Nothing Less Than History Itself: Ivins and Mayor at the Met

Exhibition Review

  • "The Power of Prints: The Legacy of William M. Ivins and A. Hyatt Mayor"

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
  • 26 Jan 2016 - 22 May 2016
  • The Power of Prints: The Legacy of William M. Ivins and A. Hyatt Mayor

  • By Freyda Spira with Peter Parshall
  • 182 pages, fully illustrated
  • Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2016
  • $35

Subway poster for Ed Pinaud’s Eau de Quinine (ca. 1920), lithograph, 25.5 × 50.5 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

One hundred years ago William Ivins abandoned his legal career to become the first curator of the newly established Department of Prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He swiftly dispensed with the trustees’ brief for a traditional collection of works of an “artistic” nature, choosing instead to spread “the butter thin on as much bread as possible.”1 The collection that Ivins shaped over the next three decades—after 1932 in collaboration with his brilliant protégé and successor, Alpheus Hyatt Mayor—reflected his understanding of the primary role prints had played in the dissemination of Western culture: “Prints,” he argued, “throw open to their students with the most complete abandon the whole gamut of human life and endeavor, from the most ephemeral of courtesies to the loftiest pictorial presentation of man’s spiritual aspirations.”2 Thus a museum’s print collection “cannot be formed solely upon Yes and No answers to the question: Is it a work of art? Rather it must be, like the library of a professor of literature, composed of a corpus of prints in themselves distinctly works of art, filled out and illustrated by many prints which have only a technical importance.”3 Mayor, another highly cultured amateur, similarly embraced prints as “part and parcel of human history,” seeing “recent prints as the outcome of old traditions, and old prints as though their ink still smelled.”4 His popular book Prints & People: A Social History of Printed Pictures (1971) addressed objects as diverse as early woodcuts, maps, books of hours, pleasure gardens, designs for textiles and ceramics, bank notes, theater prints, popular images documenting American life, and photographs—all drawn from the collection he and Ivins had built.

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  1. Ivins, quoted in Freyda Spira, “Engravings,” in The Power of Prints: The Legacy of William M. Ivins and A. Hyatt Mayor (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016), 83. []
  2. William M. Ivins, “The Museum Department of Prints,” Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 12, no. 2 (February 1917): 24; quoted in The Power of Prints, 3. []
  3. Ibid., 23; quoted in The Power of Prints, 3. []
  4. A. Hyatt Mayor, Foreword to Prints & People: A Social History of Printed Pictures (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1971), n.p. []