Hillstrom Museum of Art acquires etching suggested by student Sydney Swenson (’22) Posted on July 9th, 2021 by

Eliza Pratt Greatorex (1819-1897), The Pond at Cernay-la-Ville, 1880, etching on paper, 4 1/4 x 6 13/16 inches, Hillstrom Museum of Art purchase with endowment acquisition funds


The Hillstrom Museum of Art at Gustavus Adolphus College recently acquired an 1880 etching by Irish-born American artist Eliza Pratt Greatorex (1819-1897), The Pond at Cernay-la-Ville.  The work was one of seven presented by members of the spring 2021 Museum Studies class as suggested acquisitions.  Each student identified an etching from the American Etching Revival period in the last quarter of the 19th century and argued why the work would be a desirable addition to the Hillstrom Collection, which has significant holdings of such etchings.  The students voted for what they considered the most appealing and appropriate work, which the Museum acquired using funds from an endowment established by Museum namesake Richard L. Hillstrom to support acquisitions and programming.

The Greatorex etching was presented by third-year student Sydney Swenson, an athletic training major with an interest in art and museums.  In her discussion, she emphasized the artist’s importance as one of the most notable female American artists of her time.  Greatorex, for instance, was the second woman ever to be elected as an Associate of the august National Academy of Design in New York, an honor which occurred in 1869.  She was instrumental in making it possible for women artists to participate in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and she used her influence to help young women who wanted to become artists.  She was friends with suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony.

She had come to the United States as a young woman, in 1840, where she lived in New York, married a musician, and studied painting.  Greatorex turned to art full-time upon becoming a widow in 1858, earning a living by selling her work and by teaching art at a girls’ school.  Both of her daughters, Eliza and Kathleen, also became recognized artists.

Like a number of artists of the Etching Revival, Greatorex came to etching as an addition to her already-established practice as a painter.  After initially concentrating on landscape painting, she transitioned to pen drawings based on her travels, in Europe, New York, and the western part of the United States. She first turned to etching due to her dissatisfaction with the photographic reproductions of her drawings being published in books.  Her early etchings were thus simply copies of drawings she’d already made, but she soon became a peintre-graveur, a French term that translates as “painter-etcher” and indicates an artist who makes etchings as original works of art rather than as reproductions of already-existing artworks.

Greatorex may have learned something of the etching process through fellow etcher James D. Smillie (1833-1909), who is also represented in the Hillstrom Collection and who had a studio in the same Fifth Avenue building in New York.  She studied etching formally in 1879 in Paris with Charles Henri Toussaint (1849-1911), known particularly for his architectural images of the French capital.  And around the same time, Greatorex worked with Maxime Lalanne (1827-1886), important for both for his etchings and for his technical treatise Traité de la gravure à l’eau-forte, a highly-regarded handbook on the etching technique that appeared in an 1880 English translation titled A Treatise on Etching.

Cernay-la-Ville, the picturesque rural village depicted in the recently-acquired etching by Greatorex, is located some 30 miles southwest of Paris and had been attracting artists since the early 1800s.  By the second half of the 19th century it was an established artist colony that drew both European and American artists, the latter including Winslow Homer (1836-1910) and Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919), both also represented in the Hillstrom Collection.  Greatorex herself had painted in the area in 1860 (she exhibited paintings from nearby Chevreuse in New York in 1863) and returned again in 1880.

The Pond at Cernay-la-Ville is one of her best-known etchings, partly because examples of it were included in the May, 1881 edition of The American Art Review, a publication that promoted the Etching Revival significantly.  In an article about Greatorex that was part of a series titled The Works of the American Etchers, Sylvester R. Koehler described the artist and her etchings to that date.  Koehler, an expert on etching in America, was the editor of the periodical, served as the first curator of prints of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and was the translator of Maxime Lalanne’s etching treatise, mentioned above.

In his article, Koehler stated that Greatorex’s work is “delicate, rather than strong,” but the image in The Pond at Cernay-la-Ville is both.  The artist’s touch varies from fine, wispy lines that indicate the clouds in the sky and their reflections on the pond, to the solid blacks that form the foreground trees and other foliage.  Near the center foreground can be seen a boldly-indicated figure reaching into the water, perhaps a young man catching with his bare hands the crayfish that were popular in France at the time, collecting them in the basket partly submerged to his left.

In the print’s right background are two delicately-outlined poplar trees at the far edge of the water, spiraling their way up to the sky.  Poplars are “fastigiated,” which means they grow upwards in a columnar form that narrows towards the top.  Poplars are known for their fast growth rate, which is enhanced by the watery locations in proximity to which they are often found. Their use as an appealing artistic motif was well-established by the time of Greatorex’s etching and became even more well-known when 11 years later Impressionist master Claude Monet (1840-1926) painted his famed series of poplar trees near his studio in Giverny.  The trees have a horrific implication in America, however, because of their association with lynching, as in Strange Fruit, the song written by Abel Meeropol and recorded in 1939 by Billie Holiday, which has the lyrics “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

None of that terror is intended in Greatorex’s depiction of Cernay-la-Ville, which evokes a calm afternoon with perhaps a touch of a breeze to stir the watery grasses growing in the pond.  One can imagine the artist on site with her small etching plate in hand as she recorded her impressions directly on it.  The plate used for the etching measured only about 4 1/2 by 6 7/8 inches so would have been easily portable.  This is one of the salient characteristics of American Etching Revival prints, that they were frequently “drawn” on site and therefore tend to be immediate and direct but not very large.  For additional information about the American Etching Revival, see the earlier blog entry on the 1879 etching by William Merritt Chase (1949-1916), Keying Up—The Court Jester, acquired in connection with an earlier Museum Studies class.

Examples of The Pond at Cernay-la-Ville are also found in the collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Brooklyn Museum, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and others.  An example of the etching was shown at the Salon in Paris in 1881, and it was one of 37 works by Greatorex included in the landmark exhibit Work of the Women Etchers of America shown in Boston in 1887 and New York in 1888.  Greatorex is the subject of a recent monograph, Restless Enterprise: The Art and Life of Eliza Pratt Greatorex, by Katherine Manthorne (University of California Press, Oakland, 2020).


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