One month ago, a blog post in Picture This featured photos of New York’s Hell Gate Bridge, marking the centennial of its dedication. Today, I turn my attention to prints and drawings of the Hell Gate in our holdings. These drawings and etchings enable us to look at the bridge through an artist’s eyes.
American artist, printmaker, illustrator and author Joseph Pennell’s four drawings of the bridge during construction are in our collection of his work. By viewing all four drawings, I could see that Pennell moved along the riverbank, choosing different perspectives from which to draw the bridge. (The drawings are not yet digitized, so I studied the originals in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room, much as a researcher might. Following reading room guidelines for camera copying, I chose three drawings, and snapped photos of them.) Here we have one of Pennell’s drawings, with the two halves of the bridge reaching across the water toward each other.
The drawing above shows the bustle of people and wagons along the river’s edge, and boats traversing the waterway, while the sketch below captures a dramatic close angle, and the massive bridge dwarfs the tiny people dotting the shore.
In this third drawing, Pennell shifts his view slightly. The bridge still fills the paper, but he added a pair of people on the near shore and less river traffic.
These drawings are not the end of the story, but the starting points for an etching. In order to get from drawings such as the ones above to a finished etching, as seen below, the artist must complete several steps. First, a metal plate is coated with a waxy substance known as ground. Next, the artist scratches the design through the ground and into the plate with a pointed etching needle. The plate is soaked in an acid bath, and since the ground is acid-resistant, the acid etches only the bare lines incised by the artist’s needle. After the acid bath, the plate is washed, then inked. The printmaker places paper over the plate and runs both through a press, transferring the ink-filled lines onto the paper, and creating a finished impression like the one below. What differences stand out between the drawing and the etching?
Our collection includes five impressions of the same scene, with some subtle differences between them. Artists could modify the plate by deepening or widening existing lines or adding texture with new lines. Compare the impression above, which is digitized, to the one below. The impression below is not digitized, so I photographed it in the reading room. What differences can you see in the two impressions, if any?
The massive scope of Joseph Pennell’s body of work in our collections offers a special opportunity to study one artist’s process and decision-making. The multi-format Pennell collection includes thousands of etchings, lithographs, drawings, watercolors, etching plates and books by this noted figure in the art world.
For yet another perspective, I located the work of another etcher in New York at the time: Ralph M. Pearson. Pearson’s impression of the Hell Gate Bridge shows up in the search results of our online catalog, but as there is no digital image, I also viewed this original print and photographed it to share his somewhat darker and moodier version of the same sight below:
Viewing and comparing multiple drawings and impressions which are not yet digitized emphasizes how in-person research can be an enlightening and informing experience.
- Search the Master Drawings Collection, which includes about 5,000 original drawings. Most drawings in the collection are by Joseph Pennell, including his four sketches of Hell Gate Bridge, represented by records in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
- The Prints and Photographs Division’s collection of Fine Prints numbers over 85,000 works of art from circa 1450 until the present, and includes Joseph Pennell’s and Ralph M. Pearson’s work. View the digitized prints by Joseph Pennell in the Fine Prints collection.
- Read an overview of the Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell Collection, which has holdings in the Prints and Photographs Division, the Rare Book and Special Collections Division and the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.
- Are you interested in visiting the Prints and Photographs Reading Room to view materials which are not yet digitized in our collections? Please read our Information for Researchers and write us at Ask a Librarian to find out more!