By Jim Rosenthal
Dateline – 1934 – Chicago – Century of Progress Exhibition (Chicago World’s Fair)
Leon Rene Pescheret had a good year in 1933. Despite the economic Depression, he had sold many of his etchings of the Fair and was looking forward to the expanded and improved version of the “Century of Progress” Exhibition scheduled for 1934. The “Fair” was conceived as a way of showing how the advances in science, technology and manufacturing could lead to the economic progress needed to pull the country out of the depths of the Depression. The buildings were designed to be “uplifting” with clean lines, dramatic lighting and imposing height. Pescheret’s etchings captured this image.
Pescheret made his etchings in conjunction with R. H. Donnelly. They were printed by Dearborn Engraving. His sales were directly proportional to the attendance at the World’s Fair – and that had been substantial. In 1933 there were over 22 million visitors. The etchings were sold as a set of 10 (with envelopes). They are very fine etchings – created as “souvenirs” but are excellent pieces of art that stand on their own merit.
The Fair Expands for the 1934 Version
The success of the Fair in 1933 forced a decision on the part of the organizers. It was supposed to be a one year event. All of the funds for the Fair had been provided by investors and fair goers. None came from government agencies. Even though it had done well, it was still in the red. Continuing with an improved and expanded 1934 version was the logical choice.
In 1933 one of the most popular exhibitions was the Belgian Village featuring a cathedral, Belgian folk dancers, Belgian restaurants and many shops. In 1934, International Villages were added to create interest for Fair goers and provide a means to support the tourist economy of participating countries. Venues added included the “Black Forest”, England, Mexico, and several others. Another addition was a “Colonial Village” with buildings, scenes, food and entertainment creating an “early American” experience.
In 1933, Morris Henry Hobbs was an up and coming young etcher. He had been trained as an architect and had been working as a draftsman in the architectural firm of Craven and Mager. During this time, he designed and built his family a house in Highland Park – a suburb of Chicago. Unfortunately, both Craven and Mager died in a boating accident in 1928. With the stock market crash of 1929 Hobbs was unable to find a job in architecture, so he focused on his art. He had won a number of art competitions and had several of his etchings appear in the prestigious publication – Fine Prints of the Year. He had a studio in the Tree Studios building in Chicago.
Hobbs, like many other artists and craftsmen, saw the financial potential of the World’s Fair. Millions of people spending money in the Great Depression seemed like the golden opportunity. One weekend afternoon, he was visiting with his neighbor in Highland Park – Charles Sanborn. They were talking about the World’s Fair and Sanborn happened to mention that a friend of his was the head of the new International Villages. Hobbs came up with the idea of doing etchings of the various villages and selling them at the Fair. Sanborn volunteered that he had a brother in law by the name of Henry Rosenthal who was an accomplished plate printer. Maybe they could do something together.
Morris Henry Hobbs and Henry D. Rosenthal, Sr. met in early 1934. By April of 1934 they had formed a partnership called the “Hobbs-Rosenthal Studio.” The purpose of the partnership was to “engage in the business of engraving and printing and such accessory activities as may be decided upon by the partners.” Charles Sanborn’s friend at the Fair liked the idea of etchings of the various “villages.” So, their first big job was creating and printing etchings for the international villages at the 1934 Century of Progress World’s Fair. Henry Rosenthal rented the studio across the hall from Hobbs in the Tree Studios Building.
Time was short. The 1934 version of the Fair opened in May. Hobbs did the etchings and Rosenthal spent many long days and nights printing the finished products. He enlisted his son, Charles Rosenthal, as a printmaker. Charles described the experience as “backbreaking work.” Each etching was produced by hand – from the inking of the plate to the manual operation of the press. But the etchings were popular and the partners sold all that they could produce. (More on the Tree Studios experience can be found at: http://www.inpraiseofprints.com/a-visit-to-tree-studios-chicago-illinois/)
No story about the Century of Progress International Villages would be complete without mentioning the exotic dancer, Sally Rand, who performed at the “Streets of Paris” exhibit. Her “fan dance” was a very popular event – perhaps the most popular one at the Fair. Some say she was the reason the Fair eventually made a profit. At one point she was actually hauled into court. In her testimony she said: “I have not been out of work since taking my clothes off.” The judge in her case refused to issue an injunction saying: “Lots of people in this community would like to put pants on horses.” Unfortunately, I am not aware of any etchings of Sally Rand performing her famous dance.
