Manson Backus

Manson F. Backus: Print Collector, Book Collector

Did you know that the Bullitt Library is accessible to the public and often highlights books and resources related to our exhibitions for visitors to view? Visit the latest book installation related to Graphic Masters: Dürer, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, R. Crumb, on view just outside the Bullitt Library on the fifth floor of the Seattle Art Museum during the library’s public hours: Wednesday–Friday, 10 am–4 pm. Graphic Masters closes August 28, so hurry up and see it soon!

A Collector’s Collection

Several of the etchings by Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669) in the exhibition, Graphic Masters, are part of the Seattle Art Museum’s Manson F. Backus Memorial Collection. Manson Franklin Backus (American, 1853–1935) was a well-known, successful Seattle banker and philanthropist that, toward the later part of his life, became a learned collector of art objects. He traveled extensively to Europe and beyond amassing a large collection, over twenty-five years, of fine prints, other types of art, and a substantial library to support his learning.

Self Portrait with Saskia by Rembrandt

His engraving and etching collection was regarded with much esteem in the region. He regularly loaned prints to exhibitions at the Seattle Fine Art Society—an organization that would ultimately become the Seattle Art Museum—and then to the museum itself. In 1935, upon his death, his collection of more than 300 etchings and engravings was bequeathed to the Seattle Art Museum. Selected works from this collection have been exhibited over the years, notably in Manson F. Backus Memorial Exhibition: Etchings and Engravings in 1935; a three-part exhibition—Manson F. Backus Memorial Collection of Etchings by Masters—shown in 1937; and more recently, European Masters: The Treasures of Seattle, the companion exhibition to Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London in 2013.

“. . . a collector of etchings must be something of an artist in appreciation. . . . and judging by the prints on the walls of the entrance hall and the library of Mr. Backus’ Highlands home, his appreciation has been wide and sure.”
—“Second Hobby, Done Well, Is Found In M.F. Backus’ Etching Collection,” Seattle Sunday Times (February 1, 1931)

A Collector’s Library
In 1935, upon Backus’ passing, in addition to the print collection bequeathed, his extensive library on artists, technical aspects, and the collecting of prints was received by the Seattle Art Museum Library. The collection ranges from important titles of the 18th and 19th century, to titles that were likely purchased not long before his death. Each contains his distinctive bookplate that states: “Ex Libris, Confido in Deo [Trust in God], Manson Franklin Backus” and depicts a coat of arms with three doves and a chevron. We are pleased to be able to present a small sampling from the approximately 160 volumes that were willed to the library.

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Among his library are a number of fine editions, but none is more unique and interesting than Etchings: A Collection of 50 Invitation Cards Sent by Eminent Artists and Etchers to Art Patrons, a bound volume of collected invitation cards and etchings. Included within is an etching by William Hogarth (English, 1697–1764) and original sepia drawings by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, R.A. (English, 1793–1867) after Rembrandt and Meindert Hobbema (Dutch, 1638–1709). Not a lot of information is known about this work. An advertisement tucked into the volume confirms that the firm of George Bayntun in Bath, Somerset, England, bound the work, and that this was done sometime around 1900, but the person who compiled the collection is unknown. Additionally, no other edition of this work is known.

Hogarth print

—Traci Timmons, Librarian, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library

The Last Supper

Graphic Content: Woodcut

This is it, people. Less than a week left to get your fill of Graphic Masters: Dürer, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, R. Crumb before it closes August 28. In this, the last week of our groundbreaking summer exhibition, we deliver our final crash course in printmaking with a quick introduction to woodcut.

Get up close and personal with the rich history of woodcut prints by viewing Albrecht Dürer through the magnifying glasses provided in the Graphic Masters galleries. With more than 400 artworks by six artists, you’ll want to give yourself plenty of time to soak up the details during your visit to SAM.

Woodcut

What is a woodcut?

Dating back to the 14th century, woodcut was the first process developed in Europe for printing on paper. Woodcuts are a relief process —the artist makes a drawing on the block and chisels everything else away, leaving the raised lines on the surface intact. Before printing, a uniform layer of ink is rolled onto the wood block surface using a brayer.

Woodcuts are characterized by crisp outlines and a sharp contrast between the black ink and white paper. Dürer used hatching, a series of parallel lines that vary in thickness and frequency, to create a mid-toned background for Christ’s divine halo.

