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 Stephen Alonzo Schoff  (1818 - 1904)

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Lived/Active: New York/Massachusetts/Connecticut/Vermont / France      Known for: banknote engraver, portrait etching

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Stephen Alonzo Schoff
An example of work by Stephen Alonzo Schoff
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Information submitted by Jonathan B. Small, great-great-grandson of the artist:

Prior to the advent of photography, it had been the engraver's job to reproduce other artists' works and bring them into the public eye. Engravings enabled numerous copies of great works of art to be owned by many people, who otherwise would never have been able to afford a master artist's original painting or drawing. The engraver also provided a great promotional service to the original artist.

Stephen A. Schoff was just finishing his training in the art of engraving at the time Daguerre introduced his new photographic process. By the mid-nineteenth century photography was having a profound impact on the role of the engraver; and a number of Schoff's contemporaries - John F. Kensett, A.B. Durand, John Cheney, and James E. Smillie, for example, were unable to accept this change, and turned their attentions to painting. Schoff, however, was able to adapt, and his work evolved from stiff line engraving to richer and more fluid printmaking. Sadly, Schoff's devotion to printmaking has left him more or less forgotten today, but during his lifetime his work was praised "for delicacy, taste, and excellence of execution, being almost unequalled in this branch of art."

Stephen Alonzo Schoff was born in 1818 in Danville VT, the third of eight children, six of whom lived to adulthood. In the years following his birth the family moved a number of times, eventually to reside in Newburyport MA, where he attended school until his sixteenth year. His grandfather was engaged in ship-carpentry, and his father may have been a farmer. In any case, it has been stated that there was no artistic influence in his home. Yet by the age of 16 he left his family for Boston to apprentice himself, first with engraver Oliver Pelton, and at age 19 he apprenticed with a younger, and more accomplished engraver, Joseph Andrews.

Carrying a letter of recommendation from the well-known American artist, Washington Allston, the 21 year old Schoff sailed for Europe with his teacher, Andrews. In Paris they studied under Paul Delaroche, along with a number of other young American artists. Schoff's roommate in Paris was John F. Kensett, who later became known as a great painter of the Hudson River School. Schoff traveled throughout Europe and started a print collection which is now housed at the Smithsonian. He spent some time during his travels in the company of other up-and-coming American artists, such as Benjamin Champney, Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand.

Returning to the States in 1841, Schoff struggled a bit at finding work. His first significant commission came in 1842 for an engraving for the Apollo Association of Vanderlyn's Caius Marius on the Ruins of Carthage. The engraving was finished with considerable help from Durand, the masterful engraver who had recently devoted his attention to painting.

The Apollo Association, later named the American Art-Union, copied a scheme used successfully in England to offer art to the public. The Art-Union sold memberships for five dollars. Every member was guaranteed to receive at least an engraved print. With these proceeds, art work was purchased from American artists and these, in turn, were distributed by lottery.

After the success of the Caius Marius piece, the Art-Union commissioned Schoff for a second major engraving. He was to earn a handsome $2,500 for making a copy of "The Return of Columbus to Cadiz" by Emanuel Leutz, the painter of the well known "Washington Crossing the Delaware". According to Schoff's great-grandson, Stephen Addison Schoff, "After two years' work on the Cadiz plate, the owner of the painting withdrew it and the project was abandoned. Some proofs were pulled from the unfinished plate; one is now in the Library of Congress. Schoff realized less than $1000 for his efforts. A disgruntled member of the Art-Union shortly thereafter brought suit on the grounds that it was running an illegal lottery contrary to the laws of New York State. The Art-Union dissolved and auctioned its effects including the Cadiz plate, which went to a Mr. Hastings, who might have been Schoff's father-in-law, for $30. Its present whereabouts are unknown."

