Linton's History of Wood-Engraving

MR. LINTON, in writing this volume,1 has done good service to his art. Had not some one collected and set down the meagre facts concerning the lives and works of the first practicers of wood-engraving in this country, they would soon have been irrecoverably lost. The men were obscure ; their works, for the most part, were rude, characterized by little skill and less beauty, — products of trade rather than creations of art; but history would have been incomplete without some record of them. Mr. Linton’s book will be one of the original sources for future authors, and it is satisfactory to observe the thoroughness, care, and fidelity that insure its trustworthiness. In all books on wood-engraving a difficulty arises from the impossibility of exhibiting on the page more than a few cuts, and from the necessity of continual reference to rare and often practically unknown prints. Mr. Linton has not avoided the confusion that results from great detail, and be indulges in enthusiasm over possessions of his own without remembering how he makes the interest of the ordinary reader flag. Indeed, he does not address the public so much as the craft. He has gathered from scattered biographical notices and from tradition probably all that will ever be known of the early engravers, and he has chronicled this information ; but, as he himself suggests, he has given rather a contribution to the history of American wood-engraving than the history itself, which must hereafter he written by some one with more skill in grouping facts and placing them in perspective. His book is to be regarded, in the main, as the final and complete form of his twice-told protest against some of the methods and apparent aims of engravers now at work. To amplify, illustrate, and enforce the fundamental principles of the art, as he understands them, is clearly the matter nearest to his heart; and to this, therefore, as the leading interest of his pages, we shall confine our attention.

Mr. Linton’s views, which have once been expressed in this magazine, are well known. His main position is that wood-engraving is an art of expression by means of lines used primarily to delineate form, and that its peculiar province is to reproduce designs, not by a fac-simile copy of the original, stroke for stroke, but by lines drawn by the graver; that it is not an imitative but an interpretative art. What he considers as mistakes in recent work are due principally to an insufficient appreciation of the value of line, or to a slavish subservience to the designs. These errors are incident to the development of the manual skill of the engravers, and to the increase of their mechanical resources. As it became possible, by improved processes, to print fine lines, the chief objection to their use in wood - engraving disappeared ; and when, on experiment, it was found that pleasing color effects resulted from the employment of such lines, independently of their function to define forms, and that the look of paint, bronze, clay, charcoal, and the like could be thus given, the charm of novelty led to the application of the art for such purposes. Within the last two years the direct imitation of materials — the ugly gray pallor of busts, without the solidity, distance, and play of light on which their beauty depends, the sweep of the paintbrush as seen on a close examination of the canvas — has been comparatively infrequent; but the effort to obtain color without form shows no abatement. Meanwhile, however, the engravers, such as King, Cole, Kruell, Closson, and Johnson, have shown, as never before, that their mastery of form is very great; that they understand beautiful and orderly line arrangement as the means to mark outlines, to show differences of textures, such as fur and satin, to express the modeling of features and the character of flesh. There is, therefore, no question of the powers either of the art or of the engraver ; the controversy is simply in regard to aims and methods.

Of course the decisive test lies in the work itself. Is it beautiful, and does it sacrifice a higher to an inferior beauty ? In answering such inquiries, it is hard to see how Mr. Linton’s conclusions can be avoided as statements of the principles that underlie the best products of wood-engraving as a distinctive art. Line-work certainly is the main business of the engravers, and its chief use is to mark form and texture. Whether the lines shall be fine or bold in character is at the option of the engraver. If, by his own choice, or at the will of his employers, he adopts the more laborious style, when the easier would serve as well, all that can be said is that there is a waste of industry and time. But whether the lines, fine or bold, shall have intention or not admits no latitudinarian decision. Lines are to the engraver what words are to the poet. To require of the former that he shall put meaning into his lines is no more than to require of the latter that he shall put meaning into his words. Superfluity and carelessness in the one are analogous to verbosity and inaccuracy of epithet in the other ; in both the art is better in proportion as the thought that determines the selection and arrangement is more discriminating, and the expression is more clear and firm. The truth of this is not questioned in poetry; its validity in art is only less acknowledged because the principles of art criticism are less generally known. The cobweb skies, the mottled grounds that stand for grass, the phantasmal flat shadows that serve for trees, are bad in art simply because of the absence of form, or, in other words, of the meaninglessness of lines. Such work does not present in a beautiful, accurate, and life-like way the objects to the eye; it suggests them to the mind by symbols, and no one needs to be told that symbolism is in art an early and inferior stage. In this generalization of the accessories, as it is called, in the heads without hair, the flesh blending with the garments, the foliage undistinguished from the grass, and in all its multifarious phases, woodengraving is not an art of expression ; it is rather an art of obliteration.