Images: The Last Supper, from The Large Passion, 1510, Albrecht Dürer, German, 1471–1528, woodcut, 17 5/16 × 12 1/16 in., Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The George Khuner Collection, Gift of Mrs. George Khuner, 1975 (1975.653.12). Illustrations: Time Marsden.
"Water Babies" by John Covert, 1919

Object of the Week: Water Babies

Once a founding member of the Society of Independent Artists, a close friend of fellow member Marcel Duchamp, an artist called original and innovative, and an active participant in the programs of the Société Anonyme—John Covert lived and died, well, anonymously.

Given Covert’s very short career, we should not be surprised that he is not a household name. His period of creative maturity lasted eight years, from 1915 to 1923. A stay in Paris just before this period proved uncharacteristically unfruitful—Covert later lamented that he wasn’t able to connect with the artist-intellectual circle there—and the disappointment of the Paris trip was a harbinger of a sad fortune. Covert returned to the US and contributed to an important moment for modern art, playing his role as a founder of the Society of Independent Artists, and serving as its first secretary in 1917. Working from his studio in New York, Covert received brief visibility with a solo exhibition of his paintings at M. de Zayas Gallery. Little came of it; in the larger art world he remained unknown and unappreciated. Pressed by poverty, he found himself unable to eat regularly, with no income to show for his artistic endeavors. He finally closed his studio in 1923.

During the second quarter of the 20th century Covert’s work was known only to friends and one-time peers. So few of his works were seen publicly that the artist did not develop any kind of reputation. He was actually thought to have destroyed all his works when he closed his studio, but that widely held belief changed in 1959, when eight Covert paintings arrived at SAM. In fact, the artist’s friend Kathleen Lawler had preserved some of Covert’s works, and it was Lawler’s brother-in-law that donated them to the museum. On September 18 of that year, SAM director Dr. Richard Fuller wrote a note of thanks to the donor, Paul Denby Mackie, expressing his admiration for Covert’s work, saying “Although he is not well known he played an important part in the development of modern art which I feel sure will be more widely appreciated in years to come.” Kudos to Dr. Fuller for seeing what many directors, especially at that time, would not have seen.

The arrival of the Covert paintings at SAM encouraged new study of the artist’s work. The Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts included Covert in its 1960 exhibition American Genius in Review. It’s cruel that he died a recluse that same year. The visibility of the Dallas exhibition provoked more interest, leading to graduate dissertations and theses that have placed Covert’s work amid the traditions of symbolist art and New York Dada. Four of Covert’s works have essentially been on permanent view since SAM’s expansion in 2007. He is, as Dr. Fuller anticipated, more widely appreciated than in 1959. However much Covert’s legacy grows in the future will depend to a large extent on SAM’s collection of Covert paintings (now seven), their exhibition and reception.

I find Covert’s work a quirky kind of fascinating, and especially magnetic to me is Water Babies. In this painting, the artist plays with the visual phenomenon of refraction. A peculiarity of physics, refraction makes our eye see an object bending and changing form as it is partially submerged under water, while our mind understands that the object itself remains unchanged. By painting the visual effect of refraction, Covert offers the viewer a chance to muse on reality, our perception of reality, and the slippery boundary that separates the two. The dolls would be creepy enough rendered as straight illustrations, but with certain parts disjointed and enlarged, they are like the beginnings of a bad horror film. Water Babies is memorable, even if the artist’s name isn’t.

John Covert's signature

At the lower right, Covert has signed the painting, with his fingerprint standing in to form the “O.” It’s not an especially graceful signature. To the left of the thumbprint, near its top, he incised the painting with a “C”, and opposite the thumbprint, a “V”—apparently an unsatisfactory first attempt. The finished signature, along the bottom of the thumbprint, seems to have been first incised and then traced in with graphite. The thumbprint, too, is encircled in graphite. Altogether, the signature serves as an odd, very personal, memento of a distinctive artist who may never be truly recognized.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Water Babies, 1919, John Covert (born Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1882; died Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1960), oil on paperboard, 25 1/4 x 23 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Paul Denby Mackie in memory of Kathleen Lawler and Nona Lawler Mackie, 59.152, © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Paul Macapia.
SAM VSO Mark Howells

Get to Know SAM’s VSOs: Mark Howells

Everyone knows museums have security guards, but not everyone gets to know the people behind the uniform. We spend our days with the works of artists such as Pablo Picasso, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, and Claude Monet, learning the nuances of each piece.

