Don't miss the masters of ink

We are incredibly wasteful with our art, and often discard it for no other reason than that it is no longer novel or new. There are a few works of art, of course, that survive for a generation or two beyond their own, and a precious few that go on to enter museums and art history books as the masterpieces of their era. But these are a mere drop in the bucket compared with what was produced in their day.

Oblivion, undoubtedly, is what most deserve. Very few paintings, sculptures, drawings, or prints rise above mediocrity, or above merely reflecting their period's artistic fashions or formal ideals. And even fewer have that special quality that makes them of interest to people of other ages and cultures.

There are some works, however, that are shunted aside and forgotten because they are so unusual, difficult to categorize, or seemingly impossible to explain. The paintings of El Greco and Vermeer, for instance, languished in nearly total obscurity for centuries before being ''discovered'' and given their due. And the prints of Hercules Seghers had to wait well over three hundred years before their importance was recognized.

There also are a number of good to excellent works that remain in limbo for decades or centuries. These are the lesser products of a period or culture that are too good to be ignored but not good enough to achieve major status. They hang in our smaller museums, come up for auction from time to time (and generally find excellent homes in private collections), or remain tucked away for purposes of study in the basements of our major museums. If they ever see the light of day in a museum like the Metropolitan or the National Gallery, it's only because they're needed to round out a survey exhibition of the period or style they represent.

Such, I'm afraid, is the fate already clearly in store for the products of the great etching boom that began in the 1860s and lasted well into the 1920s. Although it produced thousands of fairly good prints, hundreds of excellent ones , and a handful of great or nearly great ones, it might just as well never have happened as far as the art world in general is concerned. Even the etchings by Whistler, its most important figure, remain somewhat under a cloud, and generally come off second best when compared with the prints of his contemporaries Daumier, Degas, Lautrec, Redon, Munch, and Bonnard.

And yet, during his lifetime, Whistler was considered by some to be Rembrandt's near-equal as an etcher - if not, indeed, his superior.

It is understandable, then, that if the prints by the major figure of this ''movement'' are considered of not quite first-rate importance, the prints by its other masters must be almost unknown. And they are - except, of course, to a few print professionals and collectors. Who else, for instance, remembers the names of Seymour Haden, Charles Meryon, Joseph Pennell, Muirhead Bone, D. Y. Cameron, Anders Zorn, Frank W. Benson, Frank Short, or James McBey - to mention only a few of the most famous etchers of their day? Yet each was a master etcher with dozens of good to superb etchings to his name.

The problem is one of taste and sensibility. The etchings of Whistler's generation strike us as too precious, technical, and refined. We prefer our prints bigger, bolder, more colorful, and more decorative, and want them to look impressive from a distance, not practically invisible unless peered at from three inches away.

We forgive that ''precious'' quality in Rembrandt's etchings because he was Rembrandt, and in Goya's because of his dramatic imagery and provocative themes. But that's about it. Given our choice, most of us would choose a bold and colorful modern print over one of Whistler's best and most sensitively printed etchings.

I object only because of what we are missing. We have become so enamored of big, richly textured, and strongly patterned prints that we've lost touch with the profound and exquisite delights that can be transmitted through a small etching or engraving held in our hands.

Quality, even greatness, can come in very small packages, even in the form of a dozen or so lines on a piece of paper 3 by 4 inches in size. In fact, should anyone want to experience true greatness, I suggest he or she spend as much time as possible looking at original Rembrandt etchings. There is no experience quite like it, especially if the impressions are rich and were pulled during Rembrandt's lifetime.

I have been in love with, and in awe of, Rembrandt's etchings since my 11th birthday. The best of them, and that means at least 20, are among the very greatest works of art ever produced. And yet, great as they are, I've heard quite a few people over the years describe them as dull and boring.

The problem, I suspect, lies in the fact that we must go to them to experience what they have to convey. They do not make it easy for us by seducing us with color or handsome pattern. They are neither pretty nor charming, and they certainly won't match the colors of the sofa and draperies when framed and hung. And yet, if we give them half a chance, we'll discover such riches and depths in them that even a dozen lifetimes would be insufficient to exhaust everything they have to offer.

Whistler and his contemporaries understood that. Indeed, Rembrandt was their hero and model, the artist whose prints set many precedents for their own work.

But if the etchers of that period most deeply admired Rembrandt, they also kept one eye cocked on what Whistler was up to, for he was the most innovative and daring of them all - and a genius to boot.

That genius manifested itself in hundreds of excellent prints. ''Black Lion Wharf'' and ''The Lime-Burner,'' for instance, are as superb a pair of etchings as ever existed. And such later and more subtle etchings as ''Visitors' Boat'' and ''Ryde Pier'' represent that medium at its most distilled and perfect.

Whistler was a master at inking and wiping. Some of his finest prints vary considerably from impression to impression. Depending on the amount and placement of the ink left on the plate before printing, he could produce bright, sunlight effects, plunge his image into a deepening fog, or settle for varying atmospheric effects in between.

Throughout, he was his own harshest critic, rejecting many more impressions than he permitted the public to see. Even so, we feel a bit uneasy today in the presence of all but a few of his earlier prints. We don't quite know what to make of them. We suspect such extremes of refinement and sensibility and tend, as a result, to dismiss much of his work as so much Victorian sentimentality and preciousness. It's a pity, because in doing so, we cut ourselves off from enjoying some of the finest etchings ever made.

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