One Hundred Years at the Library: From Prints to Pixels

In celebration of the centennial of the Frick Art Reference Library, peek into the past one hundred years of the library’s remarkable history through important places, people, and objects from the collections. The objects featured are included in the commemorative publication One Hundred Objects in the Frick Art Reference Library and are available for consultation in our reading room.

In the second entry, we consider the library’s collections of reproductions, which have evolved over time to encompass the major developments in the field of art history, from printmaking to photography to digital images.

Before the invention of photography in the nineteenth century, printmaking was the only way to reproduce works of art for broad circulation. Until that point, those unable to see works in person primarily viewed them in reproduction, made through traditional printmaking techniques including woodcut, etching, engraving, mezzotint, aquatint, drypoint, and lithography. Famously, artists also employed these same techniques to create original works; the sixteenth-century German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer is a notable example, producing elaborate woodcuts and engravings, masterpieces in their own right.

Print of two cows, two sheep, and a goat lying in a field Print of a bare-chested woman with drapery flying around her and her fist raised to strike a muscular man on a kneeling on a cloud beneath her
Left: Maria Katharina Prestel (German, 1747–1794), print after Johann Georg Wagner’s Two Cows, Two Sheep, and a Goat (location unknown, artist active ca. 1744–1767), ca. 1780. Right: Maria Katharina Prestel, print after Jacopo Ligozzi’s Good Triumphant over Evil (Albertina, Vienna, 1658), 1782. The Frick Art Reference Library

Housed in the Frick Art Reference Library’s collections is an extraordinary example of such reproductions, a portfolio from 1782 of thirty-six prints made after Old Master drawings. The portfolio is called the Kleine Kabinett, meaning “small cabinet” in German and referencing the physical rooms in which such prints could be enjoyed. Produced by the husband-and-wife engravers Johann Gottlieb and Maria Katharina Prestel and their pupil Regina Katharina Schönecker, the prints were made with a variation of the aquatint process, a time-consuming and painstaking technique.

Using multiple inked plates and applying successive layers of gold leaf, oil paints, and other pigments, Schönecker and the Prestels recreated the atmospheric and highly finished effects of original drawings by Italian, German, and Dutch masters, including the late Italian Renaissance artist Jacopo Ligozzi (above, right). Portfolios like the Kleine Kabinett enabled the widespread appreciation of drawing as an artistic medium, and fine prints themselves were sought after by connoisseurs as collectible items.

Underground space lined with shelves of books and folders
The Frick Art Reference Library in its original home in the basement bowling alley of the Frick residence at 1 East 70th Street, ca. 1923. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

A century later, the advent of photography completely transformed the visual arts and art history, a change that led to the formation of the Frick Art Reference Library and its founding collection, the Photoarchive (above). Begun in 1920, the Photoarchive—one of the first of its kind in the country—was conceived of by Helen Clay Frick, who was inspired to create the collection after touring British art historian Sir Robert Witt’s holdings of photographs of European works of art.

Extensive study collections of photographs stimulated scholarship and utilized the relatively new technology to promote and serve the field of art history—particularly in the United States, where scholars otherwise had to travel overseas to study great European works of art in person. Access to thousands of reproductions of artworks, with accompanying documentation, also revolutionized the mechanics of art historical study: The ability to easily sort through and compare a vast number of works of art side by side at one time—including viewing multiple photos of the same work at different stages in its history—was unprecedented, dramatically shifting the discipline’s focus from artists’ biographies to the formal analysis of style.

Three people standing next to an old-fashioned car
From left, photographer William McKillop (?), art historian Lawrence Park, and Gertrude Hill on a library-sponsored photography expedition to Virginia, 1922. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

In order to build the Photoarchive’s collection, from 1922 through 1967 the library organized dozens of photography expeditions to obtain photographs of undocumented works of art in private collections and small public collections in the United States and in Italy. The first photographic expedition began in March 1922 in Virginia (above). Dr. Sidney Fiske Kimball, an architectural historian at the University of Virginia, helped Helen Frick plan the trip from Richmond through houses in the Virginia countryside. The group also consisted of Lawrence Park, an architect and art historian specializing in early American portraiture; Gertrude Hill, a friend of Helen; and the photographer William McKillop. Park estimated that during the trip they saw approximately 750 paintings, 557 of which were photographed and documented for the library, including measurements, notes pertaining to the colors in the paintings, and biographical information about portraits’ sitters obtained from the owners and descendants of the subjects. By 1967, the library amassed a collection of approximately 57,000 original negatives from the photography expeditions.

