How Our Quarter Century Began

Filed Under: About AIGA , history , Article

Editor's note: The following is an address delivered by former AIGA President (and Medalist) J. Thomson Willing at the 25th Annual Meeting in New York City on May 31, 1939.

In any discussion of the development of graphic arts in America, a glance at their ancestral strains of Mid-Victorian England must be included in any review of growth over the past half century. England's 18th-Century portrait art had called forth a great development of reproductive skill in her mezzotint engravers. Lithography, being invented about the beginning of the 19th Century, gave opportunity for autographic duplication of drawings. Wood engraving, through [Thomas] Bewick, became a graphic art with an integrity of its own but was soon debased into a means to display drawings by special artists. These artists, in fine books and magazines, influenced an era and are known and celebrated as "The Illustrators of the Sixties." This era was carried forward into the next two decades largely through the influence of The Graphic, an illustrated weekly, started in London by W. L. Thomas. As art editor he used such artists as Frank Holl, Luke Fildes, Charles Green and William Small. The Franco-Prussian War, coming shortly after the early issues of this paper, gave it the opportunity to publish such dramatic picturizations as had never been attempted previously in any publication. After the war, a vast number of war incidents, episodes and battles, became subjects of paintings in art exhibitions. This brought attention to subjects from our own Civil War. Publishers in America felt inspiration from foreign publications and put forth effort for native expression.

The firm of Harper & Brothers assembled an able staff whose highest note was struck in Harper's Christmas, a folio in which appeared the work of their artists—E. A. Abbey, Alfred Parsons, Elihu Vedder, C. S. Rinehart, Arther Quartley and Fred Dielman, almost all of whom had worked for Harper's Magazine.

A magazine had been started, at the instigation of Roswell Smith, by the house of Scribner, called Scribner's Monthly. This was changed in 1880 into The Century Illustrated Magazine with Roswell Smith, President of the new company, as publisher; Josiah Gilbert Holland, Editor of the magazine; and Richard Watson Gilder as assistant. Mr. Gilder soon succeeded as Editor-in-Chief. He was ably supported by Alexander Wilson Drake as Art Superintendent. This magazine's art became sensationally fine, outdoing any publication of its time in the world. Not only were great pictures from the European galleries wonderfully translated, but American artists were commissioned to illustrate the current life of the time. Significant trends in art methods as well as individualism in conception were made known to the public. St. Gaudens' work in sculpture was exploited. The work of George Inness in landscape and the drawings of Wyatt Eaton and J. W. Alexander in portraiture were made known to America.

When William Morris Hunt returned to Boston from some years' study in Paris, he brought a great enthusiasm for the poetically conceived paintings of J. Francois Millet. The Century Magazine promoted appreciation of this work with great energy. All the distinction the magazine achieved from its art presentations was due to the exercise of Mr. Drake's knowledge, judgment and taste and adventuring. He began the method of photographing his subject on the surface of the wood block instead of having it drawn as was done heretofore, thus preserving the original design for reference and comparison. He welcomed the process-etching of zinc plates of line pen work—a tremendous advance in retaining the quality of the work of such "penmen" as [Edwin A.] Abbey, [Robert] Blum, [Alfred] Brennan and [Joseph] Pennell. The most noticeable achievement, however, was the marvelous skill attained by what came to be known as "The American School of Wood Engraving." All the subtle values of paintings were translated with the burin into black and white by Timothy Cole, G. Kruell, Elbridge Kingsley, W. B. Closson, Henry Davidson, Frank French and Fred Juengling. Previous to this time, steel engravings had been given a distinguished place in America by the portrait work of William Edgar Marshall in his large plated from his paintings of Lincoln and Grant, worthy of the Golden Age of Engraving of the 17th Century. The stimulus given to appreciation of pictorial work resulted in the publication of illustrated books of importance. "The Book of the Tile Club," a quarto volume made under Mr. Drake's supervision, was a fine display of the art of that organization of young artists, among whom were W. M. Chase, who recently returned from study in Munich, J. Alden Weir, Fred Dielman, Frank Millet and F. Hopkinson Smith.

The "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayaam," illustrated by Elihu Vedder, under supervision of Joseph Millet, was sensational when published in Boston. In that city, Louis Prang was issuing Christmas cards designed by the best artists of America: Rosina Emmett, C. D. Weldon, Dora Wheeler and Vedder; and in that city also, James R. Osgood was publishing books that evidenced taste above the ordinary commercial acceptance; and this was followed later by book designs by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, influenced by the William Morris Kelmscott books in England, with the [Edward] Burne-Jones decorations. In that city, too, remarkable lithographic work in portraiture was done by J. Baker. He produced portrait drawings of the New England poets—[Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow, [John Greenleaf] Whittier and (James Russell) Lowell—which had qualities of subtlety and charm. In New York, publicity for the stage was promoted by lithographic portraits of theatrical stars, drawn on the stone by Napolean Sarony, before he adopted photography as a profession; and, in Cincinnati, by Riminoski.

