Editor's note: The following essay, with Endnotes, is printed with permission of the Springfield Library and Museums Association. The essay was included in the 256 page illustrated 1999 catalogue titled Selections from the American Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts and the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, ISBN 0-916746-18-6, pp. 188-190. In addition to the essay, the catalogue contains an image and provenance of the painting and an exhibition schedule. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in purchasing the catalogue, please contact the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:
Asa Cheffetz, 1896-1965
Cape Lighthouse (Mass.), around 1950
(Wood engraving, 5 9/16 x 8 5/16 inches, Signed lower left: "Cape Lighthouse" -- (Mass.), Signed lower right: Asa Cheffetz-imp., Initialed on block lower left: AC, Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Mrs. Lucy B. Mitchell, 50.D37)
by Heather Haskell
The Museum of Fine Arts owns a substantial and nearly complete collection of the prints of master wood engraver Asa Cheffetz. Cheffetz was part of a group of artists, working during the early-20th century, who were largely responsible for the revival of wood engraving in the United States. Inspired by illustrations reproduced from woodblock prints in art journals of the time, these artists set forth to make their own stand-alone images. Cheffetz stated that he was motivated by a portrait of Abraham Lincoln that he saw in a magazine. He wrote, "I was profoundly stirred by the rugged power and dignity of the portrait. A note in the margin indicated it had been printed from a woodcut. This, then, was the first time I had given special attention to anything done in this medium." He began to experiment with the process of wood engraving in 1927, and by the next year had mastered the technique. In fact, all eight of his prints submitted to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts' 26th annual Philadelphia watercolor and print exhibition in 1928 were accepted, and one, Noonday Shadows (Wayside Inn Carriage House), won first place.
Cheffetz was captivated by the scenery in New England and produced over 100 prints devoted to the countryside. Though he was born in Buffalo, New York, the family moved to New England (first Worcester and then Springfield, Massachusetts) when Cheffetz was a young boy. Following his graduation from high school, Cheffetz entered the Boston Art Museum School, where he studied drawing from life. He then traveled to the National Academy of Design in New York City and again studied drawing and etching. He left after his first year to enlist in the U.S. Navy during World War I. Upon his discharge, he returned to the National Academy for a second year of study. Between 1919 and 1927, Cheffetz reluctantly ran his father's movie theater business in Springfield. However, during a trip to Old Deerfield, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1927, he was inspired to return to print making. He wrote:
Wood engraving, like the process for making a woodcut, is a relief technique. Areas of wood are cut away with a sharp tool called a burin and ink is rolled onto the raised surface, leaving the carved lines empty. It is the raised surface that creates the image. Cheffetz frequently used a very hard wood, end-grain maple, on which to engrave his designs. He found that the dense wood made it possible to explore the tonal subtleties and variations he saw in the New England landscape and also allowed him to engrave with great detail.
In wood engraving, Cheffetz found that he could detail the beauty and magnificence of the New England landscape by vividly contrasting light and dark. Cape Lighthouse (Mass.) is produced not only from the dramatic use of velvety blacks and stark whites but also by the effective manipulation of tones between the two colors to produce a dramatic atmosphere. The darkened sky gives the impression of sunrise as the morning light gradually illuminates the sky and the side of the lighthouse. The grass is etched out by lines and dots in the dark surface of a hill, while the birds form geometric shapes silhouetted against the early morning sun. The dramatic counterpoint of the solid black linear house against the gleaming white cylindrical lighthouse adds to the majesty of the scene. Cheffetz was a master at realistically capturing the changeable New England atmosphere while simultaneously evoking an emotional response.
Cheffetz began to suffer eye problems in the 1950s and was no longer able to create the detailed work that had been his speciality. By 1954, he was forced to give up working in the wood-engraving medium completely. Nevertheless, in the 25 years he worked, Cheffetz consistently produced beautiful and poetic images of the New England countryside.
1. The Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vt., houses nearly a dozen prints which are not in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts. Richard Mühlberger, "Director's Preface and Acknowledgments," New England Engraved: The Prints of Asa Cheffetz (Springfield, Mass.: Museum of Fine Arts, 1984), p. 9.
2. Rudolph Ruzicka, Allen Lewis, and J.J. Lankes were among the first American engravers to make individualistic designs on wood. Thomas Nason and Asa Cheffetz were second generation artists influenced by the woodcut. Sinclair Hitchings, "Asa Cheffetz, Perfectionist," Ibid., p. 12.
3. Asa Cheffetz, "[Cape Lighthouse]," Ibid., p. 22.
4. Asa Cheffetz, "Asa Cheffetz Discusses the Art of Wood Engraving," Ibid., p. 23.
5. Asa Cheffetz, "Foreword," (The Woodcut Society, 1940) reprinted
in Ibid., p. 21. Woodcuts are usually made from soft wood and extensive
detail is not possible. Only small editions of an image can be made because
the soft wood quickly begins to deteriorate during the printing process.
Large editions of prints can be made from wood engraving.
About the author
At the time of publication of the essay, these biographical notes for the author were included in the catalogue.
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Springfield Library and Museums Association in Resource Library Magazine.
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