Rembrandt is probably the most famous artist to employ the technique of etching, but a revival of the technique in the late 19th century helped to open the door for many female artists pursuing professional careers.
A collection of works by women etchers is on display at Anne Wright Wilson Fine Art Gallery at Georgetown College in an exhibit titled American Women and the Etching Revival: Works on Paper From the Payne Collection.
The exhibits features 44 etchings by 17 artists and spans the late 19th and early 20th centuries. All of the pieces come from the private collection of Warren and Julie Payne, Louisville art dealers and consultants specializing in works on paper from the United States, Britain and France, and regional works.
The Paynes began collecting etchings, which are created by drawing with a special needle on a copper plate prepared with chemicals, when they noticed a large quantity of them in the estate sales of older homes.
"We found them in a lot of houses of people who had set up house in the 1920s and their stuff came up on the market," Warren Payne says. "There were a lot of etchings everywhere."
He said the prevalence of etchings was not surprising considering how popular they were.
"They were the baseball cards of the turn of the century," he says.
The etching techniques and styles of the period focused on realism and, for practical purposes, often were used similarly to how photos are used today. Etchings appeared in books, catalogs, journals, almost any printed material; as an added economic incentive, they could be mass-produced easily, as Rembrandt had learned 21/2 centuries prior.
"A really good etching on a copper plate is good for about 50 to 70 impressions," Payne says.
But promoters often tried to squeeze out even more prints to make money.
"They put a thin layer of steel over the copper, and that way, if you weren't too finicky about what the final product looked like, you would get a few hundred impressions," he says.
Etchings also were used to reproduce other famous artworks and, perhaps most important, to create original artworks in their own right.
"You could do an original work of art that could be disseminated among a large variety of people," says Payne.
The demand for quality etchings gave female artists a rare opportunity to achieve commercial success and make a living as an artist while conforming to the period's strict social codes.
"Women were working in the home as a mother, nanny, cook or maid," says Jeanette Tesmer, director of art galleries and curator of collections at Georgetown, "so in order to be able to step outside of that particular work force was a big opportunity."
It was an opportunity that was allowed to flourish because it did not directly challenge gender roles of the time — women often were encouraged to engage in a craft such as painting, singing, embroidery or playing piano.
"It was like Sunday painting," Tesmer says. "Even though they were going to work every day, they were still doing what was considered to be very ladylike tasks."
But under the guise of this "ladylike" endeavor, women were earning significant livings as professional artists.
Wayne says that many of these women already were well-off financially and did not need the money, but some supported their families with their etchings.
The Boston Museum of Fine Art mounted an exhibit in 1887 titled Women Etchers of America, which was later expanded and remounted in an even larger exhibit at the Union League Club in New York.
But biographical information about female etchers is relatively scarce.
"There was a book several years ago called Etched in Memory, and it made the argument that the reason we remember a lot of artists is because they left behind a widow or children to preserve their legacy," Payne says. "For some of these women, many of whom never married or never had children, there was no one to do that for them."
IF YOU GO
'American Women and the Etching Revival: Works on Paper From the Payne Collection'
When: Through March 8. Gallery hours: noon-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and by appointment
Where: Georgetown College Anne Wright Wilson Fine Art Gallery, College and Mulberry Sts., Georgetown
Learn more: (502) 863-8399, Georgetowncollege.edu/galleries
■ Talk with James Birchfield: “Kentucky Fine Art Collections and Collectors.” 6-7 p.m. Feb. 21.
■ Talk with collectors Julie and Warren Payne. 12:30-1:30 p.m. Feb. 22.