Treasures from the Vault: John Taylor Arms

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Recently, I found myself on the waterfront in Norfolk, Virginia, gazing at the WWII battleship U.S.S. Wisconsin. Massive in size and boasting numerous types of armament, I was reminded of John Taylor Arms’ U.S. Navy Ship series that is in our Permanent Collection. Whenever the artist’s etchings are on display, visitors flock to them and marvel at Arms’ technical skill. 

John Taylor Arms, who was born in 1887 in Washington, D.C., was the first member of his family to choose a career in art. After entering Princeton University to pursue law, he switched both schools and area of study in 1907, enrolling in architecture courses at Massachusetts Institute of Technology(M.I.T) taught by Constant-Désiré Despradelle , who had a profound impact on Arms. Trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Despradelle championed neo-classical forms of architecture. 

By this point, Arms’ talent in drawing was gaining recognition. In his catalogue of the artist’s etchings, art historian Ben L. Bassham noted that for Arms’ thesis, the student focused on a cathedral and deftly captured the finest of details using the hardest pencil and a compass set to 1/16” in diameter. Some areas are said to have been visible only under magnification!   

After receiving his Master of Science degree in 1912, Arms worked as a draftsman for two years at Carrère and Hastings, one of the leading architecture firms in New York City. The practice was known for their Beaux-Arts designs in homes and buildings, for which they adopted elements from historical styles, including French neo-classicism, Gothic, and the Renaissance. Arms worked on the designs for Henry Clay Frick’s three-story home/mansion on Fifth Avenue, built in 1913-14. Subsequently, he was partners with architect Cameron Clark.  

Shortly after Dorothy Noyes married Arms in 1913, she gave him etching supplies. His first exploration in the medium was in 1915, but by 1919 Arms was determined to focus on etching. Over the course of a 40-year career, the artist created 440 plates, which is an astonishing feat given the extraordinary amount of time he devoted to each print. Arms recorded spending 2,172 hours on Spanish Profile,” Palencia!

Unsurprisingly, Arms returned again and again to architectural structures. While towering skyscrapers were increasingly populating the city skylines, Arms turned his back on the industrial age and looked nostalgically to the past.   

In 1924 Arms embarked on an ambitious etching project: document the major Gothic cathedrals in France. He also included some in Italy and Spain. Arms believed that truly great works of art merge the intangible with the physical qualities, writing: “I have spoken of the union, in a great etching, of the spiritual conception and the technical power of expressing it, and in the Gothic churches of France these same two qualities are perfectly blended.”i  

An etching of French cathedral Mont-Saint-Michel shows the church from below, towering into the sky with houses nestled at its base. Black, whites, and greys create shadows, tones, and values.
John Taylor Arms, American, 1887-1953. Mont-Saint-Michel. Etching on paper, 1926. Museum purchase, 1965.32. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

In 1919, Arms first executed 8th century Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel in both etching and aquatint at a small scale. Besides being a popular Christian pilgrimage destination, the French abbey is situated in the bay in Normandy and becomes an island at high tide. In this early work, the abbey is presented in its entirety from a distance and is framed by sunlight emanating from behind. He revisited Mont Saint Michel (1926) in the museum’s etching, but chose a closer vantage point and meticulously captured the textures of stone and foliage.   

An etching of French cathedral Mont-Saint-Michel shows the church from below, towering into the sky with houses nestled at its base. Black, whites, and greys create shadows, tones, and values.
John Taylor Arms, American, 1887-1953. Mont-Saint-Michel. Etching on paper, 1926. Museum purchase, 1965.32. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

The towers rise majestically in the distance through the beautiful use of aerial perspective whereby the lines used to describe the forms farther away are faint in comparison with objects in the foreground. Arms made extensive drawings directly from his sources that he later used to make his etchings. He might spend up to 10 days on these preparatory works.  

During WWII, Arms attempted to join the Navy, but was turned away due to his age. (In 1916, Arms served as a navigational officer in the Navy through WWI.) Between 1943 and 1947 he created four etchings forming the U.S. Navy Ship series.  

An etching of World War II battleship the USS Alabama shows it docked at harbor in Norfolk, Virginia. No people are shown; instead, the print focuses on the grandness of the ship itself.
John Taylor Arms, American, 1887-1953. Battle Wagon—U.S.S. Alabama Outfitting at Norfolk Navy Yard, Crane Ship Kearsarge Alongside—1942. Etching and aquatint on paper, 1943. Gift of the artist, 1950.05.2. Image courtesy of FWMoA. 

The museum’s print of the U.S.S. Alabama is the first in the series. Arms presents a portrait of the battleship with great precision. He relied on tightly spaced lines (hatching) to create shadows. To render those remarkably delicate lines, Arms used various sized sewing needles secured in wooden handles.  

An etching of the Church of Saint Aignan, Chartres, in France shows a shadowed alley leading up to stone buildings. A gate crosses the alley, and a landscape peeks through two buildings into the background.
John Taylor Arms, American, 1887-1953. Church of Saint Aignan, Chartres (Sketch). Etching on paper, 1950. Gift of Edith Foster, 1962.02.a. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

In addition to the inordinate amount of time working in the studio—sometimes as much as 18 hours per day—Arms used his spare time to promote printmaking by writing articles and giving lectures. At this time, printmaking was still considered a lesser art form. In 1950, Arms presented a lecture and demonstrated the process of making and printing an etched plate for the Fort Wayne Art Association at the Fort Wayne Art School and Museum. Arms had worked on this plate earlier in the month for a demonstration in Fairfield, Connecticut. For the Fort Wayne audience, he worked on it further and printed it as the second state. The artist donated several impressions of this work and the etched plate.   

Want to see more of FWMoA’s print & drawing collection? Visit the Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s Print & Drawing Study Center Tuesday-Friday, 11am-3pm, or by appointment.

iJohn Taylor Arms, John Taylor Arms; with an article by the artist (New York: The Crafton Collection, 1930), n.p.  

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