William Ivins, Jr. was curator of prints at the Metropolitan Museum from 1916 until 1946. During that time he built up the remarkable collections that can be seen there today, and he wrote a large number of prefaces to exhibition catalogues, as well as other, occasional pieces, which were later collected and published, and have now been reissued. At their best these are very good indeed, extraordinarily fresh and perceptive as well as beautifully written, and it is good that they have been made available again. But it is, perhaps, only with hindsight that one can appreciate that these little essays on “A Print by Rembrandt” or “Prints of English Landscapes” were preparing the way for one of the most stimulating and influential recent contributions to our thinking and feeling about art: Prints and Visual Communication (1953).

“As in life, so in the appreciation of art there come times when one must stop and take thought,” Ivins once wrote during the course of an essay on “A collection of prints by Albert Dürer.” But, in fact, neither museum officials in general nor, still less, curators of prints have thought much about the wider issues raised by the collections in their charge. The great contributions to thinking about art have tended to come from such men as Morelli and Warburg, Wölfflin, Panofsky, and Gombrich, who have not been directly concerned with museum work. For obvious reasons curators have concentrated primarily on the equally important problems of connoisseurship and aesthetic appraisal. This division of labor has often been deplored, and one of the reasons for welcoming the reissue of Prints and Visual Communication is that it so imaginatively combines appreciation and speculation.

Ivins himself had no professional training either as an art historian or as a museum official. He was trained as an economist and lawyer, and though he had been collecting art for himself for some years, it was not until he was thirty-five that—an amateur in every sense of the word—he was made the first curator of prints at the Metropolitan. Though he was obviously a man of the utmost sensitivity, and though his knowledge of printing techniques was incomparable (this is beautifully displayed in How Prints Look and Notes on Prints), there is reason to believe that he did not feel particularly at home with the minute scholarship which has usually attracted curators in this field and which is so valuably exemplified in the work of his contemporary, A. M. Hind, at the British Museum.

Ivins retained the lawyer’s constant need to make a case and to knock down the one established by his opponents. He had many of these. His friends describe him as having had a delightful personality but also a well-satisfied urge to make enemies of almost everyone who came his way. The desire to antagonize is certainly one way of achieving originality, and if—as has been claimed—his loudly expressed contempt for much of the ancient world sprang from the wish to irritate a distinguished colleague in the Department of Classical Antiquities, it is also true that this contempt was not merely petulant but led him to insights of real importance. Indeed, the main thesis of his book derives from a provocative paragraph which begins “It is, therefore, worth while to give a short list of some of the things the Greeks and Romans did not know ..”

Above all, however, Ivins was almost obsessively impatient with the idea of truth to materials—the concept of etching and engraving as arts in themselves with values of their own, the concept in fact which had dominated thinking on the subject ever since the “Revival of Etching” (on which he poured infinite scorn) in the mid-nineteenth century. The hostility he felt for Whistler was worthy of the author of The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. Ivins saw prints always as means rather than ends and this encouraged him to adopt a technological approach in direct opposition to that of late nineteenth-century aestheticism.

Such an approach might have led to a merely crude Philistinism were it not for the fact that Ivins had such a keen appreciation of beauty and was at war with himself as well as with the aesthetes. The earlier essays show him wavering between a scorn for beautiful books as snobbish ends in themselves and a reluctant, but genuine, admiration. These conflicting emotions lie at the heart of his masterpiece.

The themes of Prints and Visual Communication have been so powerfully developed by a number of influential writers since the book first appeared in 1953 that a summary risks doing less than justice to its real originality—the more so as (and anyone who has read the book will surely agree) much of its value lies in the author’s acute observation of individual works and dazzling asides which are not always followed up. One would, for instance, be glad to hear more of his views on Callot, who is somewhat sacrificed in the interests of Ivins’s views on commercial print making, and how tantalizing it is to be told no more than that “there can be few documents of greater interest to anyone who desires to watch the artist’s mind at work, than a well selected series of the trial proofs of the Lucas-Constable prints”—for Ivins himself could have selected and interpreted these documents with greater insight and sympathy than most of the specialists who have written about Constable.


