History of SAGA
One of the senior artists' associations in America, the Society of American Graphics Artists (SAGA) has its origin in the Brooklyn Society of Etchers founded in 1915. The Society has been active from its inception, having organized over 78 National Member Exhibitions in addition to international, traveling and exchange exhibitions.
In order to better appreciate the significance of SAGA's age, it must be kept in mind that the history of artists' associations is a relatively short one that does not go back further than the second quarter of the nineteenth century. One of the oldest organized groups of artists was the British Etching Club, founded in 1838. A closed circle, the club never exceeded sixteen members, who joined for purely artistic purposes.
The French Society of Etchers or Societe des Aquafortistes was founded twenty-four years later, but its purpose was commercial rather than artistic. Organized by publisher Alfred Cadart, the Society initially consisted of fifty-two members who were encouraged to regularly supply Cadart with etchings. The publisher, in return, developed a list of subscribers who received a monthly print for a standard fee - a sort of print-of-the-month club. Cadart's business venture lasted only five years, from 1862 to 1867, but it contributed to a revival of etching in France that would last through the end of the nineteenth century. It was in France that a number of American expatriate artists such as James Abbot McNeill Whistler and Mary Cassatt learned and became enamored with the etching technique.
As far as organization and purpose is concerned, SAGA was modeled neither on the British Etching Club nor on the Societe des Aquafortistes but on another French art association called, rather unimaginatively, the "Cooperative Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc." The purpose of this society, better known as "the Impressionist group," was to organize exhibitions of the works of its various members.
Artists' societies and clubs organized along the impressionist model became popular in the later part of the nineteenth century, not the least among printmakers. In America, the oldest graphic arts association was the New York Etching Club, founded in 1877. The first meeting took place in the studio of James David Smillie with the mission to promote printmaking as a fine art form, both among artists and the public. Until then printmaking in America had been considered a "useful" technique, aimed at the reproduction of works of art (Gilbert Stuart's portrait of Washington, for example), for popular images (Currier and Ives prints), and for book and magazine illustrations. It is not surprising that etching became the preferred technique among those who promoted the notion of printmaking as a fine art form. On the one hand it was least suited to industrial usage and therefore lacked the association with popular and commercial imagery; on the other hand it had been used by many of the most famous graphic artists of the times, such as Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacques Callot, and Francisco Goya.
The New York Etching Club disbanded in 1893. The Brooklyn Society of Etchers officially organized in 1915 to continue the model of the New York Etching Club. Its founding members were Troy Kinney, Eugene Higgins, Fred Reynolds, Paul Roche, and Ernest Roth, who was the society's first president. The group's maiden exhibition in the Brooklyn Museum featured 197 etchings by sixty-five artists. Included among the exhibitors were such well-known artists as John Taylor Arms, Frank W. Benson, Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, John Marin, and Mahonri Young. By its second year the society had twenty-seven artist members and 135 associates. The latter were patrons of the society who, in return for their dues, received a print by one of the member artists each year.
During the first fifteen years of its existence, the membership of the Brooklyn Society of Etchers tripled. Its annual exhibitions, held in the Brooklyn Museum, grew from 197 prints in 1915 to 462 in 1931. In 1922 the society organized its first international exhibition (in the Anderson Galleries in New York), which included the works of several major European and American artists such as Mary Cassarr, Childe Hassam, Edward Hopper, Wilhelm Lembrook, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro, and John Sloan.
As the membership of the society increasingly came from places outside Brooklyn, it was decided in 1931 to change its name to the Society of American Etchers, Inc. Henceforth the exhibitions were no longer held in the Brooklyn Museum but in the National Arts Club in New York. The growing membership include several artists who made their reputations in the 1930s, including Isabelle Bishop, Mina Citron, Kenneth Hayes, Stanley William Hayter, John Sloan and Reginald Marsh. During the thirties several new initiatives were taken. One of these was exhibit exchanges with European print clubs; the other, the organization of a special miniature print section in the annual shows.
In 1942, the society moved its annual exhibition to the National Academy. Thanks in part to the increased space, the exhibitions grew until, in 1947, the society organized the largest show in its history, consisting of 658 prints. Increasingly, these prints were done in techniques other than etching, such as woodcut, wood engraving, and lithography. This promoted the third renaming of the society in 1947, when it was called the Society of American Etchers, Gravers, Lithographers, and Woodcutters, Inc. Five years later, even that name was found to be not sufficiently inclusive and the current name of Society of American Graphic Artists was adopted.
In the course of SAGA's existence, printmaking has gone through many changes. Perhaps the most important among these is the shift from what we might call "hand" prints to decorative wall prints. The etchings that were produced during the early years of the Brooklyn Etching Club were not primarily intended to be framed and hung on the wall but rather to be kept in a portfolio to be looked at alone or with friends in a leisurely fashion. (Anyone familiar with the work of French nineteenth-century artist, Daumier will remember has images of print collectors, who lovingly leaf through their portfolios to admire the prints they contain.) Today prints are produced in first instance to be framed and hung. This means that they are generally larger and there is more emphasis on color. Neither color neither large formats are easy to achieve in etching but several newly invented printmaking techniques lend themselves to meeting those requirements. Indeed, the introduction of serigraphy (silkscreen), collography, and various mixed media techniques is another change that has taken place in American printmaking since 1915.
A final change concerns style and form. Printmaking has, of course, gone through the same changes as all other art and has witnessed the birth of non-objectivity, of surrealism, etc. A study of the catalogues of SAGA's exhibitions reflects these changes but it also shows SAGA's openness to all styles. In this respect the society has always followed the precept of its long time president John Taylor Arms (1931 - 52) who felt that SAGA should represent all techniques and styles in order to represent a true cross section of contemporary printmaking.
Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, PhD
Professor of Art History
Seton Hall University