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The Woodcut And Its Artists

Author: C.D. Collins

( Article orginally published July 1952 by Hobbies )

The Bible tells us that the Children of Seth were the first to engrave upon hard materials such as stone and brick, and undoubtedly upon wood, so we know this branch of the arts was one of the earliest.

One of the first known, that may be seen, is a woodcut on a Chinese manuscript which is dated A.D. 868. It was so skilfully executed that it is taken for granted that wood-engraving in China was in "no rudimentary stage even in the ninth century," as Laurence Binyon states. From the sixth century wood blocks were used in the East for printing designs upon fabrics, and this practice gradually reached Western Europe so that the earliest example now extant is known to have been made in the year 1350. Wood-engraving as we know it had to wait for the manufacture of paper, and one of the first dated prints now in existence is the "Virgin and Child with Four Virgin Saints" of 1418.

Two of the world's greatest painters and engravers were Albrecht Durer and Lucas Cranach, born in Germany within a year of each other, and so well known through their works, the woodcuts of Durer's "Dance of Death" being especially familiar to us, that they need no further explanation.

In 1542 one of the earliest books to show the art of wood-cutting at its best was brought before the public. This is the beautiful Herbal by the German botanist Fuchisus which contains five hundred large and noble cuts of which he was very proud, even to the extent of praising the artists in his Introduction and devoting the last page of the Herbal to the portraits of the artists. Other Herbals published in the 16th century are great favorites with collectors also.

In 1766 Jean Michel Papillon published the historical and valuable treatise on the woodcutter's art, and this resulted in a revival of the art which had fallen somewhat into disuse in the 17th and 18th centuries. Papillon, who was born in 1698 and lived until 1776, was passionately devoted to his craft of woodcutter and engraver and had searched vainly for a treatise to guide him in his work. So his Traite historique et pratique de la Gravure is the result of his lifetime study of the art of woodcutting, and also of the most fascinating works any collector interested in the decorative arts could wish to own. This art was familiar to Papillon even in his childhood for his grandfather was an engraver of playingcards and his father, who studied with Cochin the Elder, the famous master of the burin, was well known as an engraver of chinoiserie designs for ladies dresses.

Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) replaced the old art of woodcutting with his new method of "white-line engraving." This was so much faster, spontaneous and creative with its use of the graver that cut a line with one push, while the same line when cut with a knife by the old method required foul' incisions. Thomas Bewick when fourteen was apprenticed to Ralph Beilby, an engraver in Newcastle which was more than ten miles from Bewick's home, and as the vouth walked those miles each week the countryside of Northumberland, to which he was so devoted, furnished the inspiration for the trees, valleys, birds and animals in subjects which have so delighted the following generations of art lovers. His first book was the "History of Quadrupeds," which he began in 1785 and finished in 1790. In 1791 he started his 'Histor of British Birds" and did not complete it until thirteen years later. In 1812 he turned to the illustration of "Aesop's Fables" which was published in 1818, and though highly praised, this lacked his great qualities of warm intimacy and humor. Bewick wrote about his technique and also gave us a composite picture of early 19th century living, as it would appear to a person of his place in the life of that time in his "Memoir of Thomas Bewick, Written by Himself," but published long after his death in 1862.

William Blake (1757-1827), though a contemporary of Bewick, was entirely opposite in his work to his English countryman with his mystical and religious representations of visions which appeared to him. He achieved little fame in his time though he had a small group of disciples. Two of these, Edward Calvert and Samuel Palmer, he influenced profoundly enough to inspire them to produce their best work under his personal guidance. The 20th century, however, has brought true appreciation of Blake's cuts for Dr. Thomton's edition of "Virgil's Eclogues" and the remarkable set of plates for "The Book of Job" which once seen can never be forgotten.

Felix Vallotton, a Swiss who lived in France, returned to the old tradition and achieved his powerful effects of gloom and passion with large black and white patterns and intense arrangement of contours. His early work was in the 1890's.

Paul Gauguin, the great French painter who settled in Tahiti in 1890, sent back brilliant and striking original canvases to Paris. After his death in Tahiti in 1903 several blocks were discovered which were carefully printed by the artist's son and preserved. Gauguin had few necessary implements in that far retreat but his creative genius used the soft wood available to him and, in a combination of woodcut and wood engraving, he achieved revolutionary effects in the use of surface textures in his colorful, barbaric and symbolic designs.

The next outstanding figure in woodcutting is the Norwegian artist, Edward Munch (1863-1944). His black and white and colored woodcuts are outstanding productions of the late 19th and early 20th century. Though his influence was felt mainly in Germany, his works are seen in museums and are increasingly in demand by private collectors.

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