridge’s pioneering photographs in his representation of horses pulling a coach in The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand (A May Morning in the Park) (1879-80). Eakins also carried out his own photographic studies of motion as part of his ongoing quest to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the human body. He photographed men walking, running, jumping, and pole-vaulting in the nude.

Late Paintings

[caption id="attachment_20336" align="alignright" width="240"]Eakins briefly returned to sporting subjects in 1898 and 1899 after concentrating exclusively on portraiture for a decade. (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Eakins briefly returned to sporting subjects in 1898 and 1899 after concentrating exclusively on portraiture for a decade. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Eakins briefly returned to athletic subjects in 1898 and 1899, producing a small number of boxing and wrestling paintings. As with his earlier rowing, hunting, and sailing scenes, the inspiration for these works arose from his enthusiasm for the sports. He attended matches at the Philadelphia Arena (then at Broad Street and Cherry Street, diagonally across from PAFA) and used professional fighters as his models.

Except for these few sporting pictures, Eakins devoted the remainder of his career to portraiture. Since he rarely received commissions, most of his sitters were family, friends, and professionals he admired. He portrayed creative and intellectual individuals, such as musicians, scientists, doctors, teachers, poets, and artists. Rather than idealizing his sitters’ appearances, he painstakingly represented their facial features, aging skin, and bone structures. Depicted in isolated settings with closed mouths, searching eyes, and tilted heads, his subjects appear as though they are in deep introspection. The most well known of these psychologically penetrating portraits is The Thinker (1900), which features Eakins’s brother-in-law, Louis N. Kenton.

Legacy

[caption id="attachment_20337" align="alignright" width="210"]A self-portrait painting of Thomas Eakins leaning backward at an angle. He wears a black vest, suit jacket, and bow tie.  He has salt-and-pepper grey hair, beard and mustache.  The background is splotchy, somewhat abstract mixture of brown and dark grey tones. Eakins created this self-portrait near the end of his career to fulfill a requirement for associate membership of the National Academy. (National Academy Museum via Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Although Eakins sold fewer than thirty paintings and only had one solo exhibition in his lifetime, having lost prestige when he left PAFA, he exerted an incredible influence upon his students, many of whom became renowned artists. Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) gained an international reputation for his religious paintings. His studio assistant and close friend Samuel Murray (1869-1941) developed a thriving career as a figurative sculptor. Eakins also taught the realist painter Thomas Anshutz (1851-1912), who became the head instructor at PAFA in 1909. Dedicated to the study of anatomy and perspective, Anshutz passed down Eakins’s techniques and devotion to the human figure to those who became the leaders of the next generation. He most notably taught the forerunners of the Ashcan School: Robert Henri (1865-1929), John Sloan (1871-1951), George Luks (1867-1933), Everett Shinn (1876-1953), and William Glackens (1870-1938). Eakins’s teaching methods and subject matter served as a model for students in the Philadelphia region long after he left PAFA.

It was not until after Eakins’s death that scholars and critics began to recognize his role in the history of American art. Goodrich’s 1933 biographical study was instrumental in drawing attention to Eakins’s unwavering, almost scientific devotion to the representation of the human body. By mid-century, Eakins had not only become a source of pride for Philadelphia but also a celebrated figure in the canon of American art history, widely praised for his meticulous working methods, portrayal of everyday life, and influential, though controversial, teaching strategies. Considered one of the greatest American artists, he is represented in the collections of major museums across the country.

Michelle Donnelly is a Curatorial Fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She earned her M.A. in Art History from the University of Pennsylvania in 2014 and worked as a Curatorial Assistant at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 2013 to 2014.

Printmaking

[caption id="attachment_17125" align="alignright" width="240"]Duval Printing This 1849 advertisement by Christian Schüssele called attention to the new color printing technologies available at P.S. Duval’s Colour Printing & Lithographic Establishment. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Philadelphia became a leading center of printmaking in the United States. While publishing companies had operated in the city since the eighteenth century, the technological innovations of the firm of Peter S. Duval (1804/5-86) transformed Philadelphia’s lithographic trade into a booming industry. Duval’s commitment to improving printmaking methods and achieving complex artistic expression was taken up in the twentieth century by the Philadelphia Fine Print Workshop of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. Then, following World War II, a flourishing of printmaking centers, including the Brandywine Workshop and the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions, enabled a new generation of artists to experiment with a variety of techniques and materials, cementing the Philadelphia region’s reputation as a pioneer in the field of printmaking.