Ivins, however, sticks ruthlessly to his main theme. What, he asks, constitutes the importance of the prints that have been under his care? He rejects, by implication, that this lies in the quality of blacks and whites, artfully swelling lines, and so on, and comes to the conclusion that prints of all kinds are basically a means of making exactly repeatable pictorial statements. Moreover, though printing processes were invented only in the fifteenth century, they are the first such means, and without them the much vaunted civilizations of Greece and Rome were stultified and contributed little of value to the modern world. An understanding of science and technology, for instance, can be conveyed only by illustrations, and he draws on the example of botany to show that the ancients themselves were aware of the deficiencies of the written word and of hand-drawn illustration as a satisfactory method of communication. It is easy, at this stage, to see why writers such as Marshall McLuhan have been so indebted to Ivins, and indeed it is probably because of a generous acknowledgment in The Gutenberg Galaxy that Ivins’s publishers were encouraged to reprint his book.

Methods of printing, however, vary greatly in their capacity for making adequate reproductions in adequate numbers and thus Ivins was inevitably led on to consider the possibilities inherent in each different method, and to view new developments and technological inventions in the light of their response to this challenge. It is these sections of the book which are the most valuable, for, making use of a subtle choice of illustrations, he analyzes with the greatest brilliance, lucidity, and wit the “codes” that different artists adopted for conveying complex visual information through changing, but always very restricted, means.

He points, for instance, to the “firm carefully considered outlines [of Pollaiuolo and Mantegna, who] shaded by using almost parallel lines running tilted from right to left without regard to the direction of the outlines. This gave somewhat the effect of flat washes of monochrome.” In Germany, on the other hand, where artists had been brought up on a different calligraphic tradition, the lines of shading tended to follow the shapes. “The Italians spent most of their time and thought on their outlines and their shading was primarily a rapid way of producing an added sense of three dimensionality. The Germans put as much time on the mechanical neatness of their shading and its calligraphic slickness as they did on their outlines. They also tried to combine this with all sorts of information about the local details and textures of the surfaces of the objects they represented.”

The consequences of this are seen in a pen and ink copy by Dürer of an engraving by Mantegna, which—whatever the artist’s intentions—is a highly idiosyncratic re-interpretation. Somewhat later Marcantonio Raimondi, the first great master of reproductive engraving, studied the works both of Dürer and of Raphael, and devised a system which conveyed “not the play of light across a surface, and not the series of local textures, but the bosses and hollows made in a surface by what is under it…. With the curious Italian logic of his time he reduced this to a sort of rudimentary grammatical or syntactical system….”

In recent years Gombrich, who has discussed similar problems on a much wider scale and with far greater richness of reference and implication, has acknowledged Ivins’s achievement in this field, and indeed after reading what Ivins has to say on Marcantonio Raimondi and other great reproductive engravers, one is compelled to look on their work in a new light.

But it is also in these chapters that one sees some of the unresolved conflicts in Ivins’s views on art. Until the adoption of lithography in the nineteenth century printers had to translate all the textures of paint or whatever else they were seeking to reproduce in etched or engraved lines. Some of them did this with great skill, and the prints that they produced were undoubtedly effective means of conveying the general sense—and sometimes more—of what they had seen. To this extent they might be expected to win Ivins’s approval. So great, however, is his suspicion of anything that smacks of virtuosity that they tend to be condemned out of hand.


Rembrandt, on the other hand, wins his unqualified praise just because his technique (or, as Ivins prefers to call it, absence of technique) was highly personal and suited only for conveying his own work. He points out—and this has recently been clarified in a superb book on Rembrandt’s etchings by Christopher White,* who also organized a beautiful exhibition on the theme at the British Museum—that Rembrandt’s prints present innumerable and clearly deliberate variations, even in the same state, through different degrees of inking, the use of different kinds of paper, and so on. No one would wish this to be otherwise, but what then becomes of Ivins’s theory that the essence of the print lies in its capacity for making exactly repeatable pictorial statements?

The same sort of confusion between reproduction and interpretation surely lies at the basis of one of Ivins’s most fruitful observations. He points out that until the advent of photography the untraveled art lover would have had to rely for his knowledge of classical sculpture almost exclusively on prints (here he seems to underrate the part played by casts), and as an example of what this must have meant he reproduces a large number of etchings and engravings, made at different periods, of the Laocoon.

