Contributed by FDAC Board Member Sharifa T. Lookman ’17
One of the most important things I have learned as an art history major is that reproductions of artwork, whether in books or online, will never capture even a fraction of an artwork’s identity. A reproduction can’t convey the physicality of an object, especially its size, texture, and imperfections. This week I had the privilege of going behind the scenes to view a recent acquisition of the Davison Art Center, Anne Allen’s color etching, Fantasy Flower Design, ca. 1796 from Cahier No. 2 of Nouvelle Suitte de Cahiers de fleurs idèale à l’usage des déssinateurs et des Peintres.
Though etched and printed by Anne Allen, the design was by Jean-Baptiste Pillement, a mid-to-late eighteenth-century French painter and designer best known for his landscapes and decorative floral compositions. Praised for his refined taste and Rococo style, Pillement is known as one of the developers of “chinoiserie,” a mode of Western decoration that used exotic and fantastic imagery. Pillement traveled all across Europe and subsequently collaborated with many printmakers. It was through these exchanges that Pillement met Anne Allen, a young printmaker who was working in London. The two artists married and formed an artistic collaboration in which Allen etched Pillement’s designs. Allen herself is a rather mysterious figure: little is know about her, although 47 etchings are attributed to her.
Though we lack biographical information, we have great scholarship about the printing technique. The method of color printing that Allen used was new and exciting for the time. This process involves applying different hues of ink to selected portions of each etched plate using a dauber, a tool with a round head and straight handle. Inspired by the shape of the dauber, the technical term used for this method is à la poupée, French for “with the doll.” This method allows two or more colored inks to be applied to different parts of a single etched copper plate, The surface of the plate is then wiped clean, leaving the ink in the etched lines. Each inked plate then goes through the press once. Allen used two plates to print this etching in a total of six colors.
These techniques lend themselves to analysis of Fantasy Flower Design itself. After looking at the print up close with a magnifying glass it became apparent that the green color of the stems and leaves was printed from the second plate and the color of the flowers was printed from the first plate. This is particularly evident in the yellow ochre flowers, in which the green seeds are clearly overlapping the petals. The discrepancies and details of this layering can also be seen in the stem of the pink flowers, in which the green slightly overlaps the petals. The mark-making is eyelash thin and expertly constructs the lampshade forms of the bellflowers with crosshatching, in turn creating volume. Additional depth is created through tonal shifts, where the background blossoms are depicted in a neutral green while those in the foreground are of variant colors and therefore more detailed. In contrast to the more labored rendering of the flowers, some of the vegetation is depicted in a mere stroke. Perhaps most beautiful to me were the imperfections in the coloring of the plate tone, meaning the leftover ink that was not completely removed when the plate was wiped. A greenish blue hue, the background is uneven. One can see subtle variation due to the fiber of the paper. Details such as these are beautiful, intriguing, and only found when scrutinized up close.
Though at first glance simple and contained, this piece is in fact distinguished and dynamic, proving to be an excellent addition to the Davison Art Center collection. This work is representational not just of flowers, but also of the exploration and vitality of printmaking in an important time in the history of art.
Anne Allen (British [English], active 1790s), Fantasy Flower Design. ca. 1796, from Cahier No. 2, of Nouvelle Suitte de Cahiers de fleurs idèale à l’usage des déssinateurs et des Peintres. Color etching. John E. Andrus III (B.A. 1933) Fund and the Friends of the Davison Art Center funds, 2013. (copy photo: R. J. Phil)