In 1859 he received a commission for an engraved copy of the portrait of 22 year old William Penn, (A.K.A. "The Armor Portrait".) Although Schoff found the painting "simple and truthful", he had a number of issues with the original, and felt that in order to do a satisfactory engraving he would need a qualified artist to first make an improved drawing to work from. His new acquaintance, William Morris Hunt, provided a crayon sketch and some advice on the project. Schoff had a particularly hard time getting the armor right, eventually erasing it and starting over. Hunt called him a "damned fool" for taking it out. The engraving wasn't finished until 1862, two and a half years after he had promised its completion. In the end both Schoff and Hunt agreed it was his best work to date. Stephen A. Schoff and William M. Hunt kept up a close professional relationship until Hunt's death in 1879.

The artist found steadier work throughout his career in the field of bank note engraving. We may never know how many vignettes were made under his engraver's burin for the Continental Bank Note Company, the American Bank Note Company, and the United States Bureau of Engraving. In 1868 he received a salary from the Bureau of Engraving of $50 per week. He also found regular commercial work, engraving illustrations for books, diplomas, calendars, and advertisements; much of it printed by the John A. Lowell Company of Boston. Throughout his career Schoff created illustrations for works by Charles Dickens, James Fenimore Cooper, Shakespeare, and Cervantes. During the last decade of his life he engraved images of some wonderful American historical subjects for calendars published by the New England Mutual Life Insurance Company.

Schoff's greatest income came through larger engravings printed in limited numbers for subscribers. His engravings of The Bathers after Hunt, and The Prelude after Charles Sprague Pearce, are two examples of his best work. Here he had abandoned the stiffly defined style of line engraving, and allowed his lines to take on a looser and, in the end, more satisfactory interpretation of the original artist's presentation. He also made engravings after paintings by Titian, Elihu Vedder, Edmund Tarbell, Paul Delaroche, and George Loring Brown.

It is through his portraits that Schoff garnered some of his highest praise. His portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson after a sketch by S.W. Rowse is thought to be one of his best. His work took on a freer and looser appearance in the later part of the nineteenth century. Schoff's expertise with the engraver's burin allowed him to adapt to the newer forms of etching that were becoming popular. Among his other noteworthy portraits are Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Eliot, John Greenleaf Whittier, and a self-portrait after a W.H.W. Bicknell photograph. He remained productive even through the 1890's and right through the few years of the twentieth century prior to his death in 1904.

Schoff didn't received his greatest recognition until 1979, some 75 years after his death, when the Smithsonian Institution presented an exhibition entitled "An Engraver's Potpourri, The Life and Times of a 19th Century Banknote Engraver" with a collection of prints and engravings he collected during his lifetime. The Smithsonian still maintains a "Schoff Collection" as part of their "150 Years of Print Collecting at the Smithsonian" exhibit. There are also large collections of his work housed in the print rooms of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the New York Public Library.


Books:

Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James Grant Wilson, John Fiske and Stanley L. Klos. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888

Franklin County, Massachusetts, Biographical Review. Boston, 1895, pp. 138-139.

Schoff, Wilfred H. The Descendants of Jacob Schoff. Philadelphia, 1910


Periodicals, Articles, and Essays:

"Art and Artists", The Boston Daily Globe. Boston. March 4, 1883, p.11.

Harris, Dr. Elizabeth. An Engraver's Potpourri. Washington DC, Smithsonian Institution, 1979.

Moore, Col. Merl M. A Checklist of the Portraits Engraved by Stephen Alonzo Schoff (1818-1904). VA, 1981.

Schoff, Stephen Addison. Stephen Alonzo Schoff - Vermont's Foremost Engraver. CT, 1888.


Letters:

W.H.W. Bicknell
John S. Billings
S.R. Koehler
John A. Lowell
Charles E. Norton
Alfred Schoff
Hannah Kent Schoff
Stephen Alonzo Schoff
Charles Skinner
Edmund Tarbell
Charles P. Worcester
















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Stephen Schoff is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915

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