6. George Elbert Burr (1859–1939). “Soapweed” Arizona [no.2], c. 1920.
Etching and drypoint, from an edition of 40. Plate: 7 x 10." Black oak frame: 18 x 14 1/2." Label, verso: Art Services of Santa Fe / archival framing. Light toning. Excellent condition for the print.
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“If I think of a deep-toned evening cloud with full rich tones, I only see it in watercolor, or, in etching as an aquatint. If the chief charm is form, then line as simple as possible seems the way to express it. Some very rich old trees, full of blacks, I only think can be rendered by cutting deep slashes with a sharp drypoint. Some very delicate distance or fleecy cloud, I would render with lines barely scratched on the copper with a fine sewing needle.”
— George Elbert Burr
“‘Soapweed’ Arizona” comes from Burr’s extraordinary series of thirty-five prints devoted to the desert—the “Desert Set” for which he earned instantaneous acclaim in his lifetime and is best known today. According to his biographer Louise Combes Seeber, he completed the series “in May of 1921, while he was still living in Denver. . . . This series (which was sometimes referred to as Etchings of the Desert) was the more remarkable for having been wrought by a man always in delicate health—who, in fact, might never have undertaken the task had he not sought to escape the rigors of the Colorado winters. These he habitually spent in New Mexico, Arizona, and California—mostly around Palm Springs, the Mojave Desert, and the Coachella Valley. Captivated by the distinctive beauties of these regions, he began a program of wandering at will, sketching and painting.”
This print exhibits Burr’s ability to combine veracity and poetic interpretation. The artist’s achievement goes “beyond the presentment of realities,” as Seeber notes. Burr was able “to capture through the medium of the copper plate, and on a scale never before attempted, the lure of the West and Southwest—the changing moods, the tonal gradations and subtleties of daylight and darkness, the vast skies, the desert solitude and the exquisite detail of its flora and fleeting whirlwinds.”
George Elbert Burr’s special gifts as a landscape artist emerged during a brief period of study at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1878. His reputation was secured soon after when his drawings were published in such national monthlies as Harper’s and Scribner’s, as well as in the second volume of John Muir’s Picturesque California. In 1891, he became a staff artist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, a position that led to extensive travels in the Rocky Mountains and southwestern deserts to illustrate the places and events of those regions. Following a four-year sojourn in Europe from 1896 to 1900 and several years on the East Coast, Burr’s fragile health forced him and his wife to relocate to a healthier climate. They settled first in Denver and then in Phoenix, where they remained until Burr’s death in 1939. During this phase in his career, Burr produced a signature body of work in the exquisite intaglio prints of the deserts and mountains of Arizona, California, Colorado, and New Mexico. The etching offered here exemplifies Burr’s superb craftsmanship and remarkable sensitivity to the nuances of light, space, and atmosphere of place. It is a lovely work by one of the greatest etchers of the twentieth century.
Refs.: Peter S. Briggs, George Elbert Burr: The Desert Etchings, 1859–1939, exh. cat. (Tucson: Mitchell, Brown Gallery, Inc., 1990), illus. no. 11; Louise Combes Seeber, George Elbert Burr, 1859–1939: Catalogue Raisonné and Guide to the Etched Works (Flagstaff: Northland Press, 1971), no. 286.