Treasures from the Vault: Peter Milton

Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education

Printmaker Peter Winslow Milton was teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore in 1962, following his studies at Yale, when a comment on his exhibited painting works drew his attention. His “warm and sort of pinky landscapes” were noted, much to Milton’s confusion, because pink was not the color he had intended to present. This realization led him to John Hopkins University where he was diagnosed with deuteranopia, a form of red-green color blindness (for the artist, green appears like a neutral gray with some yellow while maroon looks like the color of mud). Milton, who studied under the recognized king of color, Josef Albers, was shocked. This revelation spurred another–that he should abandon color (though not art!) completely and embrace black and white. Since 1906 his intricate black and white prints present visual puzzles to their audience, with Esme’s October Window, in the permanent collection here at FWMoA, no exception.

Two cats sit in front of what appear to be two windows, one cat stepping away from the window and one cat looking not outside but back inside, toward where the viewer is standing. Outside the windows is a park with city buildings beyond.
Peter Milton, American, b. 1930. Esme’s October Window. Lift ground etching on paper, 1965. Museum purchase, 1966.04. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Milton’s prints use tone and texture, in place of color, providing an elegance only found in black-and-white. In Esme’s October Window we see two cats, one sitting in front of the window looking at the viewer straight-on and the other in motion as it moves away from the window with half of its face obscured. Something, however, is off; the visuals don’t match up correctly. Starting in the background, notice the buildings bisected by the window or door? They don’t match up, and neither does the garden view. Split into thirds, the garden(s) edges don’t match, with the tree and grassy area to the far left encroaching on the house while the center garden, set with a stone path, is across a street. Moving closer, the window ledges do not match, either. One juts farther into the street, and the wire gate isn’t visible until the edge of the composition on the right. On the whole, the right side of the composition feels slightly hurried, and appears unfinished. (Or, did the print pull incorrectly, leaving some areas darker and fuller than others?) You can see where the line work lightens or is incomplete. Take the second cat as an example; while its head is fully shaded you can see the line of the window just below its back, as if Milton just stopped working as he moved from the left to the right side of the print. Do you think the lightness and gradual disappearance completely of the line was intentional?

Interested in warped perspective and perception, Milton strives to present a realistic visual puzzle to his viewers. At first glance we have two cats enjoying the view of a fall day in October, not too unlike the weather today in Fort Wayne! Look again and you’ll begin to notice the inconsistencies. Take a step closer (but don’t touch!) and, after puzzling over the outside space, peruse the indoor area. Is the window placement proportional? What is the area between the two cats? Are we looking out two separate windows? The more one looks, the more questions one must ask. What began as a fun feline fall print is now much more. Speaking of the felines, which cat is Esme? Or are they both Esme?

Milton enjoys playing with movement and the passing of time; similar to Impressionist painters, whose goal was to capture a specific moment in time, or impression, of light and mood. Lift ground etching, an aquatint process that employs a water-soluble solution which, when the ground-covered plate is submerged into, dissolves the solution and lifts the ground, allows Milton to achieve an infinite number of tones through various exposure times and strengths of acid baths. This would explain the varying levels of detail, and how Milton is able to suggest passage of time in a print.

Take a look outside your window. How could you visually show the changing of the seasons, in color and/or black-and-white? Have the leaves changed color? Does the sky look more autumnal? What about the sunsets? Take a look at our Saturday Studios to see how to make your own print: lithography, monoprint, screenprint.

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