Etchings and New Orleans

By Henry H. Mitchell.

Jack R. Miller, Etcher

Jack Miller, 1973, on the courtyard at 612 Royal Street.

Jack R. Miller, Etcher

Jack Miller, 1974, in his studio (photo from the original print edition of The Community Standard magazine, November 1974).

Leo Bautista, Etcher

Leo Bautista, 1973, on the courtyard at 612 Royal Street.

Phillip Sage, Etcher

Phillip Sage, 1975, at Antoine's (photo from The Community Standard magazine, April 1975).

Phillip Sage, Etcher

Phillip Sage, 1975, in his studio (photo from The Community Standard magazine, April 1975).

Frank W. Manning with Knute Heldner painting

Frank W. Manning at his home, 1974, with the Knute Heldner painting Armageddon (photo from The Community Standard magazine, February 1975).

H H Mitchell, Etcher

H.H. Mitchell, 1983, drawing with a needle in the ground on a copper plate.

H H Mitchell, Etcher

H.H. Mitchell, 1983, pressing a print.

There are etchings out there signed “H H Mitchell.” Yes, I'm that guy. What is my connection to New Orleans and etchings? Following is a short answer, and then a lot more details in a back story.

The Short Answer

The short take is that my wife Patricia and I had a shop at 612 Royal Street in New Orleans' French Quarter during the early 1970s. We bought and re-sold etchings by Jack Miller, Leo Bautista, and Phillip Sage. At the same time, art collector Frank Manning introduced us to earlier New Orleans masters of the art form, especially Knute Heldner. I admired and studied all those etchings, and others, and developed some composition, subject, and technique ideas. Later I experimented with those concepts in my own etchings of New Orleans and Charleston.

The Back Story

To further explain that short answer, I will talk about such disparate topics as the history of etchings, the Renaissance movement, and even my mother! I will include names that are key to my experience. I am not intentionally omitting the many other individuals who could be acknowledged, but simply maintaining a personal focus. This is not a comprehensive history of the topic. I hope that someone else has done that, or will do it.

The following items are arranged as I experienced or learned them, rather than chronologically as they actually occurred. Please bear with me as I move around among time frames.

In My Beginnings

My mother Mary Helvey Mitchell (1908-2008) was a lifelong artist, very trained, very skilled. During the summer of 1936 she briefly studied the etching technique as taught by Francis Chapin (1899-1965) of the Art Institute of Chicago, at the Art Institute's Oxbow Inn summer session at Saugatuck, Michigan. But Mom's area of interest and work involved the direct application of color, in oils, pastels, watercolors, and eventually acrylics. Our family lived in rural southern Virginia. Mom did not have a press, so she did not prepare plates (etching, engraving) or blocks (woodcuts). She did not have a customer base for multiple-original prints. So I only vaguely knew of her etching studies, and of a few examples of her student prints which were tucked away on a shelf in her studio.

Jump Ahead to Fascinating New Orleans

Then, when I was a young communications officer in the Air Force, Patricia and I lived for awhile in Biloxi, Mississippi, and became enthralled with the nearby city of New Orleans, especially the French Quarter. The ambience of great food, music, and architecture inhabited by a colony of artists was a huge draw to us. Two years later, Air Force stint finished, we came back to live in the French Quarter.

The French Quarter as a Stage for Art

The French Quarter, or “Vieux Carré,” is a compact square-mile tract inside a bend of the Mississippi River. It is the original city constructed and occupied by early French and Spanish colonists. Within the small grid of streets, almost two centuries of architectural styles blend together to create magnificent scenes and vistas. During 1877-87 writer Lafcadio Hearn distilled and popularized the city's unique reputation, but the preservation and enhancement of the neighborhood during ensuing generations can be credited to a group of visionaries involved in the Renaissance movement.

