John Taylor Arms (1887–1953) is one of the most important American printmakers of the first half of the Twentieth Century. He believed that art could further the spiritual and moral improvement of mankind and viewed printmaking as a vehicle for disseminating images of subjects that would uplift and inspire contemporary society.
The Sears Art Experiment
In 1962, Sears Roebuck set out to bring fine art to the general public. By selling prints, Sears was able to sell true fine art—not mere copies of real works—but at prices acceptable to consumers.
Sears hired Vincent Price to take charge of this program. Price, although well-known by the public as an actor, was also known in the international art world as a collector, lecturer, former gallery-owner, and connoisseur who spent a dozen years studying art at Yale, the University of London, and elsewhere. He was given complete authority to acquire any works he considered worthy. He searched throughout the world for fine art to offer, buying whole collections and even commissioning artists, including Salvador Dali, to do works specifically for this program.
The sales began in October 1962 at a single Sears store in Denver. The program was an instant success and expanded in the weeks that followed to ten additional Sears stores. When the first 1,500 works was sold, the program was expanded nationwide to all of Sears stores throughout the country. By 1971, when the program ended, Sears had brought more than 50,000 pieces of fine art into the hands of regular Americans.
The Works of John Taylor Arms in the Sears Sales
Included in the Vincent Price collection were works by John Taylor Arms, whom Price particularly esteemed. As Price wrote on a card on the verso, “I find myself continually amazed at the incredible virtuosity of this artist.” Arms’ etchings were wondrous creations, produced with sometimes 1,000 or more hours’ work using fine-gauge sewing needles set into wooden handles and viewed through magnifying glasses. He was a gifted draftsman and technical virtuoso who created compositions full of keenly observed details and nuanced light. Arms is regarded as one of the world’s finest print-maker for good reason. A 1952 article in the New York Times described Arms as “the dean of American print makers”.
In 1919 and 1920, Arms had executed a group of prints of sailboats on calm waters with mountainous backgrounds. He used aquatint to achieve large wash-like areas. In this beautiful and refined work, line is minimal, only delineating the sailboat while subtly-graduated planes of tone suggest distance and atmosphere. Printed in color, the snow-covered peaks and shimmering waters are described with an exquisite delicacy.
Seventy-five impressions were made in black and white and 100 impressions were made in color. These were all printed by Frederick Reynolds (American, 1882-1945). (In 1947, John Taylor Arms himself pulled a single black and white impression.) These prints are known to have been signed and numbered by Arms.
This print is quite special because it is apparently the only trial proof of the second state ever made in black and white. (One trial proof was made of the first state—an etching without aquatint—but it was destroyed; two trial proofs were pulled of the second state in color.) This print was not signed, presumably because it was a trial print.
A color aquatint of this work is held by the Art Institute of Chicago.