Johan Idema wonderfully describes museum guards in his book How To Visit An Art Museum as follows:

In order to put up with picture takers, soda smugglers and amateur art critics, guards require both the alertness of a police officer and the empathy of a kindergarten teacher. Consider museum guards the ground troops of the art world, who deserve your utmost respect. Some of them actually have amazing knowledge of art – former guards include painters such as Jackson Pollock and Sol LeWitt.

Many guards would speak with great passion, if only we asked them. Therein lies your opportunity. Have your questions ready and make your move when the gallery is quiet. Whatever the conversation, you will likely find that guards are able to offer what is often lacking in museums: human interaction and a proper conversation about art.

With Idema’s words in mind, we invite you to get to know us, SAM’s Visitor Services Officers (VSOs), with a monthly spotlight.

MARK HOWELLS
Raised between Portland and Bellingham, Mark Howells has been in the Puget Sound region for 30 years. He did IT Security and Audit before coming into the museum scene. In 1974, he worked his first museum job at the Oregon Historical Society as a junior summer docent. However, what lead him down the path to guest services was his experience in visitor studies during an extension course at the UW where he volunteered with the Washington State History Museum. Mark has worked at SAM since November 2015.

SAM: Graphic Masters: Dürer, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, R. Crumb comes to an end on August 28. Which artist have you enjoyed the most in this exhibit?

Howells: R. Crumb. He’s my generation. I had to hide his comix from my mom when I was a kid. Alternative comix were a fun part of my kid-hood, so I guess the nostalgia factor with Crumb was the best part.

What is your favorite piece of art currently on display at SAM?
The Bierstadt (Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast). He got the gray of the Pacific Northwest skies just right. That’s hard to do. I know that the location was just from his own imagination, but I go down to that area at the mouth of the Columbia quite a bit and I always look to see if I can find “that place.”

Who is your favorite artist?
I’m a historian, not an artist. Recently, I’ve studied up on local Pacific Northwest artists, so maybe Philip McCracken right now.

What advice can you offer to guests visiting SAM?
Ask questions. Don’t be intimidated. It’s just art.

Tell us more about you! When you’re not at SAM, what do you spend your time doing?
I like to hike around the Puget Sound and nerd-out on the history all around us. I’m trying to learn more about the built history in our communities. I do volunteer history work for the Camp Harmony Executive Order 9066 Committee (the Puyallup Fairgrounds was an Internment Camp in 1942) and I’m on the Archives Committee for the Queen Anne Historical Society doing glamorous digitization projects for them.

—Kathrine Humphreys, SAM VSO

Mark Howells with Philip McCracken’s War God. Photo: Natali Wiseman.
What is Aquatint?

Graphic Content: Aquatint

This week on Graphic Content we discuss aquatint, another intaglio method of printmaking. This is a oft-used method of Goya’s in his Los Caprichos series. Speaking of . . . you’ve only got two more weeks to see 80 prints from the Los Caprichos series in Graphic Masters: Dürer, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, R. Crumb.

This huge exhibition showcasing over 400 print works created across 500 years closes August 28. That means, you’ve got one more Press & Print: Drop-in Studio where you can experiment with the techniques you see in the exhibition. Also, coming up is the final My Favorite Things tour of the exhibition with Jessixa Bagley.

Aquatint

Goya was so adept at this technique he could create a print entirely in aquatint. Check out plate thirty-two of Los Caprichos in this show and see if there is an etched line in sight.

A variation of the etching process, aquatint allows for areas of printed tone in order to achieve a more painterly effect. Instead of a uniformly brushed on ground, powdered rosin is dusted onto the plate until the desired coverage is achieved. The acid eats away the unprotected portions of the plate between the rosin particles, resulting in a rich, speckled effect.

Los Caprichos: Por que fue sensible. (Because she was susceptible.), 1796–1797, Francisco Goya

Goya used aquatint to create a dank, gloomy prison cell that mirrors the despair of this unfortunate young lady.