The Renaissance philosophy was based on pre-World War I Bohemian Paris. Centers of Renaissance activity included New Orleans, Charleston, Harlem, Chicago, and the Southern Literary Renaissance. The movement emphasized community self-awareness and revitalization through promotion of the arts and letters, music, food, architecture, historical preservation, and environmental sensitivity. Mary and Jacob Morrison were key figures in the New Orleans Renaissance, and were neighbors of ours on Ursulines Avenue when we first moved to the French Quarter. A year later we moved to 612 Royal Street, which decades earlier had been the home of Lyle Saxon (read excerpt from James W. Thomas, Lyle Saxon: A Critical Biography), the writer who is credited by many with beginning the New Orleans Renaissance, and his residence at that location was said to have been frequented by other literary luminaries including William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson.

Over the years, as a cascading result of Saxon's initial recruiting efforts, the French Quarter became a haven for writers and artists and a mecca for tourists. The decaying ancient buildings enjoyed adaptive reuse and new prosperity.

In Our 1970s French Quarter Shop

During our first year in New Orleans, Patricia bought a bankrupt 612 Royal Street gift shop, and we converted it into Mitchells Regional Crafts and Art, with a philosophy of no consignments, buying and selling only the items we ourselves liked — and thus easy for us to promote to customers. Our most popular treasures were handcrafted jewelry and etchings. Those emphases were understandable, with my family's background in art and Patricia's family's being involved in the jewelry business, all back in Virginia.

The Etching Process: A Quick Primer

A typical etcher coats a smooth copper or zinc plate using a waxy acid-resistant “ground,” then uses a needle-like tool to draw a mirror image of the desired image in the waxy surface. The needling exposes the metal's surface so that when the plate is placed in an acid bath, the acid will eat pits and grooves into the metal where it is bared. Then the plate is cleaned, ink is applied to the pits and grooves, and a press squeezes the inked plate into soft, damp paper, thus transferring the image to the paper. After the resulting print is dry, it is titled, signed, and numbered by the artist. Many variations on each step of the process are used by artists to achieve the effects they want. The process requires careful planning and execution. (It is not without risk: fumes from the acids used can be dangerously corrosive to the lungs, the damage cumulative with long-term exposure, and chemical cleaners can additionally be a fire hazard.) Each print in an edition is at least a little different from all the rest, thus etching prints are called “multiple originals.” Some artists try to achieve consistency from one print to the next within an edition; other artists experiment to get as much variety as possible using the same plate.

Three Etchers in Our Shop

The three artists whose etchings we bought and sold were Jack Miller, Leo Bautista, and Phillip Sage. Jack's subject matter was mostly, but not entirely, French Quarter street scenes. Leo did some French Quarter vignettes, but also subjects from the Garden District and outlying plantation homes. Phillip Sage, still very active fifty years later, is a master of the large etching plate and depiction of character studies and cultural activities that are best represented in his large format.

Noted Etchers from New Orleans' Past

Swedish artist Knute Heldner (1875-1952) and his wife Collette Pope Heldner (1902-1990) lived and worked in the French Quarter beginning in the mid-1920s. During the early 1970s Collette was still an active artist and we saw her often around the neighborhood, although we were not close acquaintances. Knute Heldner was probably best known as a landscape artist, but the gentle and humorous undertones of his etching subjects, some within the context of his French Quarter scenes, are very appealing to me. Other artists taking part in the New Orleans tradition of etching included Joseph Pennell (1857-1926), William Woodward (1859-1939) and his brother Ellsworth Woodward (1861-1939), Thomas Mitchell Peirce (1864-1929), James Carl Hancock (1890-1966), Morris Henry Hobbs (1892-1967), and Eugene Loving (1907-1971).

Past Touched Present

Jack R. Miller learned the techniques of etching from engraver Norman Criner, then bought the press that had belonged to Eugene Loving. Most of Jack's etchings were produced on that press. There were numerous artists who cooperatively used presses and shared techniques during the 1900s, and I do not know all their identities and connections. I heard the term “New Orleans School” of etchers in referring to them, but there was no formal institution, just an informal collaboration.

Meanwhile, in Charleston . . .

