Prints and Books: Informal Papers
Notes on Prints
How Prints Look, Photographs with a Commentary
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.