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Behind the Scenes in Conservation: Innovator of Printing and Design

by Cecile Mear, Conservator of Works on Paper


CAMConservation , William E. Hentschel , paper conservation , air brush , printmaking , brayer painting

Two prints by William Hentschel came through the paper lab with old hinges and pressure sensitive tapes. I removed the attachments and reduced surface grime to prepare them for rehousing in good quality, rag mats. The conservation work was minimal and routine. The artist’s work, however, is unlike any other in the collection.

William Ernst Hentschel (American, 1892–1962) was an innovative designer who studied, worked, and taught in Cincinnati during most of the first half of the twentieth century. The museum recently added two Hentschel prints using techniques he developed and perfected. The artist used stencils to create the sharp-edged design elements. For the earlier print, Woman, Tree and Spotted Deer, circa 1930, Hentschel used an air brush to apply color, subtly modulating the flat colors to create slight three-dimensional forms. A writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1931 described his prints thus: “The present ‘stencils’ are work of his leisure moments, prints in color blown onto paper with an airbrush. They have the ‘feel’ of the most exquisite of craft work—some such ‘feel’ as you get from a hand-illuminated manuscript [….] His stencils are ‘applied art’ brought into the domain of ‘fine art’.”

Hentschel applied colors to the later print, Birds with Long Necks, circa 1955, using a brayer, or printmaker’s ink roller. He described his prints from this period as “Brayer Paintings.” When these prints were first exhibited at Closson’s art gallery in 1956, an advertisement in the Cincinnati Enquirer declared, “The direct and irrevocable stroke of the brayer roller in one spontaneous mingling of jewel color, makes this form of painting unique and provocative, in its imagery and strength it has the essence of modern life, yet it carries the rare quality of antique treasures in the abstract symbols.” The full width of the brayer can be seen in the yellow background where the artist rolled on the oil-based paint before laying on stencils that define the birds and other shapes. Hentschel’s prints lie somewhere between prints and paintings. The design of each print in an edition is the same, but because of the way he applied the colors, each is unique.

Hentschel was prolific, creating many prints in small editions, drawings, textile designs, theatrical backdrops, murals, and ceramic designs. His prints are not currently on view, but two of his Rookwood Pottery designs can be seen in Gallery 114 and show similarities to Woman, Tree and Spotted Deer. (2012.77, 1973.458)