The documentation of Charleston's etching history is more complete and precise (see note below). The technique was taught to Charlestonians by Chicago artist Bertha Jaques (1863-1941), Boston artist Ellen Day Hale (1855-1940), and Baltimore artist Gabrielle de Veaux Clements (1858-1948). The key Renaissance artist in Charleston was Alice Ravenel Huger Smith (1876-1958), and through her the aforementioned etchers had great influence. In 1923 a group of nine Charleston artists formed the Charleston Etchers' Club. Notable among them were Alfred Hutty (1877-1954) and Elizabeth O'Neill Verner (1884-1979). It is Verner's work that came to my attention first, not a surprise since she is said to be the best-known 20th-century female artist in South Carolina. I was awed by the elegance of her etchings, and I still am today. Verner credited the influence of Rembrandt, Whistler, and Pennell. So Joseph Pennell is found within the etching traditions of both New Orleans and Charleston, as well as many other locations on both sides of the Atlantic.

Rembrandt and Whistler

Unaware of Verner's acknowledgments, I, through reading on the etching topic, became especially interested in the work of Rembrandt and Whistler.

1600s Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn was a virtuoso of etching. The quality, complexity, and variations within his work forever changed the medium. After nearly 500 years, study of his many existing prints (and plates) is still intense. His images differ greatly in their detail and their light-and-dark contrast. His work combines spontaneity and precision in warmly depicting both his animate and inanimate subjects.

Late-1800s American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler's etchings created a complex image while using relatively few lines. Whereas Rembrandt conveyed his story within his details, Whistler imparted his thoughts with visual suggestion. In general, his prints display less ink than Rembrandt's.

1970s Comparisons

I was fascinated by the differences in approach of Jack Miller and Leo Bautista. On the face of it, Jack's etchings tended to be lighter, Leo's darker, but for different reasons than the Rembrandt-Whistler comparison. Jack used copper plates (more expensive, but lasted for printing larger editions); Leo used zinc. Jack tended to greater detail and a relatively light, even “bite” throughout his plates. Leo let the acid create deeply-etched dark areas for contrast within his images. Both approaches achieved their objectives, which gave me further food for thought.

Finally, Action

After several years of contemplation, I decided to set my hand to etching myself. By this time Patricia and I were living back in our hometown of Chatham, Virginia. Jack Miller encouraged me, and suggested two books for study: The Complete Printmaker by John Ross and Clare Romano, 1971, A Free Press/Macmillan; and The Art of Etching by E.S. Lumsden, Seeley Service and Company Ltd., 1924, reprinted by Dover Publications, 1962. I bought a small press and supplies, using Jack's suggestions for sources, and produced etchings of New Orleans' French Quarter and Charleston's Battery area.

Life Takes Its Turns

My etchings were well-received by both retail and wholesale buyers, but limitations quickly revealed themselves. First, to deal with print-sellers in Charleston and New Orleans, I needed to be there constantly, and I was not. Second, the traditional print-shop marketers of etchings were finding it more profitable to sell the newly-available mass-produced large colorful posters, and quiet monochrome etchings tended to get visually lost in the resulting bright displays. Larry Borenstein in the French Quarter asked me to watercolor some of my etchings, which I did — reluctantly, since my original concept had been the creation of a visual and emotional impact with black ink only. (But we have a couple of those watercolored etchings hanging on our own walls, and I must admit they are kind of interesting.) For awhile a traveling representative took my work on the road, along with that of other printmakers, but that venture turned out to be unproductive.

Eventually I set the etchings aside, except for occasional requests from buyers, because our lives had become so busy. Patricia and I had three young children, I was working more than full-time operating a planetarium, and we opened our historic home as a bed-and-breakfast. And then Patricia's foodwriting, begun in New Orleans, grew into a large number of books on food history (over 100, eventually — see for resale in museums across the country, and I provided some of the illustrations for those books and became involved in various aspects of their production and distribution. So the project of printmaking, in a way, turned into prints of a different type than originally planned. Patricia has sold nearly a million of those books, so I cannot regret that I have not produced a few additional etchings!

For more on this topic, see the author's article “About Etchings.”