The Ferris Collection of Prints
About

S. J. Ferris Self-portrait

About the Ferris Collection of Prints

Ferris’s professional interest as a portrait painter helped to determine the nature of the collection. Portrait prints, such as 17th-century engravings by the Dutch artists Jakob Houbraken and Rembrandt van Rijn and the Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyck are well represented. Prints by the popular 19th-century German etcher William Unger reproduce works after Frans Hals, Peter Paul Rubens, and William Merritt Chase. Ferris also owned many reproductive engravings of Italian art. These include works after the Carracci family from the Farnese Gallery and the Barberini Museum, and some charming 18th-century aquatints after sketches by French artist Jean Honoré Fragonard of major Italian 17th-century paintings. Other than prints made during the etching revival, landscape subjects are few.

Ferris participated actively in the etching revival, a movement that began in France in the 1860s and spread to England and to the United States by the 1880s. There were earlier etching experiments in the United States, and a few artists knew about the technique and tried it. Ferris himself saw a demonstration in 1860, but did not devote himself to its practice until the 1870s, when he became an enthusiastic promoter of etching. He demonstrated the art on many occasions at the Philadelphia Sketch Club and was a founding member of the Philadelphia Society of Etchers in 1881.

French art was a strong cultural influence in the United States during the 19th century, and many Americans would have read about French art and artists in newspapers and magazines. The work of contemporary French etchers such as Léopold Flameng, Charles Jacque, Maxime Lalanne, and Paul Rajon was of great interest to artists like Ferris. Not surprisingly, a number of French prints turn up in the Ferris Collection. Some were prints by Jules Jacquemart and other etchers whose interpretations of paintings and decorative objects were highly regarded at the time. Others were original prints like those of Charles Jacque, who etched rural scenes. Ferris and other collectors at this point did not distinguish on the basis of original versus reproductive prints. Later, original etchings—the artist’s own composition transcribed directly onto the plate—came to occupy a higher cultural plane than etchings made after paintings or other artworks.

Both Ferris and his son are represented in the collection as are the members of their extended family. Stephen Ferris married Elizabeth Moran, sister of artists Edward, John, Peter, and Thomas Moran. Thomas, Peter, and Thomas’s wife, Mary Nimmo, also etched, and they often exchanged prints with the Ferris family. Many impressions are inscribed as special gifts.

Stephen Ferris also acquired and exchanged prints with fellow artists in Philadelphia such as John Sartain and received prints from local collectors. He greatly admired Mariano Fortuny (1838–1874), a Spanish artist little known today, whose prints he collected and some of whose paintings he reproduced. But he named his son after Jean Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), the French painter who was just beginning to be known in the United States in 1863 when Gerome Ferris was born. The two men corresponded but seem never to have met in person. Ferris received an impression of one of Gérôme’s four known etchings, La Negresse de Hedjah, with a dedication from the artist: “à Mr Stephen J Ferris/ son affectioné/ J L Gérôme.”

For many years Stephen Ferris taught at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. His teaching career, together with his broad interest in art, helps to explain the miscellaneous nature of the prints in his collection, many of which reproduce works of art in other media. Quite a few appear to have been removed from books. Some show sculpture; some are religious scenes; not all are identified. The figures may be reduced to just the outlines as in the reproductive prints of Charles Normand. These do not appear to have a direct relation to Ferris’s art, but they do form a kind of personal archive.

His son Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930), a history painter, wrote to the Smithsonian in 1927 that his father “knew more about good pictures, past and present, and the fundamental principles of their production than any artist I have ever met.”

Further Reading

  • Gascoigne, Bamber. How to Identify Prints. New York: Thames & Hudson, Second Edition (Paperback), 2004.
  • Hults, Linda C. The Print in the Western World, An Introductory History. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996
  • Tyler, Francine. American Etchings of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Dover Publications, 1984