But if these lines have no meaning in form, have they not in color ? Perhaps color effects only were sought, and are they not obtained ? Unquestionably, these tints, modulated with exquisite gradations, afford pleasure to the eye at the first glance ; but it is still to be asked whether this momentary delight satisfies the artistic sense, — whether it lasts or wears away. In nature, color is an attribute of form ; in a landscape or a picturesque group, the color is first apprehended, real hues of blue and green and scarlet yielding a keen sensuous joy. But when the impression of the scene is complete, color is usually subordinate to form; or, if it remain the predominant element, its beauty is intimately related to the beauty of the forms it clothes. In the cuts now referred to, if one looks through the color, the blacks and grays, which, however marvelous in delicacy and contrast, are after all conventional, he finds that the forms have been left out. Those who suppose that this faithlessness to nature is really popular might learn something of the native taste of our people from the literary triumph of the realistic novel among us. The Americans are an observant race. Teachable as they are, and slow to trust their own judgment in such a matter as art, which is commonly believed to require knowledge of secrets and exceptional cultivation for its appreciation, they are quite aware that these engravings are not true representations of nature, but are ugly symbolizations of beautiful things, and not infrequently wholly unintelligible in regard to form. We will bear, as a people, as much realism in art as in story-telling. These strictures are not meant to apply to the class of cuts in which the scene is merely overlaid with a gauze-like veil, for this indistinctness has sometimes a value intelligently meant and clearly felt. In such engravings the forms are there, though obscured; and if the flowers lose their beautiful fringes, the trees their folds, there is some compensation in other gains. The mass of cuts which have either no form or false form, which are a maze of unnecessary or wandering lines, must be condemned, however ingenious and skillful in color, because they are untrue to nature and vacant to the mind. Mr. Linton calls attention to a very significant fact by pointing out the ease with which young and untrained scholars have caught the trick of these effects, as shown by The Century prize-engravings; the true use of line is not so quickly learned.

Mr. Linton indicates that the fault is not with the engravers, but with the designers. He says, “ I have yet met with no engraver impugning the broad truth of my position, nor a single artist (setting aside minor differences of opinion) denying the general correctness of my views.” From another portion of his work it appears that the artists require effects of the engravers which involve attention to color at the expense of form. In view of this, while our respect is increased for these engravers, who, like Kruell, King, and Hoskins, have yielded least to this demand, we can only regret the lack of independence on the part of the engravers as a body. Their art, it is true, is secondary, and it has many uses other than the creation of beauty ; but it possesses a value unshared by other arts, and in obeying its own genius obtains unborrowed effects, beautiful in their own right. Indeed, no injustice would be done if the engravers should reverse the situation, and insist that the artists should serve them, on the ground that the design should be subject to the conditions of the art in the productions of which it is finally to be reckoned; at least, the engravers should be left free to choose their own modes of copying the originals, and in that choice should themselves be governed by the known laws of the beautiful and accurate reproduction of nature by art. To judge by the excellence of the best work they have done, — and it is the best that has ever been done, — they would not then blemish their cuts with hasty and careless drawing, with aimless lines, with symbolized or generalized forms, with bodiless color. They would acknowledge by their works that definiteness, and intelligibility are prime necessaries in wood-engraving as in any other art of expression, and that, as in all arts that depend on line, perfection of form is the essential thing to be striven for.

  1. The History of Wood-Engraving in America. By W. J. LINTON. Boston: Estes & Lauriat. 1882.