Treasures of the Swope
Beth Van Hoesen (1926 Boise, Idaho– 2010 San Francisco, California)
Spit-bite aquatint, drypoint and etching with roulette and retroussage, tinted with watercolor
19 7/8” x 22 5/8”
Gift of the E. Mark Adams and Beth Van Hoesen Adams Trust
Cold stings your nose and the crunch of frozen leaves punctuate the stillness of the winter day. Bare branches clatter softly far above you. As you glance up to the ice-blue sky a movement at the corner of your eye turns your head, just in time to catch a glimpse of silent wings gliding effortlessly through the mesh of trees. A Great Horned Owl has been disturbed from its daytime rest. The raptor alights on a limb over the next ridge: its mottled plumage the perfect camouflage. Although you look straight at it, it disappears from your sight.
Beth Van Hoesen was a draughtsman and printmaker of some renown particularly known for her sensitive portraits of animals and botanical subjects. She often emphasized her subjects by placing them within a simple background, as in the subtle gradation behind the figure of Buster. Van Hoesen studied her subjects so intently that it could be said she looks into them rather than at them.
When I draw an animal, I sit quietly, studying its movements, watching for the attitude and positions that are unique to the particular animal. I look for poses that may be held for some time or returned to frequently. Often the studies start with many line drawings—small full figures or details of heads, paws—those things I think I need to study to understand.
To capture the fleeting movements and to portray its animal nature, Van Hoesen may create as many as fifty studies, or preparatory drawings, before arriving at a suitable design for an etching. The process is demanding, but necessary. Wild animals are watchful, and seldom hold still long enough for an artist to do more than dash off a few descriptive lines indicating gesture. Animals in captivity, as Buster most likely was, may in turn subject the artist to a reciprocal level of scrutiny. Van Hoesen captures this duality with skill and delightfully loose quality of mark-making that enlivens the owl’s form while communicating an attitude that is recognizable to us. Her empathy with her subject results in a powerful presence sans anthropomorphizing.
In his essay “Why Look at Animals?”, novelist and critic John Berger ponders the relationship between animals and humans—our shared and dissimilar traits. He suggests the parallelism of our (animal and human) lives provoke questions and offer answers. Berger reminds us that animals were the first subject of art, and the first metaphor. Berger’s essay prompts us to consider our relationship to the magnificent bird who appears to be examining us even as we admire his image.
Buster is an etching—a print made from pressing dampened paper into incised or bitten marks made on a copper plate. Van Hoesen’s skill in translating her meticulous designs onto the printing plate demonstrate her mastery of the medium.
Beth Van Hoesen was born in Boise, Idaho and earned a B.A degree from Stanford University. As a woman in a profession dominated by men, working in figuration at a time when Abstract Expressionism reigned, Van Hoesen proved her willingness to continue drawing from unfashionable nature, and asks us to consider the question, “Who is looking at Who?”
–Amy MacLennan, Curator