Philadelphia witnessed the birth of American lithography in 1819 when Bass Otis (1784-1861) produced the country’s first lithograph. Invented in Germany in 1798 by Alois Senefelder (1771-1834), lithography is a planographic process that relies on the inability of oil and water to mix. A greasy crayon is applied to a smooth limestone or metal plate, which is then treated with a chemical solution, sponged with water, inked, and sent through a printing press. As American artists and printers experimented with the technique in the 1820s, they discovered that it allowed for long print runs, large sizes, and the easy combination of text and image. Commercial lithographic production began in Philadelphia in 1828 with the founding of Kennedy & Lucas (active 1828-33). Within just a few years, the industry dramatically expanded. By 1878, over 500 artists, lithographers, printers, and publishers had participated in the city’s lithographic trade.

[caption id="attachment_17124" align="alignright" width="228"]Richards Grandpa's Pet John H. Richard, working for Duval, produced the country's first lithotint, Grandpapa’s Pet, in 1843. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

No publisher was more influential in transforming the art and the business of lithography than Peter Duval. The French lithographer arrived in Philadelphia in 1831 to work for the publisher Cephas G. Childs (1793-1871) Although only twenty-six years old, Duval brought a level of expertise that few Americans could match. In fact, he was the only lithographer in Philadelphia who had received professional training. After quickly achieving success with Childs, he partnered with George Lehman (ca. 1800-70) to found Lehman & Duval (Dock Street and Bank Alley) in 1834. Three years later, he opened his own firm, P.S. Duval’s Lithographic Establishment, at the same location. It then moved to the Artisans’ Building between Fourth and Fifth Streets, between Chestnut and Market Streets, from 1848 to 1857.

A Wide Range of Printing Services

In contrast to Philadelphia firms in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that specialized in one product, Duval offered a wide range of services, including advertisements, billheads, certificates, checks, circulars, labels, maps, pamphlets, sheet music covers, and title pages. His workshop also served as a training ground for a generation of printmakers, whose artistic abilities, he believed, should match those of fine artists. Through on-the-job instruction, lithographers not only developed their technical skills but also their drawing and painting skills. Because of Duval’s dedication to technological improvement, Philadelphia became one of the first cities in the United States to utilize steam power in lithographic printing. He successfully mechanized one step of the printing process—the pulling of the stone through the press—in 1850 in an attempt to save muscle power and increase efficiency. By the 1860s, he managed to automate the rest of the procedure, including the dampening and inking of the stone.

In addition to streamlining lithographic practices, Duval was a forerunner in color printing. To find an alternative to the costly and time-consuming process of hand coloring, he experimented with tinted lithography in the 1840s. A tinted lithograph, also known as a lithotint, is a monochromatic lithograph printed in several hues from one stone. However, although the method allows for printing numerous inks in various gradations, it cannot print bright, bold colors. Duval finally achieved success with true color printing, or chromolithography, in 1849, printing three or more colors from separate stones. His firm immediately began producing portraits, landscapes, illustrations, advertisements, and title pages with a wide variety of hues. His artists’ skillful reproductions of oil paintings, also known as “chromos,” became so popular that an entire industry arose in Philadelphia dedicated to manufacturing mass-produced, affordable replicas of paintings. Duval’s foremost “chromo” rivals included Thomas Sinclair (active 1838-81), Wagner & McGuigan (active 1845-57), and L.N. Rosenthal (active 1852-84). Overall, Duval and his contemporaries not only elevated lithography from a practical to a fine art but also helped make works of art more available to the multitudes.

The Philadelphia Fine Print Workshop

[caption id="attachment_17128" align="alignright" width="339"]Thrash WPA Print Defense Worker, 1941, was produced by Dox Thrash using the Carborundum printmaking method. (Free Library of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Continuing in the tradition of nineteenth-century printmaking firms, the Philadelphia Fine Print Workshop (311 Broad Street) of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project increased the accessibility of art to the public during the mid-1930s and early 1940s. The primary aim of this New Deal program was to provide employment to artists during the Great Depression. Yet it also sought to introduce art into the everyday lives of Americans by offering the use of its facilities and materials to the local community. It distributed editions to public institutions, such as schools, libraries, and post offices, and held exhibitions in unconventional spaces, such as parks, settlement houses, and subway stations, to allow people of all socioeconomic backgrounds the chance to encounter art outside of a museum or gallery.

The Philadelphia Fine Print Workshop was the only graphic art center of the Federal Art Project specifically devoted to the creation of fine art prints. While other workshops manufactured commercial products, such as posters, brochures, maps, and charts, the artists of the Philadelphia Fine Print Workshop created etchings, engravings, woodcuts, lithographs, dry points, mezzotints, and aquatints for their own creative endeavors. They saw printmaking not simply as a means of mechanical reproduction but as an imaginative process that helped them reconceptualize their approaches to art-making.

Furthermore, the Philadelphia Fine Print Workshop was one of the most racially diverse graphic art centers in the country. African American artists such as Dox Thrash (1893-1965), Claude Clark (1915-2001), and Raymond Steth (1917-97) acquired unparalleled access to costly tools and equipment as well as to a community of artists with a wide range of technical expertise. In an oral history interview for the Archives of American Art, Philadelphia printmaker Hugh Mesibov (b. 1916) explained that a strong sense of community developed among workshop artists, regardless of race. They consistently shared knowledge and exchanged ideas as they explored the possibilities of printmaking technologies together.