(Incredibly, Sally Rand continued to perform her “fan dance” for the next forty years. In fact, this author attended one of her performances at Casa Manana in Fort Worth in the early 1970’s. And, yes, it did feel a bit strange watching a Fan Dance from someone who performed at the 1933-34 Century of Progress World’s Fair. But she was great and being there was a good memory. She passed away in 1978.)
The Century of Progress Fair closed after the 1934 season. Despite the fact that it was held in the depths of the Depression, it had made a profit. It was a tribute to the Chicago “can do” spirit that has been a hallmark of the city since it’s inception.
While selling his etchings at the Fair, Leon Pescheret heard many requests for color etchings. European visitors were accustomed to color etchings, primarily produced by artists in Belgium. Pescheret was a fine artist, but he also understood the virtues of listening to your customers. So he made arrangements to move to Belgium and learn the color etching techniques from the “masters.” I will cover more about his transition to color in a future blog post. Let’s just say he was very good at it and earned an excellent income from his work.
The Hobbs-Rosenthal partnership broke up soon after the Fair. However, all parties remained close friends. Charles Rosenthal took etching lessons from Hobbs. The Rosenthal firm continued to print etchings for Hobbs and his new apprentice, James Swann. Hobbs moved to New Orleans in 1939.
Leon Pescheret and Henry Rosenthal became good friends and worked with each other for the rest of their lives. This was not uncommon. Artists then – as today – are not really competitors, but collaborators. Particularly with etching where a press is required, etchers worked together. Thus, it is easy to understand the popularity of the etching societies like the Chicago Society of Etchers. It is also easy to understand why an excellent etcher like Pescheret had a great personal relationship with an excellent printer like Henry Rosenthal (and his son, Charles).
Hobbs and Pescheret remained friends as well. In fact, Morris Henry Hobbs did an etching portrait of Pescheret in 1935. This is one of the few portraits Hobbs made in his career. It, as well as all of his other works, can be found in the excellent Hobbs Catalogue Raisonne by Reed Isbell. (the book can be purchased on the site: http://www.morrishenryhobbs.com )
Leon Pescheret and Henry Rosenthal worked together on many projects – including Christmas Cards. Pescheret was popular and had plenty of business. His challenge was to find printers who could produce printed etchings up to his standards. Henry Rosenthal was at the top of his list.
The Henry Rosenthal family was on the Pescheret Christmas card list. One of these cards provides insight into their business relationship.
In his hand written note Pescheret says: “Gad! What a year. Have printed 3,750 cards. You got 600 of them and John was most happy about the results.”
It is also interesting to see the comment on the printing of the Pescheret Christmas card – “Local printer not so hot!” Obviously, Pescheret and Henry Rosenthal had their standards.
The Rosenthals visited the Pescherets in their home in Whitewater, Wisconsin for many years until Henry Rosenthal passed away in 1958. Pescheret died in 1971.
Reed Isbell says
What a fascinating and enlightening story about the “Century of Progress” – and about Leon Pescheret and the Rosenthals and Morris Henry Hobbs!
Peter Cozzens says
Jim – Thanks so much for a fascinating and beautifully presented piece. As a Chicagoan and collector of Donnelly & Sons books I found it particularly intriguing!
Jim Rosenthal says
Thanks. It was enjoyable researching and writing the story. It is a good example of “Art as History.”
Ralph Peters says
Very well-executed and intriguing article about artists with whose work I was unfamiliar. Engaging prints well “framed” by the author’s words. And, of course, some great images.
Melvin F. Bush says
I have inherited a framed set of the ten Century of Progress etchings by Pescheret from my Great grandfather who worked for R. H. Donnelly.
Thanks for more names to look into, I’d love to have a few more details about how he came to own them!
Jim Rosenthal says
Leon Pescheret created several other etchings for the Century of Progress Exhibition besides the ones shown in this post. He had a booth at the Fair to sell his works. According to an article in the Chicago Daily News by C.J. Bulliet, Pescheret got the idea of doing etchings in color at the Fair. He visited Belgium and learned color etching from the masters. Most of his prints were in color from that point forward. Today he is best known for his color prints. Another blog post on the art of color etching is in the works.