December 13, 2015

A Visit to the New York Public Library

Among the fifteen million items housed in the majestic main branch of the New York Public Library are treasures ranging from medieval manuscripts to baseball cards.  Not only can researchers access over 100 special collections for indepth exploration of almost any topic imaginable, but the Library mounts scholarly exhibitions on a regular basis that are free and open to anyone who passes by.

On view this season are two exhibits that are typical of the breadth and scope of the Library's holdings.  Upstairs on the third floor we find "Printing Women:  Three Centuries of Female Printmakers", a topic close to my heart and a show I've been longing to visit.  Drawn from the collection of Henrietta Louisa Koenen (1830-1881), wife of the first director of the Rijksmuseum Print Room in Amsterdam and benefactor of the NYPL, this show presents 84 etchings, lithographs, engravings and woodcuts created by women printmakers between 1570 and 1900.

Printmaking, until recently, was generally viewed as a masculine endeavor, but there have always been a few women who bucked the trend and tackled this technically and physically challenging field.  On view are works by early practitioners some of whom came from artistic families, some were scholars in their own right, some were academicians and court artists, but all of them were women of a certain social class that allowed for artistic diversions of this sort.

Anna Maria Von Schurman 
"Self-Portrait, Age 33", 1640
The first female student at the University of Utrecht

Many of the images are rather standard portraits, landscapes and decorative floral motifs, but there were some real surprises.  In particular an engraving of "A Child Seated Blowing Bubbles", 1751 by Madame de Pompadour, the official chief mistress of King Louis XV, was charming in its fanciful nature.  I was also amazed to find two works, one etching and one lithograph, by Britain's Queen Victoria.  An accomplished printmaker, she drew on her own family for inspiration and often gifted these works to close friends and relatives.

Queen Victoria (1819-1901)
"Alfred.  January 30, 1846"

This is the first time since 1901 that the public has had a chance to see this important group of works by female printmakers and it is a long overdue look at the integral role that women have played in the print medium since its beginning.

Moving downstairs to the ground floor we come to "Public Eye" the first-ever retrospective of photography ever organized by the NYPL.  Drawing from their considerable holdings with examples dating back to the invention of the medium in 1839, the Library presents a comprehensive time line of the history and development of photography up to the present day.  What is unique about this exhibition is that it is framed in a contemporary perspective - one that is fully engaged in sharing imagery via social media.

A group of cartes de visite of various subjects

The sharing of images, be they paintings, prints or photographs, has been integral to the dissemination of information since the beginning of time.  Early daguerreotypes were carried as mementos of loved ones, cartes de visite were kept as souvenirs of travels and baby pictures were pasted into albums to be shown to grandparents and future generations.  Now, thanks to the digital age, images are created shared at an unprecedented rate without leaving any physical evidence.  What does this say about our culture and society?  How does this impact future generations?  Is our privacy and security at risk?  While the NYPL poses the questions, I am not sure that they have provided any sort of answers.  

What they have certainly done is present a very fine, well-curated history of photography with examples of portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, art photography, stereoscopes, publicity images, news shots and many other varieties of the genre by both unknown photographers and masters like Stieglitz, Curtis, Atget, Muybridge and Arbus to name just a few.  What they have also accomplished is to clearly make the case that photography is here to stay, whether in albums or on-line, humans love pictures!

I leave you with my own photograph of one of my favorite holiday traditions - a wreath bedecked "Fortitude" guarding the entrance of one of New York's most venerable institutions!

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