The copyright deposit program brought an array of prints to the Library, including the division's substantial holdings of nineteenth-century etchings, which were incorporated into the Fine Prints Collection (100,000 items, ca. 1480s-present).
The etchings joined a rich assemblage of prints deriving from two major bequests. In 1898, Gertrude M. Hubbard donated an important group of Old Masters and nineteenth-century prints, as well as funds that were used to build the Fine Prints Collection further. In 1926, Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell, who had long collaborated in promoting the art of printmaking, exhibited similar generosity (see Collections Formed by Women in the Rare Book and Special Collections' American Women guide for more about the Pennells' contributions). They contributed to the division Joseph Pennell's own prints, as well as works by other artists, and established a fund that has proven vital to the division's collecting efforts.
The earliest prints in the Fine Prints Collection are European in origin, but a major strength of the collection is in American prints from the 1870s to the 1950s, as well as in more contemporary works from the 1980s onward. In addition to purchases and gifts, the division holds a substantial number of prints produced under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (later known as the Work Projects Administration).
Prints have been referred to as the “democratic art” because they provide a means of making works of art widely available. As with some of the other popular art media, such as posters and book and magazine illustrations, prints have historically been a democratic medium in the sense that they early offered a field in which women artists could flourish. The study and practice of art in traditional public arenas such as guilds, academies, and studios remained off-limits to most women until the mid-nineteenth century. Around that time, art schools began extending admission to female students, bringing increasing numbers of women creators into the mainstream of the art world. The division's holdings reflect this history.
The Fine Prints Collection offers researchers examples of works by nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American artists such as:
The work of twentieth-century women printmakers constitutes a particular strength, reflecting their contributions to major art-historical styles, including social realism, regionalism, and abstract expressionism. These names represent a small sampling of the women artists whose work is found in the Fine Prints Collection:
Selections by the Pennell Committee enable the division to continue to develop its holdings of prints by women and minority artists. The recent acquisition of the Ben and Beatrice Goldstein Foundation Collection has also enriched the division's holdings of works by women printmakers.
In addition to documenting the work of women artists, the Fine Prints Collection reflects an ongoing interest in women as subject matter. Throughout the history of Western art, women have claimed attention in two particular respects: as representatives of idealized beauty and as symbols of motherhood. Many of Mary Cassatt's best-known works, for instance, deal with these themes, while also reflecting her interest in Japanese aesthetics. Other prints in the collection document aspects of women's experience ranging beyond figure studies or maternal themes. Two examples from the World War II era are Jolán Gross-Bettelheim's Home Front, the Czech-born artist's industrialist twist on the American icon “Rosie the Riveter,” which renders the defense workers as anthropomorphic elements of the machines on which they work (FP—XX—Gross-Bettelheim [J.], no. 3 [B size] [view catalog record])and Caroline Durieux's (1896-1989) depiction of Bourbon Street entertainers in wartime New Orleans (FP—XX—D910, no. 4 [A size] [view catalog record]).
The approximately 12,000 American prints that were listed in the published catalog, American Prints in the Library of Congress (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1970; NE505.A47) are also described in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, where they have their own category, Fine Prints. The category also includes non-American prints, generally as researchers have purchased reproductions. The reproductions program has also generated digital images for many of the items listed in the online catalog. Those where rights may be restricted show only as small thumbnail images outside of Library of Congress buildings. More recently acquired American prints that have been individually cataloged or cataloged in groups as they were acquired can also be found by searching across all the collections.
To look for images for which no online record exists, on-site researchers can consult the Fine Prints card catalog—prints are listed by century, and thereunder by artist.
Subject access to the Fine Print Collection, in general, is limited. American Prints in the Library of Congress does include an index by broad topic (e.g., “Mythology”) and by names of places and people represented in the prints. The division's biographical and subject indexes contain listings for prints in the collection, generally in cases where copy photographs were made prior to the advent of the online catalog. Books and articles discussing the work of particular fine print artists and catalogues raisonnés for individual artists may help identify printmakers whose works are of interest from the point of view of subject matter or style.