Needlework is for Girls

Women etchers from the WMA Collection

Needlework is for Girls

    Women etchers from the WMA Collection

Needlework is for Girls highlights etchings by women artists held in the Wright Museum of Art’s permanent collection. 


Needlework, like sewing, generally evokes the domestic work of women, but late in the 19th century, women artists wielded a different type of needle, and made a space for themselves in the male dominated world of printmaking.  


Etching is a printmaking method using a copper plate, in which the lines are incised into the plate using acid. First the plate is covered in a waxy ground. The image is drawn into the wax with a sharp steel pointed needle exposing the copper. Next the plate is submerged in an acid bath, which etches the exposed copper creating grooves in the copper. After the plate is  wiped clean, the plate can be inked. An oily ink gets pushed down into the grooves and then the surface of the plate is cleaned again, leaving the ink in the recessed or intaglio lines. To make the print, the etcher lays a dampened piece of paper on the plate, and runs it through a press, squeezing the ink onto the paper. 


Painterly compositions of nature and weather are composed of color and sometimes texture—but in etching, the artist is working in black and white and without buildup. Showing depth and atmosphere with such limited resources is challenging. Mary Nimmo Moran, the first woman elected to both the New York Etching Club and London’s Society of Painter-Etchers, and Rosa Prevot-Frankfurt succeed with needle and acid by re-working the plate with a variety of line and tone to create atmospheric drama, light and shadow, and movement akin to the painters of the Barbizon. 

Dominique Jouvet-Magron achieves depth by experimenting with stopping-out, or letting the acid bite over the entire plate, then covering parts of the work which the artist wishes to keep light in tone (generally in the distance) with ground before bathing the plate in acid again. This technique can be seen in this print, wherein the cloister structure is much darker (the lines are bitten deeper) than the light ruins seen in the distance. The alternating light and dark of the colonnade, getting generally paler the more it recedes, also draws our eye further. 

For many artists, especially women, printmaking was foreign territory, and experimentation was imperative. Kathe Kollwitz was one of the more prominent graphic artists of her day. Her friend describes her first lesson in etching: "Her right hand gripped the etching knife surely as she pressed it into the black wax. The manner in which she etched was much freer and more expressive than what they were used to; her etching looked more like a pen-and-ink drawing… The copper face shone out impressively from the blackened plate; she felt satisfied, and ready to etch..." 

Because tools, presses, papers, and inks weren’t readily accessible to many, the formation of clubs and societies sprang up in major cities. The Etching Club of Viennese Women Artists opened  April 1903 proved crucial for Austrian women artists, who had few opportunities in patriarchal society of Austria. Artists represented in the Wright’s collection include Hermine Scheid, Maria Ressel, and Emma Lowentamm all exhibit prowess especially in tone, which demonstrates the communal training of these clubs. 

Female etchers supported and promoted their colleagues. A founding member of the Chicago Society of Etchers and author of the instructional text Concerning Etchings (1912), Bertha E. Jaques collaborated, assisted, and encouraged countless etchers in her nearly forty years as secretary to the CSE. 


In 1898, Jaques wrote a letter to Helen Hyde after reading about her color etchings (something Jaques had never fathomed, and the two established a lifelong relationship). 

 “With the confidence of early enthusiasm, I wrote Miss Hyde that I did not believe in adding color to etching and would like to know what she had to say about it.” Hyde responded, sending along two of her own color etchings, colored a la poupee—meaning manually dabbing and wiping different colors on different parts of the plate—prompting Jaques to attempt the technique. 


The British artist Eileen Alice Soper made her first etching at the age of only thirteen, in 1918. When she came to America, Jaques promoted her skillful etchings of childhood. 


These early female etchers opened many doors for generations of women artists who followed. 

In the 1960s, after three decades dominated by other printing methods such as lithography, a renewed interest in etching swept the art world, owed in large part to the Atelier 17,  a “school” known for its impressive roster and innovative ideas. Students of Atelier 17’s Stanley William Hayter went on to teach printmaking at universities, or established workshops, and perpetuated Hayter’s ideologies. Hundreds of women entered the Atelier 17, and thousands more walked through open doors into printmaking studios and schools as they popped up across the globe in the twenty-first century. 

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