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Buying good prints: it all depends on where you look

Art history tends to be rough on printmakers. Although the history of painting yields up many names of varying quality and importance, the history of printmaking tends to limit itself -- as far as the general public is concerned -- to a few giants like Rembrandt, Durer, Goya, etc.

Relatively little attention is paid to such exceptional graphic artists as Callot, Goltzius, van Leyden, Seghers, Raimondi, Vellert, etc., even though they produced remarkable prints, many of which are still very much in demand by museums and private collectors.

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But the collecting of original old-master prints need not be an expensive proposition unless you insist on owning nothing but the very choicest Rembrandts , Durers, Mantegnas, etc.

But if you do, and should you also insist on particularly fine impressions, don't even think of print collecting unless you have a few hundred thousand dollars to spend.

You can also buy fair impressions of good Rembrandts and Durers for a few hundred dollars each, as well a good impressions of some of the lesser masters for not much more than a hundred.

It all depends on where you look.

One of the best places to start is at the Associated American Artists' (known familiarly as AAA) "Nineteenth Annual Old Master Print Exhibition" being held here through Aug. 8. Not only is it a good place for the novice collector to familiarize himself with some of the best European prints from the 15th through the 18th centuries, it also is as good a place as any to purchase his first print.

There are over 200 etchings, engravings, mezzotints, and woodcuts by more than 50 artists from which to choose. While it's true that the names of some of the artists names will probably be unknown except to print specialists, the general viewer need not be afraid that any of the prints on view are anything but an original work by a respected graphic artist.

Hendrik Goltzius, for instance, was responsible for some of the most powerful figure engravings ever made. They may appear a bit cold and mannered to our taste today, but they are magnificent prints nevertheless, and are worthy of special study. Two examples of these engraved figure studies are on view in this exhibition.

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Rembrandt's "The Hundred Guilder Print" -- whose title apparently originated in the price it once realize at an auction -- is probably the world's most famous print. It shows Jesus surrounded by, and speaking to, a cross section of humanity, including infants, the very old, and the very poor.

Rembrandt's handling of light and shade in this etching is breathtaking yet so perfectly realized that one is not made aware of the extraordinary technical difficulties he had to overcome to make it work.

An excellent impression of this etching is included in this exhibition, as well as an 18th-century copy by Thomas Worlidge. The latter is quite good except for the head of Christ. The cost of the original Rembrandt runs well into five figures. The copy can be had for $250.

Other Rembrandts on view include his tiny but powerful "The Goldsmith," "The Angel Departing From the FAmily of Tobias," and "Christ and the Woman of Samaria." They are all superb works of art and prove conclusively that greatness has nothing to do with size.

A good, clear impression of a Durer engraving is one of the wonders of the world. Even a worm impression one of his prints has a bite and a charm almost impossible to find in the work of another engraver. And so it is a pleasure to report that Durer is also well represented in this exhibition -- and with excellent impressions. Although none of his very greatest masterpieces are included, the quality of those on view is high. Among these are "St. Anthony Reading," "The Sea Monster," and "The Great Fortune."

Another master printmaker well represented in this show is Jacques Callot, who has been given a special nook all to himself in which 18 of his prints are on display. Prominent among them, and one of the best works in the exhibition, is his large and extravagant "The Temptation of St. Anthony."

I was also quite taken with the work of Jan Lievens, who had both the advantage and the misfortune to have been friend and colleague of Rembrandt. That proximity to genius may have stimulated his talents, but it also caused some of his etchings to have a very Remrandtian look. A good case in point is his otherwise excellent "Bust of an Old Gentleman."

Among the other artists with outstanding prints are Rosa, Canaletto, Montagna , Waterloo, Van Cleve, DeBye, Lorraine, Hopfer, and Aldegrever.

A word should be said about gallery itself. It is impossible to discuss the history of American printmaking of the past 45 years without taking into account the role AAA has played in its development. Much more than just a commericial enterprise, AAA has been the pioneering gallery in popularizing American prints since its founding 1934. It was the first gallery to commission both maor and lesser-known American artists to create lithographs, etchings, engravings, etc., during the 1930s -- and to then sell these prints to the general public for as little as $5 each.

The effect on the art of the time, especially the art of the regionalists such as Thomas Hart Benton and John Stuart Curry, was considerable. It was the first time the public was able to buy original art at very low prices, and that artists were able to get their work and their ideas to a very wide audience without recourse to museums or large exhibitions.

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