Prints and Privacy

June 28–August 14, 2016

Above: Boetius Adams Bolswert, After Abraham Bloemaert, Landscape, c. 1614, Etching on laid paper. Smart Museum of Art, Bequest of Ruth Philbrick, 2010.37

Top: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Long Venice, 1879-1880, Etching on laid paper. Smart Museum of Art, Gift of Brenda F. and Joseph V. Smith, 2000.97.

Organized by University of Chicago students, this exhibition examines the ways in which printmaking was closely associated with the private sphere in Europe between 1500 and 1900. 

When one considers prints—whether woodcuts, etchings or engravings—the public nature of mass production and distribution often comes to mind. Easily replicated and widely disseminated, prints are often associated with unrestricted visibility.

However, prints have also been enjoyed in private for centuries. Because of their portability and relatively small size, prints could easily be collected and enjoyed in the intimacy of the private sphere. This private consumption facilitated a space for artistic exploration of diverse subject matters; both the making and collecting of prints were ways of fashioning identity. Printmakers cultivated an artistic personality through choices of style, subject matter, and medium. For the buyers who then collected these works, amassing a print collection was akin to forming a private identity. Print owners found meaning and personal validation through collecting.

Drawn from the Smart Museum’s collection, the 15 prints in this exhibition engage with many different interests and subjects: from political unrest to religion, from artistic inspiration to the darker sides of human behavior. Each of these fragile works survives because it was valued by collectors, and each continues to resonate today.