Sylvester Koehler: Exploring Print History

In 1892 the MFA hosted a landmark exhibition on the history and technology of printing. Organized by Sylvester Rosa Koehler (1837–1900), the MFA’s first curator of prints and drawings, the “Exhibition Illustrating the Technical Methods of the Reproductive Arts from the 15th Century to the Present Time, with Special Reference to the Photo-Mechanical Processes” included more than 700 works that traced the history of printing in Europe and the United States. The Boston show was the third in a sequence Koehler organized on this theme, following earlier versions in Washington, DC, and Cincinnati. Boston’s version was the most ambitious. Koehler aspired to capture every method ever devised of putting ink to paper, and document them in a detailed object-by-object catalogue with extensive commentary.

“Sylvester Koehler: Exploring Print History” resurrects the 1892 exhibition and its catalogue, making them accessible in today’s digital age. Resources related to the show—and Koehler’s work more broadly—are available together online for the first time, anchored by an interactive version of the catalogue with links to database records of objects Koehler used (or may have used) in the original exhibition. Many of the featured works survive today in the MFA’s collection and, taken together, provide an unparalleled resource for the history of printing techniques and technology in the 19th century. Among the rarest materials, which record the intersection between printmaking and photography, are many examples that exist practically nowhere else.

This is not, in the strictest sense, a recreation of the show; for while it documents as many of the exact objects Koehler displayed as possible, it has not been possible to locate and confirm every object that was in the exhibition. In some cases, multiple candidates have been identified for an entry. With that in mind, this project reflects Koehler’s entrepreneurial spirit. He was energetic, pragmatic, and omnivorous, and would likely have appreciated both the new technology utilized here and the flexibility required to make it as useful and complete as it can be.

Image Gallery

It’s difficult to capture the extraordinary scope of the exhibition, which featured everything from Renaissance woodcuts and engravings to all manner of up-to-date photomechanical printing techniques. These images represent the outstanding variety of works visitors would have encountered upon visiting the show in 1892.

Print History in 1892: Exhibition Catalogue

See our ongoing effort to create an illustrated version of Sylvester Koehler’s 1892 exhibition. For the first time ever this archival document is available as an accessible and interactive web page with links to illustrated object records.

View Catalogue

Resources

Explore materials related to Koehler and his work, the exhibition, and print culture up to about 1900.

Timeline

Trace the history of Koehler’s life and the development of print culture in the United States.

Exhibitions

See a list of select exhibitions Koehler helped organize.

Bibliography

For further research see this bibliography of select publications that Koehler either wrote or was involved in producing.

The 1892 Lectures

Read Koehler’s papers “The Photo-Mechanical Processes,” which he presented at the January 14 and 28 and February 25, 1892 meetings of the Society of Arts at MIT, published in Technology Quarterly and Proceedings of the Society of Arts by MIT, vol. 5, no. 3, October 1892, p. 161.

Correspondence

Koehler was a prolific correspondent, and his papers are held in numerous public and private archives around the world, including at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The MFA’s Koehler archive has not yet been fully catalogued, though that work is in process.

Art for This Moment

Hidden Figures

For Art for This Moment, the MFA’s blog, Department of Prints and Drawings curators Meghan Melvin and Benjamin Weiss discuss Koehler’s importance in print history and reveal the origins of this Beyond the Gallery project.

Read the Essay

Tell Us What You Think

Have questions or feedback related to this project? Get in touch with us at koehlerproject@mfa.org.

Sponsor

Getty

This digital project is supported by Getty through the Paper Project initiative.