To supplement the materials gathered during the expeditions, the library purchased photographic reproductions through agents in Europe, including Madame Clotilde Brière-Misme, and from photography firms such as D. Anderson, Nicolo Cipriani, and Alinari. The library also received gifts of photos from museums, dealers, auction houses, art galleries, scholars, and individual collectors.

Black-and-white reproduction of a painting of a landscape with trees and a building in the distance
Photo reproduction of Paul Cézanne’s Le Sentier de la ravine, vu de l’Hermitage, Pontoise (private collection, 1875–77). Frick Art Reference Library Photoarchive; Alfred Stieglitz Gift from Georgia O’Keeffe, May 1947

Quite a few artists donated to the library as well, for example Malvina Hoffman, Alexander Stirling Calder, and Charles Henry Niehaus, who gave photographs of their sculptures. In 1947, the library received a gift from painter Georgia O’Keeffe of sixty-eight photographs of works by European modernist masters such as Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Paul Cézanne. Two of the photographs in the gift were marked as having been taken by O’Keeffe’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz, the influential photographer and gallerist: Cézanne’s Le Sentier de la ravine, vu de l’Hermitage, Pontoise (above) and Matisse’s Blue Nude (below). At his Fifth Avenue gallery, called 291, Stieglitz was known to exhibit original drawings and lithographs alongside photographs of paintings like these, to give a sense of the artist’s larger body of work, a practice that would be mirrored in the study of photographic reproductions at the Frick’s Photoarchive.

Black-and-white reproduction of a painting of a reclining nude woman
Photo reproduction of Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude (The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1907). Frick Art Reference Library Photoarchive; Alfred Stieglitz Gift from Georgia O’Keeffe, May 1947

Finally, just as printmaking gave way to the revolution of photography, later decades in the twentieth century saw an equally dramatic influx of digital technologies, which yet again changed how people viewed and interacted with images. The Frick Art Reference Library has kept in step with these extraordinary developments, continuing to introduce innovations to its holdings of reproductions for the study of art history. The library now not only builds its traditional physical collections of prints and photographs but also its digital offerings, including systemically digitizing the entire Photoarchive collection, available online in the Frick Digital Collections.

A recent initiative addressed the persistent desire in the digital realm to study works of art comparatively, the same way researchers at the library in the 1920s could view mounted photographs side by side to uncover new insights. In 2014, library staff members began collaborating with New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering and the Universidade Federal de Fluminense in Brazil to build an online tool to achieve this goal, calling it ARIES (ARt Image Exploration Space).

ARIES gives researchers practical tools to explore, annotate, rearrange, and group images in a single workspace environment (see below). Not only can scholars emulate laying multiple reproductions across a table for comparison, ARIES also harnesses tools that are only available in a digital environment, such as scaling reproductions to better understand relative size and stacking images on top of one other with varying opacities to easily compare features like contours or minute differences in details such as eyebrows.

Screenshot of a webpage showing a painting of a standing couple with the woman overlaid with female figures in other paintings
Screenshot of ARIES showing Anthony van Dyck’s James Stanley, Lord Strange, Later Seventh Earl of Derby, with His Wife, Charlotte, and Their Daughter (ca. 1636), in reverse, overlaid with his two Genoese Noblewomen (1622–27 and ca. 1625–27), Lady Anne Carey, Later Viscountess Claneboye and Countess of Clanbrassil (ca. 1636), and Margareta de Vos (ca. 1620). All works at The Frick Collection, New York

In their respective eras, printmaking, photography, and digital imagery were all new, cutting-edge technologies. Each allowed reproductions of works of art to be circulated and studied by ever-wider audiences and ushered in fresh approaches to the study of art history. The collections of the Frick Art Reference Library have reflected these developments in all three areas, from its founding in the 1920s through to the present. Reproductions formed the basis of the library’s holdings and continue to grow in many areas, helping fulfill the institution’s mission to make resources on art accessible to the public and to continually support art historical study in new and greater ways.

Learn more about the history and offerings of the Frick Art Reference Library at Discover all one hundred objects in One Hundred Objects in the Frick Art Reference Library. To explore more content celebrating the library’s centennial, watch our video series on YouTube, subscribe to our e-news, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Link(s): Tags:
Facebook Twitter Threads