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Unveiling the Artist Proof: Exploring This Rare Edition’s Origins and Purpose

Discover the significance of artist proofs in the art world and explore their origins, value and impact with this comprehensive guide.

In the world of art, the term "artist proof" carries a certain mystique and significance. The term épreuve d’artiste, or artist proof in French, refers to the rare edition of initial casting or printing that emerges from the artist's process and serves as a crucial stage in the creation of limited-edition sculptures or prints. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the origins and impact of artist proofs, shedding light on their crucial role in the art world.

Sculpture: The Genesis of Artist Proofs

Sculptor at Work on a Colossal Statue by Carl August Ehrensvärd. Source.
Sculptor at Work on a Colossal Statue by Carl August Ehrensvärd. Source.

When it comes to sculptures, artist proofs undergo meticulous quality control inspections to ensure that the mold is correct and that all manufacturing processes adhere to specifications. Due to their enhanced scrutiny and personal significance, artist proofs often command higher prices than limited number editions.
Whereas marble statues are chiseled by hand, an artist will make a mold for editions in bronze — the most common medium. Typically, each sculpture mold yields only one artist proof, while multiple limited edition sculptures can be produced. It's important to note that artist proofs do not count toward the total edition count. When an artist sees the artist's proof and makes modifications if needed, the cast is then used to create subsequent statues. Over time, the casting process takes its toll on the mold, leading to wear and deterioration. Once the mold fails to meet quality standards, it is discarded.

When the sculpture emerges from the cast, the artist’s work is not over. The artist then works to remove added elements, repair any casting defects, weld to correct problems, retexture welded areas, and finally, apply the desired coloring or patina.

The French sculptor Victor Nicolas working in his studio of Montmeyan in 1950. Source.


The French sculptor Victor Nicolas working in his studio of Montmeyan in 1950. Source.

A sculpture produced from the first casting is considered a first-generation original. Any additionals are actually reproductions — sculptures created by making a new cast from an existing sculpture. Even reproductions require the highest level of craftsmanship and careful correction, though for many, the historical and rare nature of artist proofs and first editions are considered the holy grail of sculpture acquisition.

Printmaking: The Artistry in Artist Proofs

The Scourging of Christ by Albrecht Dürer. Circa 1511. M.S. Rau.
The Scourging of Christ by Albrecht Dürer. Circa 1511. M.S. Rau.

In the realm of printmaking, artist proofs also play a vital role in the creative process. Though early woodcut artists such as Durer and Rembrandt would not receive "receive" proofs like modern artists do, they would compose the image on either a woodcut block or etching plate to complete initial prints. If the artist did not like the first few prints, more carving or etching would be done to change the following versions of work.

With modern print proofs, artists can check coloration and line accuracy, ensuring that the final print aligns with the artist's vision for the specific artwork. Notably, an artist proof can also showcase subtle differences or corrections made by the artist. These proofs serve a practical purpose rather than being intended for the market, as they typically remain in the artist's personal collection.


The Significance of Artist Proofs: Examples from History

Rembrandt van Rijn
Ecce Homo.  Rembrandt van Rijn. 1655. Christie’s.
Ecce Homo. Rembrandt van Rijn. 1655. Christie’s.

In the realm of Western printmaking, Rembrandt's iconic artist proof Ecce Homo is a remarkable tour de force. Created in 1655, this masterpiece centers around Pontius Pilate's contemplation of releasing Jesus. Instead of placing this familiar scene in the Holy Land, Rembrandt ingeniously transposes the scene from the holy land to a backdrop that would have been very familiar to his 17th-century audience: Amsterdam's Town Hall. Through this artistic choice, Rembrandt elevates the narrative's universal themes and immerses them within a familiar context.
Art expert Tim Schmelcher, in a thought-provoking article featured by Christie's, expounds on the unique qualities that distinguish Ecce Homo as the pinnacle of the Western printmaking tradition. He reveals how Rembrandt utilized the medium to its full potential, skillfully executing a monumental drawing on copper for this work. By harnessing the rich, inky effects, intense contrasts and graphic clarity that only printmaking can provide, Rembrandt achieved a level of artistic expression that transcended the norms established by printmakers before him.
Printed on multiple sheets of fine Japanese paper pressed together, an exceptionally scarce and expensive medium in 17th-century Europe, this extraordinary printed artwork remained treasured within the esteemed collection of a German noble family. Its 1991 acquisition by Samuel Josefowitz solidified its status as a true masterpiece, securing its place among the most celebrated works in art history. Most recently, art collectors had a chance to acquire this piece of art when it was sold at Christie's in 2018 for $3,369,779.48, breaking Rembrandt's previous print auction records and reminding the art world the significance of artist proofs in art collections.
Antonin Mercié
David Vainqueur De Goliath by Antonin Mercié. Circa 1894-1910. M.S. Rau.
David Vainqueur De Goliath by Antonin Mercié. Circa 1894-1910. M.S. Rau.

Antonin Mercié, a renowned sculptor, unveiled his grand plaster sculpture depicting David and Goliath at the 1872 Paris Salon, garnering immense acclaim from both critics and visitors. Impressed by the exceptional model, the French state commissioned two bronze casts from Mercié's plaster. One of these extraordinary bronzes can be admired at the Musée d'Orsay, while the other stands proudly in front of the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse.
Due to the French state's purchase, however, further casts of the sculpture were prohibited, except for one special provision. Mercié was allowed to create an artist proof for his personal collection, with the stipulation that he would never sell it during his lifetime. In response to this allowance, this is the bronze rendition of the David sculpture created for Mercié's own collection. As one of only three of its kind, and the most sentimental to the artist, it stands as a significant testamate to the highest form of sculpture art.
Sir Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill Artist Proof Bust by Ivor Roberts-Jones. 20th Century. M.S. Rau.
Winston Churchill Artist Proof Bust by Ivor Roberts-Jones. 20th Century. M.S. Rau.

Winston Churchill, an iconic figure in modern history, is immortalized in a larger-than-life green patina bronze bust created by the English sculptor Ivor Roberts-Jones. When Roberts-Jones initially presented his interpretation of the sculpture to Lady Clementine Churchill, she expressed that her husband should not be pictured as Robert-Jones had rendered him, in a suit and tie. Lady Clementine made the point that her husband should be remembered primarily as a wartime leader.
She insisted that the statue should reflect his enduring legacy in that context. Responding to her perspective, Roberts-Jones sculpted the version that now stands in Parliament Square, one of the most widely observed sculptures in the United Kingdom.

The monumental-scale sculpture, which faithfully represents the esteemed leader, became the original and definitive representation of Churchill. Only 1,500 smaller versions were cast, exclusively made available to members of the Churchill Society. These smaller versions, due to their rarity and significance, rarely appear on the market. This artist's proof not only symbolizes Ivor Roberts-Jones' greatest artistic achievement but also preserves the lasting legacy of this great British icon.

So, why choose an artist’s proof?

Artist proofs hold a special place in the art world, serving as the initial embodiments of an artist's vision in both sculpture and printmaking. As the first castings, they undergo rigorous scrutiny to ensure quality and fidelity to the artist's intent. These proofs, whether in the form of limited edition print or sculpture, offer collectors an opportunity to own a unique work closely tied to the artist's creative journey.
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