IMAGES: Illustrations: Tim Marsden. Los Caprichos: Por que fue sensible. (Because she was susceptible.), 1796–1797, Francisco Goya, Spanish, 1746–1828, aquatint, 8 7/16 × 6 in., Private Collection.
Japanese bell with five-pronged handle

Object of the Week: Bell with five-pronged handle

SAM’s Bell with five-pronged handle, one of the works you can visit now at the Asian Art Museum, looks an angry and forbidding object. Pointed prongs wend upward from the bell’s handle, emanating from the mouths of snarling lions, curving like the teeth of a predator. A band of decoration on the handle features a circle of human faces, each one with its brow angrily furrowed. Come hither and ring me! it does not bid you. It looks like something that could just as easily be found here.

Yet the bell has a striking form, and looking more closely reveals the thoughtfulness of the work’s form and decoration. To dig into the concepts present in the work we have to think about vajra. A Sanskrit term, vajra means both “diamond” and “thunderbolt,” carrying the connotations of strength and power that those things embody—an indestructible jewel, a boom and flash of energy. More than a concept, the vajra is also a visual form. Looking back at the bell, the five prongs at the top make up a vajra. A vajra can feature different numbers of prongs, and elsewhere on the bell one will find single and three-prong vajras in decorative motifs, as well as the torture-y five-prong vajra at its top. The form of the vajra has specific meaning in the Buddhist visual language, in which it signifies the vow of a Buddha or bodhisattva. Everything on the bell has meaning: Lotus blossoms, enflamed jewels, and more vajras on the body of the bell signify the presence of the Buddha, his law, and his priesthood.

Detail of the base of the Bell

Situated in GOLD: Japanese Art from the Collection, the Bell with five-pronged handle joins other fine art and functional objects, including portable shrines, hanging scroll paintings, a sword stand, a fan, ceremonial kimono, netsuke, sake cups, and a folding screen. One of my other favorite works in the show lies somewhere between functional and purely formal: a Hooded Cape meant to be worn by the wife of a Japanese feudal lord on the specific occasion of a fire. I have to think the absurdity of that purpose essentially makes it a decorative object.

The bell and its company in GOLD reveal a culture that has infused religious and philosophical symbolism into its functional objects. “Used” or not in their first lives, they all now have a second existence as museum artworks, as examples of exceptional craftsmanship and markers of cultural stories. Gilt bronze amid other works in gold leaf, gold lacquer, gold thread, and pure gold, the bell shows, on the part of its maker, an appreciation for eye-catching aesthetics, complemented by a desire for stimulating thought.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGE: Bell with five-pronged handle, 12th-13th century, Japanese, Late Heian period (794-1185)-early Kamakura period (1185-1333), gilt bronze, 9 1/4 x 4 1/4 x 1/4 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 49.237, Photo: Natali Wiseman.
For the Love of Art Member Profile: Dana Yang and Jaywhan

For the Love of Art Member Profile: Dana Yang and Jaywhan

DANA YANG & JAYWHAN
Insurance & real estate agent
Member since 1997

What is your favorite memory from being in an art museum?

D: My favorite memory in SAM is taking pictures with my son at Pop Departures.

Jaywhan, what do you love about being a SAM member?

J: I love SAM because my mom takes me to the sculpture park and there is always something new and fun to do. This summer we came for concerts at the park and saw the modern exhibit. I love coming to Seattle Art Museum, it’s amazing!

What’s your occupation? What are your hobbies or passions?

D: I am an insurance and real estate agent. My hobbies are tae kwon do, weight lifting, playing violin, and listening to music.

J: Student. Legos, sports, fencing, drawing, violin, tae kwon do, and video games.

Do you make art? What kind of things do you draw? Do you like to draw scenes or animals or people?

J: It’s fun to, like, look around. I like making art. I like drawing. I use a pencil—you can erase it. I draw things I see pictures of.

D: You make your own cartoons sometimes.

J: Yes, I do that sometimes—like doodling—but sometimes I do sketching—like good pictures. I’m not really good with people, I’m ok with animals, and I can draw scenes.

Do you make art, Dana?

D: I do practical art. Food art. I am so busy but you can find art in everything. Everyday, outside. I haven’t set out to do a specific type of art because I’m so busy now working and being a mom. But when I cook and put food on the plate I can make them look like art.

J: She’s a good cook.

Do you guys come to the museum together?

D: All the time. It’s a chance to get out of the suburb, Issaquah, see something different, and be exposed to art that’s from another country, another era. We like to look through the world from other points of view. To get inside of people’s heads, by looking at the art—it’s interesting.

Do you think art is important or just extra?

J: It kind of speaks without a voice. Like a drawing tells you how to be calm. Like a landscape with a picture of water would be calm and fire would not be calm, I guess, something like that. So it kind of expresses emotion.

