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Images of Inspiration

Printmaker John Taylor Arms produced etchings of meticulous detail and luminous beauty
July 27, 2016
Shadows of Venice

Jane Glaubinger Curator of Prints

Shadows of Venice 1930. John Taylor Arms (American, 1887–1953). Etching and aquatint; 26.2 x 30.9 cm. Gift of Jenny Horning in honor of Caedon Suzanne Summers 2009.191 


John Taylor Arms (1887–1953) is one of the most important American printmakers of the first half of the 20th century. Trained as an architect, he spent most of his 40-year career documenting Europe’s great Gothic churches. Arms believed that art could further the spiritual and moral improvement of mankind and that Gothic cathedrals represented “the most significant expression of man’s aspirations.” He viewed printmaking as a vehicle for disseminating images of subjects that would uplift and inspire contemporary society.

Over several decades Arms traveled throughout France, Italy, England, and Spain drawing Gothic structures. These studies were the basis for the etchings he produced back in his Connecticut studio. Arms admired the craftsmanship of medieval art and, aided by magnifying glasses, used fine-gauge sewing needles set into wooden handles to draw the elaborate churches on copper plates. Extremely dedicated and industrious, Arms rendered each building with exceptional precision, spending 1,000 hours or more on a single plate. He was a gifted draftsman and technical virtuoso who created compositions full of keenly observed details and nuanced light.


In Memorium

In Memorium 1939. John Taylor Arms. Etching; 37.3 x 30.6 cm. Gift of Carole W. and Charles B. Rosenblatt 2011.461


In Memorium, executed in 1939 to commemorate the death of Arms’s mother-in-law, depicts the north portal of Chartres Cathedral, “the most perfect part of the most perfect church in the world,” according to the artist. The intensity of his vision is expressed by the technical brilliance and masterful feel for design, detail, and mood. The complex architecture, embellished with sculpture, is described with precision, yet the print also contrasts textures, patterns, and the play of light and shade. The image is infused with an almost otherworldly luminosity and clarity that evoke the expression of the divine that Arms found in Gothic architecture.

Arms began his printmaking career in 1914, after his wife gave him an etching set for Christmas. One of his first subjects was New York City’s architecture. After celebrating such marvels as the Woolworth Building, however, he wrote, “I can admire the skyscrapers of New York, that unbelievable city which is a very gold mine for the architectural etcher, but I do not love them and I cannot etch what I do not love.” At this time Arms also executed a group of prints of sailboats and used aquatint to achieve large areas of tone. In The Butterfly, a beautiful and refined work of1920, line is minimized to suggest detail, distance, and atmosphere through subtly gradated planes of tone. Printed in color, the snow-covered peaks and shimmering waters are described with an exquisite delicacy.


The Butterfly

The Butterfly 1920. John Taylor Arms. Etching and aquatint; 25.6 x 18.5 cm. Gift of Carole W. and Charles B. Rosenblatt 2009.621


Venice also captured Arms’s imagination, and he produced several plates that picture the aging city of crumbling stone, shimmering water, and vaporous light. Shadows of Venice of 1930 (beginning of article) depicts the Ponte di Rialto, a 16th-century bridge lined with shops over the Grand Canal. Arms created a striking composition of repetitive architectural motifs and bold patterns of light and shade. He described the crumbling palazzo of medieval Venice by mimicking the texture of decaying stonework and capturing watery reflections using etched lines. Aquatint, which provides tone only in the dark arch framing the scene, is overlaid with etching. The pale blue paper on which this impression is printed lends a silvery delicacy that evokes the unique qualities of Venice: diffused color, soft light, and a wet atmosphere.

Arms created some 440 prints that explore a variety of subjects. In England he often focused on the rural settings of parish churches and picturesque villages. In Italy he produced wonderful views of towns nestled in the hilly countryside. A sailor during World War I, Arms retained a great love of the sea and etched naval warships throughout World War II. When travel restrictions curtailed the artist’s trips to Europe in the 1940s, a sojourn to Mexico resulted in impressive depictions of Taxco and the Yucatán Peninsula.

The museum’s exhibition of about 60 prints, drawings, and copper plates surveys Arms’s career as a printmaker and highlights large gifts from Carole W. and Charles B. Rosenblatt and from the artist’s granddaughter Suzanne Hawkins and great-granddaughter Jenny Horning. Documentary materials—the artist’s diaries, printmaking tools, family photograph albums, and studio guestbook—are also included. 


Cleveland Art, May/June 2012