Amateurs of fine printing became collectors of the productions of the foremost presses since the beginning of the art in the 15th Century, forming themselves into a society known as "The Grolier Club." This Club became a potent factor in developing taste in book production. Conspicuous among its members were R. H. Hoe, W. Loring Andrews and Alexander W. Drake. The Club did much by exhibitions and other publicity to establish quality standards and especially to call attention to French work. The activities of these men had their effect on magazine illustrations and page display.

In the early years of the 20th Century, cumulative legends and traditions of accomplishment in America had a dynamic value among young workers in the graphic arts. These younger man talked, planned, devised and discussed inventions and processes. A group of such devotees came together without formality but with much earnestness, meeting at 70 Fifth Avenue and later at the National Arts Club. They were known as the "GRAPHIC GROUP." Among these were Arthur S. Allen, color expert; John Clyde Oswald, publisher; Heyworth Campbell, art director for Vogue magazine; Fred Cooper, poster designer; Cyril Nast, art director; T. N. Fairbanks, paper manufacturer; E. B. Edwards, designer of decorations; Joseph H. Chapin, art director for Scribner's magazine; and W. E. Rudge and Hal Marchbanks, high grade printers.

Early in the year 1914, announcements came from Europe that an extensive International Exhibition for the Book Industry and Graphic Arts was planned to take place that year in the city of Leipzig, the chief patron of which was Frederich Augustus, King of Saxony. Invitations to participate were sent to all countries. Such an invitation came to the United States Secretary of State at Washington. It was referred to President Wilson and he, being familiar with The National Arts Club in New York, thought that such an organization should undertake American representation in such an exhibition, rather than have it managed by a government commission. The matter was referred to Mr. John G. Agar, then President of the National Arts Club. Through his vice president, Mr. W. B. Howland, publisher of the Outlook, and Charles De Kay, art writer and secretary of the Club, he called together a group of club members known to be engaged in some form of graphic art production.

These members met and names were suggested as possible prospective members for a national organization. Mr. Alexander W. Drake, an active member of the Club, was the principal adviser in regard to a list of those whom Mr. Agar planned to have meet him as his guests at a dinner at the National Arts Club. There were many acceptances to his invitations. Among these were most of the members of the Graphic Group, all of whom had been invited. About 40 guests sat down to the dinner. At the head table were the host, Mr. Agar, Mr. Howland, Major George Haven Putnam, publisher and author of a book on early printers, as well as having a printing establishment in connection with his publishing business, Professor Arthur W. Dow, head of the Fine Arts Department of Teacher's College of Columbia University, Henry Wolf, engraver, and Arthur Wiener, who had been commissioned to represent the Leipzig Exposition. Short speeches were made by Professor Dow, Major Putnam, Ernest Haskell, Will Bradley and F. A. Ringler. A vehement appeal was made by Mr. Wiener, urging a full showing at Leipzig of American work.

Of course, those present had to be organized into an operating company before anything could be pledged or undertaken. A resolution was passed authorizing the appointment of a committee to draft a constitution and by-laws. That committee was composed of Messrs. Howland, Drake, De Key, Joseph H. Chapin, Frederick B. Lamb and Arthur S. Allen. The name of the organization was suggested by Mr. De Kay, who also wrote the constitution and by-laws in which the objects were stated as follows:

"To stimulate and encourage those engaged in the graphic arts; to form a center for intercourse and for exchange of views of all interested in these arts; to publish books and periodicals; to hold exhibitions in the United States and to participate as far as possible in the exhibitions held in foreign countries, relating to the graphic arts; to invite exhibits of foreign works; to stimulate the public taste by schools, exhibitions, lectures and printed matters; to promote the higher education of these arts; and generally to do all things which will raise the standard and aid the extension and development toward perfection of the graphic arts in the United States."

At a meeting on February 17, 1914, the Constitution and by-laws were adopted and officers elected as follows:

Honorary President: Alexander W. Drake
President: William B. Howland
Vice President: John Clyde Oswald, The American Printer
Treasurer: J. Thomson Willing, The American Lithographing Company
Secretary: Charles De Kay, National Arts Club

In the membership prospectus, which was afterwards distributed, it was stated that the membership would include those interested in the graphic arts in all parts of the United States. This included artists, printers, publishers, etchers, engravers, photographers, lithographers and electrotypers. One result was a letter from Mr. Joseph Pennell, written in his characteristically caustic manner, saying—"By what stretch of the imagination could photography be included as one of the graphic arts?"

In our 25 years of experience, photography has been the most potent factor in developing most forms and phases of the graphic arts. In the Leipzig exhibition, it was given an important part in that show.

Our quarter century began auspiciously with the selection of such a distinguished idealist and competent art executive as Alexander W. Drake—"Perfection's lover all his life"—for the position of honorary president. As titular head, he established a tradition that gives prestige to any later occupant who may become the expressive symbol of our objectives. He stood for steadfastness in standards. He exercised the taste that alone gives distinction and had the personality that endears and endures. In 1841 Emerson said that "an institution was the extension of the shadow of one man." This quotation has been applied to our retiring president in relation to his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I wish that the American Institute of Graphic Arts might be the extension of the shadow of its first Honorary President.