As a result of this collaborative environment, the Philadelphia Fine Print Workshop became a center of innovation. Its most significant accomplishment was the invention of the Carborundum printmaking technique, which the Philadelphia Tribune called “the first important innovation in the printmaker’s art in a century.” Carborundum is a coarse, granular industrial product traditionally used to clean lithographic plates. Thrash discovered its ability to produce images of great tonal richness while experimenting at the workshop in 1937. After rubbing the material onto a copper plate with a heavy flatiron, he realized that the Carborundum crystals created a rough, pitted surface that held ink. Mesibov, who was looking over his shoulder, suggested that he use a knife-like tool called a burnisher to polish the surface to create lighter tonalities. Thrash took Mesibov’s advice and sketched a nude. After this initial collaboration, Thrash and his colleagues continued to explore the artistic potential of Carborundum together, developing the Carborundum relief etching and the color Carborundum relief etching. Although these processes never gained popularity outside of the Philadelphia region, the Federal Art Project administration and newspapers across the country, from Time to Popular Mechanics to Magazine of Art, hailed the Philadelphia Fine Print Workshop for its pioneering discovery. Approximately 108 Carborundum prints were created for the Federal Art Project between 1937 and the project’s termination in 1943.

Post-War Printmaking Centers

[caption id="attachment_17127" align="alignright" width="200"]Allan Edmunds, MLK’s Humanity of Man, 2001(Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) In MLK’s Humanity of Man, Allan Edmunds combined offset lithography with screenprinting, stenciling, and collage. (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)[/caption]

Building upon the legacy of the Philadelphia Fine Print Workshop, artists founded numerous graphic art centers devoted to artistic collaboration and community engagement during the 1970s and 1980s, including the Fabric Workshop and Museum (1214 Arch Street), the Ettinger Studio (2215 South Street), and the Printmaking Center of New Jersey (440 River Road, Branchburg, New Jersey). Two of the most prolific, which continue to operate today, are the Brandywine Workshop (730 South Broad Street) and the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions (Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 33 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, New Jersey). The founder of the Brandywine Workshop, Allan Edmunds (b. 1949), studied with Sam Brown (1907-94), one of the African American artists employed by the Philadelphia Fine Print Workshop.

Like the Philadelphia Fine Print Workshop, the Brandywine Workshop and the Brodsky Center have aimed to educate the public on printmaking processes through classes and lectures. Additionally, they have sought to introduce artists to new technologies by offering equipment and technical expertise for a wide range of methods, from traditional processes, such as etching, engraving, woodcut, and lithography, to more recent methods, such as electroplating, photo-emulsion screenprinting, and video imaging. Edmunds and Judith Brodsky, the founder of the Brodsky Center, have established non-hierarchical environments to encourage artists to work with printers, papermakers, students, and fellow artists. They believe that through such exchanges, artists will come across new, inventive ways to conceive of their work. The Brodsky Center, with its university location, has also taken on the role of a research facility where people can think creatively, develop ideas, and investigate alternative media.

[caption id="attachment_17129" align="alignright" width="258"]Shapiro Frida Miriam Schapiro collaborated on Frida and Me with printer Eileen Foti at the Brodsky Center. (The Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions)[/caption]

As the Philadelphia Fine Print Workshop granted opportunities to artists who had been marginalized because of their race, the Brandywine Workshop and Brodsky Center have actively reached out to artists of color. Edmunds and Brodsky have recognized that few African American artists, especially women, have had the chance to master the technical processes of printmaking. Their artist residency programs have exposed artists of all backgrounds to the possibilities of media technologies and have provided extensive professional development. Since the time of their founding, over three hundred artists have passed through the doors of the Brandywine Workshop and the Brodsky Center, including Will Barnet (1911-2012), Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), Barbara Chase-Riboud (b. 1939), Spencer Finch (b. 1962), William Kentridge (b. 1955), Glenn Ligon (b. 1960), Howardena Pindell (b. 1943), Faith Ringgold (b. 1930), Carolee Schneemann (b. 1939), Kiki Smith (b. 1954), Miriam Schapiro (b. 1923), Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971), and Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953). Through their emphases on creative collaboration and technical innovation, the Brandywine Workshop and Brodsky Center have built upon the rich legacies of Peter S. Duval and the Philadelphia Fine Print Workshop to continue the tradition of printmaking in the Philadelphia region.

Michelle Donnelly earned her M.A. in Art History from the University of Pennsylvania. As a Curatorial Assistant at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, she curated the exhibition “Art for Society’s Sake: The WPA and Its Legacy” in 2013. She is a Samuel H. Kress Interpretive Fellow at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York.

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