Making Stories Speak: American Book Illustration
December 15, 2014 - Cathryn Spence
Illustrators have brought stories to life since at least AD 400-600, when the earliest known illuminated manuscripts were produced in Italy. Modern book illustration derives from fifteenth-century European woodblock printing, originally used to decorate playing cards and reproduce renditions of the saints. It was not long before this technique was used to adorn books.
Woodcuts and woodblocks use relief printing, where the areas to be left white are cut away leaving the proud areas to receive the ink and produce the printed image. This method is often quite crude and therefore not suitable for high detail. Over the coming centuries developments saw techniques such as engraving and etching, which allowed for finer detailing; photogravure, which allowed for a greater tonal range; and offset lithography, which allowed for affordable colour printing – all of which expanded the possibilities for book illustration.
From the mid-eighteenth century, wider literacy, the ‘invention’ of the novel, illustrated newspapers and magazines, more economic paper manufacture and printing processes, and an army of talented (yet often hungry) artists willing to accept such commissions culminated in the nineteenth century becoming known as ‘the golden age of book illustration’ in Europe.
In America, prior to the late nineteenth century, popular book illustration had relied heavily on European exemplars, often resulting in inadequate copies and sub-standard plates. American illustrators also favoured engraving on steel and copper rather than wood, a process more in keeping with the functionality of bank-note production. In 1872 Benson J. Lossing noted that ‘in 1838 there were not twenty professional wood engravers in the United States. In 1870 they numbered about four hundred.’
Felix O. C. Darley (1822-1888) is credited with being primarily responsible for the progress of book illustration in America. According to illustrator Henry Pitz (1895-1976), ‘Darley had no tradition of American illustration behind him. He was himself beginning its creation.’ His best work was created in wood, but he also used lithography, steel-engraving, and etching. Darley’s fine line and simplified – yet vigorous – design powerfully conveyed the atmosphere of the stories he represented. He produced designs for books, magazines, and bank-notes as well as seeing his work reproduced in large-format prints. For most Americans, Darley was the first artist they encountered.
Concurrently Putnams and Harpers – two New-York-based publishing firms – made concerted efforts to commission better illustrations rather than rely on inadequate copies of European pictures. In 1846 Harpers published the Illuminated (Family) Bible with engravings by Joseph Alexander Adams (1803-1880) after drawings by John Gadsby Chapman (1808-1889). Chapman was one of America’s most respected history painters, commissioned by Congress to decorate the rotunda of the Capitol building with his Baptism of Pocahontas, whilst Adams is considered to have been the most talented engraver of his time, comparable with any British counterpart.
The Civil War (1861-1865) increased the demand for artists able to translate quickly developments into print-ready line. C. H. Hammatt Billings (1818-1874) and Thomas Nast (1840-1902), both represented in the Museum’s collection, were two such artists. Frank Wetenkampf (1866-1962), an authority on engraving, proudly stated that the period between 1840 and 1870 saw ‘what may rightfully be called a genuine American school of illustration … The American illustrator had thrown off his foreign leading strings and was doing work that was genuinely American in character and feeling.’Photo-mechanical processes were taken up with enthusiasm in America, leaving Europe behind, perhaps because it was more compatible with newspapers and magazines, a far larger – and ever-increasing – industry in America. Akin to the majority of illustrators working at the turn of the twentieth century, Edward Penfield (1866-1925) and Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) worked primarily for illustrated magazines; books were secondary. This, according to Pitz, had a detrimental affect on the standard of artistry to be found. On the other hand, David Bland (1911-1970), an authority on book illustration, celebrated the robust variety he identified in American illustration, seeing it as extravert and thus more congenial to the American character.
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