There is such a disparity between the visual statement they [the engravers] made that only by an effort of historical imagination is it possible to realize that all the so dissimilar pictures were supposed to tell the truth about the one identical thing. At best there is a vague family resemblance between them. Had they represented butterflies instead of a known single statue, one would have said that they represented different families of the genus Laocoonidae. A comparison of them immediately raises Pilate’s question.

It does indeed, but one can make some attempt to answer it, for surely some at least of the engravers whose work Ivins illustrates were no more trying to “tell the truth” about the Laocoon than one version of a Rembrandt etching was intended to be more “truthful” than another. The disparity in question was at least as likely to be the result of conscious taste as of the “net of rationality” of the artists’ styles of engraving; for words, however inadequate they may be as a means of communication, have at least taught us that different observers have always seen different, sometimes conflicting, things in the same work of art.

Classical sculpture can, and has, conveyed radically different values to Bernini and Winckelmann, Thorwaldsen and Henry Moore. Such idiosyncratic interpretations may have been bad luck for our student poring over his books at home, but even here Ivins seems to exaggerate, for virtually all such students would have seen some work of classical sculpture and could use this as a measure against which to understand the engravings which confronted him. In much the same way even the clearest photograph of an unknown picture will be of use only to a student who is already familiar with other examples of the same artist’s work.

It is, therefore, exaggerated to claim, as Ivins does, that “When we think that it was on engravings of this kind that the comparison and discussion of the qualities and relative merits of works of art was based, it becomes easy to understand why so little of the art criticism and discussion of the past has any value for us today, except in so far as it throws light on the thought of its times, and why the subjects about which the critics and theorists talked, the qualities they looked for and found or did not find in works of art, are so amusing and puzzling to us of today.” Were this indeed the case one would expect to find that cheap travel and photography have eliminated differences of opinion about the value and attributions of different works of art. A quick glance at any current monograph will dispel such illusions.

In one of his most fascinating chapters, Ivins discusses the inevitable consequences of commercial engraving as a means of reproduction:

Functions that had been filled by one man got split apart in a specialization of labour. The painter painted. The draughtsman for the engraver copied in black and white what the painter had painted, or the Roman view, or ancient statue. The engraver rendered the drawings of these draughtsmen. The engravings in consequence were not only copies of copies but translations of translations.

In the nineteenth century the distortions involved reached their climax and are demonstrated here by a grotesque and telling illustration of one of Giotto’s frescoes in Padua engraved in 1860. But it was just now that salvation was on the way. Lithography was the first process since the great pioneering etchings and engravings of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to do away with the need for the middleman: “the artist’s drawing and the print were practically identical—there was no reworking of his drawing by another hand, let alone any copying of it in another medium, and it could be made in any way and with any or no linear scheme as the artist liked,” and this leads to a splendid and characteristic panegyric of Daumier, “who said what he had to say about life and politics, with never a thought that he should show off what tricks he could do with the medium.” Once again, however, Ivins slightly begs the questions raised by his book, as—like Rembrandt—Daumier was concerned to express only his own feelings not those of others.

And then came photography which, as far as the reproduction of works of art was concerned, eliminated subjective interpretation altogether—though here Ivins is not altogether convincing: the various families of the genus Laocoonidae can still be found in many recent textbooks. Nor is it wholly true that it was photography that brought within the reach of aesthetic appreciation those exotic and primitive arts which the academically trained engraver was bound to ignore or distort. At this stage Ivins joins forces with Malraux, whose Psychologie de l’Art, “in which part of the problem here dealt with is considered from a very different point of view and to quite another end,” came to hand only when his own book was nearly complete.

One can thus raise doubts about many of the incidental (and some of the substantial) points so confidently asserted in Prints and Visual Communication, and even at the cost of being subjected to one of those fits of ungovernable rage which his colleagues remember with awe, it would be well worth hearing him dispose of them—as surely he would. Nonetheless this is one of the most exciting books, not merely on prints as its title (and this review) might seem to indicate, but also about far wider fields of art and about communication generally that have been produced for the layman in recent years. For it is also one of the most readable and, in a strange, rather dour, way, one of the most moving. Despite his polemical refusal to indulge in any kind of aestheticism and his determined projection of a no-nonsense personality, Ivins’s feeling for works of art was obviously intense and it is memorably expressed. He was thus able to make a contribution to what he himself called “the history of European eye-sight” that was as stimulating as it was unusual.

This Issue

December 18, 1969