D: For me it’s about culture. By looking at art I can see what culture people are from and what experiences they’ve had. I find that very interesting.

What role do museums play in that? Are they just houses for art or do they do something else?

J: They have lots of art.

D: Museums are bridges that help people to be exposed to different cultures, different art, different lifestyles, different outlooks on life. Without museums people wouldn’t have a place to go study all this art or to be exposed to different times in history or different countries, different types of art.

Jaywhan, you said you like museums because they have lots of art. You can go to one place and see lots of options. Do you have a favorite piece of artwork at the Asian Art Museum or downtown or at the sculpture park? Do you have a favorite, Dana?

J: There’re lots of things to look at from different people. I kind of like all of them. I don’t have a favorite.

D: I enjoy looking at the collections of really, really old actual things that people used. For example, I really enjoy looking at the jewelry from Egyptians and teacups and saucers from China and Middle East. And sometimes you have furniture. To think that people made them by hand, it’s amazing. It makes our life in this modern society seem a little bit silly.

How long have you been a member?

D: On and off. I’ve been coming here for a long time, whenever I had a chance.

Why are you a member?

D: I like to support the art museum and I enjoy the freedom of feeling like I can come to the museum whenever I want.

 

Rembrandt's The Hundred Guilder Print

Graphic Content: Etching

Make something! We’re here to help with more than just artistic inspiration and influence. The Graphic Content blog series offers a weekly debrief on different types on printmaking and helps point out examples of them that you can find in Graphic Masters: Dürer, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, R. Crumb.

August is the final month of Graphic Masters, which means you’ve only got three more Press & Print: Drop-In Studio events left to learn the printmaking techniques of the masters! Here’s your weekly primer on etching, a type of intaglio printing that Rembrandt uses in combination with drypoint in Christ Healing the Sick. Come to SAM and see.

Etching

Etching

Instead of removing metal from the plate through force, etching uses a chemical process. The plate is prepared by brushing on a thin layer of waxy, acid-resistant covering called ground. The design is scratched through the ground, revealing the plate below. Compared to engraving, very little pressure is needed, allowing for fluid lines more akin to drawing. The entire plate is then submerged in acid, which etches, or bites, the exposed metal. Once the desired effect has been reached, the plate is removed from the acid bath and the ground cleaned off. It is then inked and printed through the same process as engraving.

Etching

The depth of an etched line is determined by how long the plate is submerged in acid. To achieve dramatic tonal variations, Rembrandt removed the plate from the acid and applied more ground to protect the lighter areas before submerging the plate again—a process called stopping out.

Images: Christ Healing the Sick (The Hundred Guilder Print), 1643, Rembrandt van Rijn, Dutch, 1606–1669, etching and drypoint, 11 1/8 × 15 1/4 in., Private Collection. Illustrations: Tim Marsden
High Level of Cat

Object of the Week: High Level of Cat

CatDrumArtist PaletteThinking FaceFace Without Mouth

(When words fail, emoji. Inspired by the artist’s playful incorporation of visual puns into his work, I decided to unpack the layered concepts of High Level of Cat by David Hammons, now on view in Big Picture: Art After 1945, solely in emojis. We welcome your translations in the comments!)

ManNew York CityArtist PaletteSpeakerHaircutPaperclipThrowing away litter

CatSaxophoneDrum

CatSkull & CrossbonesCoffinWeary Cat Face

Confounded Face

Post OfficeArtist PaletteMuted SpeakerElderly Man

Hand Pointing Up

Artist PaletteRight Left ArrowMusic NotesTrumpetSaxophoneGuitar

Artist PaletteRight Left ArrowEarEyesNoseTongue

Confused Face

Artist PaletteMan With TurbanMan with Gua Pi MaoGirlElderly WomanRainbow

Artist PaletteFlag for United StatesFlag for TurkeyFlag for FranceFlag for JamaicaFlag for Cameroon

Face with Tears of Joy

Artist PaletteNo EntryMoney BagDollarsWealthy

Smiling FaceClapping Hands

Pile of PooArtist Palette

Angry Face

ManClapping Hands

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGE: High Level of Cat, 1999, David Hammons (American, b. 1943), wood, taxidermied cat and mixed media, 96 x 24 x 24 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2009.50, © David Hammons, Photo: Natali Wiseman.