A Celebration of Women Writers

"Etching." by Miss Blanche Annie Dillaye (1851-1931 or 1932).
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 643-644.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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"Far away in archaic times, when the chief pride of man lay in his armor and implements of war, these were ornamented with curious tracings in the manner of engraving, or the bitten line, and here we find the first faint trace of that which was to grow into a great art.

"It was given to Holland, which had taken but a slight part during the revival of etching in the sixteenth century, to lead it in the seventeenth century. Here Rembrandt, the prince of etchers, was born in 1607. He stands first, not only in the vast army of etchers that made this century pre-eminent in the art, but first for all time. Those qualities which particularly adapt etching to the delineation of expression, which form its central idea, which set it apart and sanctify it for certain uses, these qualities were seized upon, emphasized and perfected by Rembrandt. He found the art in a crude state, but brought it out of obscurity and developed its possibilities. He used the free etched line with a masterly daring that has never been equaled. His mind was so vigorous and lofty that mere prettiness did not so much as reach to his level. He was full of the dignity, character and grandeur of stern humanity; all manner of men were to him of endless interest. Decrepit old age, ruin, ugliness–all had for him the power and intensity of individuality, and by his imagination he lifted them out of the mire and showed the world the beauty of soul that hides beneath rough exteriors."

What are the essential qualities of etching, which form its essence and differentiate it from other mediums?

First of all, it is born of line; line is by its nature suggestive and not imitative, it deals with selection and omission, not with elaboration and subtle tones. In all arts reserve is strength; selection presupposes knowledge; and tact in omission is the refinement of understanding. The limitations, then, which forbid to etching a diffuse mode of expression add to its power by concentration, and elevate it to the level of poetry by giving to it a measured form, and it becomes to art what the sonnet is to literature."

"Etchers can not rely on an attractive exterior to cover up paucity of thought; [Page 644]  flowery additions and superfluous methods they leave to other mediums. They should come at once to the vital truth; they should select the essentials and leave the nonessentials to them; there should be no joy in appearing to do a simple thing in a difficult way; they should prefer simplicity always, for in this simplicity lies the sublimity of their art.

"Large and elaborate plates should be shunned by the painter-etcher, for he can not for months, while his plate is going through stages of undue finish, 'feel vividly some overmastering thought;' nor can he be possessed by 'the heat of a passionate inspiration' while he plods over an unwieldy copper plate and laboriously draws straight lines to fill up numberless square inches of bituminous shadow. Passion does not work that way; it has an ancient and old-time preference for spontaneity.

"It was discovered one day that etching stood as a stamp of culture, and all those who love to masquerade in giant's robes sought to wrap themselves in its ample folds. Etching was taken up by fashion, commerce discovered its golden uses; the demand for etching was instituted and the artist succumbed.

"Step by step the art that has stood the test of the ages, the art of Rembrandt and Claude, abandoned its birthright. One engraver's tool after another crept in, and mechanism took the place of art. The line that once swayed to an impulse began to labor unceasingly with tones and semitones, the spirit and passion took flight, and its noble simplicity, its spontaniety, freedom and strength, its purity, suggestiveness and emphasis were blurred and lost in a verbosity of line. It ceased to be autographic; it became photographic.

"There will always be those to whom it will be a chosen art, a few original minds who find in it an appealing something that other mediums lack. To these it must ever remain dear, and among the many who have plied the needle there will be the survival of the fittest, those who have been true to it, those who have never degraded it, those who have preserved it in its integrity. In their hands it rests to carry it over this period of apparent failure, and when it shall have revived, a century hence if it must be so, it will be its true self that will rise, the mean garbs that have clothed it of late will be stripped from it, and it will shine forth in the simplicity and beauty with which it is endowed by those characteristics which are its prerogative."

Process:–Definition of etching; definition of biting; plates employed in etching (illustrated); ground employed in etching (illustrated); needles and tools used in etching (illustrated); manner of laying the ground; mordant or bath used; slow acid; quick acid; individuality or temperament of etcher shown in his manner of biting; methods of several eminent etchers.

Principal Processes–Stopping-out process, in use by etchers of old disadvantages. Continuous process; advantages. The result of underbiting; the result of overbiting.

Etching Proper–Dry point, its charm (illustrated); the burr defined (illustrated); effect in printing (illustrated); effect when removed.

The Printing–Proofs, how taken; plaster proof (illustrated); states of the plate (illustrated); trial proofs (illustrated); retroussage (illustrated).

The Remarque–Its original significance, its history, its perversion.

Etchers Classified–The painter etcher; the reproductive etcher; the engraver etcher.

History: Early beginnings–Armor and war implements engraved in Archaic times; engraving known to Goldsmith before it was used in printing. Twelfth century, letters found bitten into steel. Fifteenth century, a receipt found for a "water which hollows out iron;" earliest dry points; early claimants; Germany gives us the Hopfers, a family of etchers; 1515, Albert Dürer, etcher. Sixteenth century pervaded by commercial spirit. Seventeenth century, etching revives and advances; in Holland, Rembrandt, Van Dyke, Rubens; in France, Claude Lorraine. Eighteenth century, a time of exhaustion. Nineteenth century, great revival, French influence, publishers, writers; English influence, Seymour Haden, Whistler, Hammerton; America, a powerful school arises; New York Etching Club organized; Philadelphia Society of Etchers; early exhibitions.

Value:–Essential qualities of etching, suggestive not imitative; its limitations, its beauties, individuality, range, emphasis, directness; the necessity of thought; the necessity of significant line; the necessity of personality; the necessity of spontaniety; unfavorable influences; demands of the public; demands of the publisher; demand of the artist necessity.

Result:–Abandons its true qualities; engravers' tools creep in; exhaustion follows, the art wains; survival of the fittest; revival in the future.

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Miss Blanche Dillaye is a native of Syracuse, N. Y. Her parents were Hon. Stephen D. Dillaye (French descent) and Charlotte B. Malcolm (Scotch descent). She was educated at Miss Bonney's and Miss Dillaye's School for young ladies (now Ogontz School), and has traveled in Europe, England, France, Holland, Italy and Germany. Miss Dillaye is director of the art education received at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Her specialty is etching; she has exhibited in all the large cities of England and at the French Salon, Paris. She was one of the women who contributed to the exhibition of the women etchers of America (exhibiting forty etchings), held at Boston in 1888, and afterward in New York in the same year. She was chairman on etchings for the State of Pennsylvania on the Woman's Auxiliary of the Board of Lady Managers for the Columbian Exposition, 1893. Her postoffice address is No. 1430 South Pennsylvania Square, Philadelphia, Pa.

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* The following is a brief synopsis of the paper read by Miss Dillaye, followed by the author's notes, showing the manner in which the subject was treated.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom