It is curious about wood-engravers: there is one thing they all seem to have in common, a kind of quiet dignity and rectitude that pervades their life and work; probity perhaps is the word. It may have something to do with the medium in which they work, the discipline involved in so exacting an art, the necessity for planning and foresight in a method wherein a mistake is always fatal. Perhaps it derives from the nature of the medium itself, so unobtrusive, precise, and uncompromising that for its appreciation one must meet it more than half way. Method and rightness inhere in the work of all true wood-engravers, and somehow these virtues are to be discovered in their characters also. In real life they are the most estimable of men. Quiet and industrious, sober and responsible, they let their work speak for them. 1
What Carl Zigrosser says about wood-engravers as a class, seems to have a special relevance for the career of Allen Lewis in particular. Though little known today, Lewis was in fact highly regarded in his own time, admired and praised by such seminal figures in modern American art as Hamilton Easter Field and Alfred Stieglitz. Like many other American artists active in the first half of this century, Lewis has only recently been rediscovered by scholars.
Born in Mobile, Alabama, April 7, 1873, Allen Lewis moved at age four with his family to Buffalo, New York. When Lewis graduated from high school, he enrolled at the Buffalo Art Students League where he studied under the Canadian painter, George Bridgman (1864-1940). His work with Bridgman instilled a desire in Lewis that Buffalo, with its limited resources, could not satisfy. So, in search of greater opportunities, he sailed for Paris in 1894, at the age of 21.2 Every serious American art student in the late nineteenth century longed to study and work in Europe. Paris, like several other centers of art in Europe offered the Americans the chance to enroll in classes under world-renowned masters and to use the most modern and advanced facilities. And in Europe, American students could study masterpieces first in the extensive collections of European museums. Such experience, so essential to the student of art, was all but impossible in the United States, because though American museums were growing, they did not yet equal Europe's collections in size or quality. Paris offered one of the most comprehensive art education systems in the world, a system whose rigorous programme gave its students the thorough training for which the French school had become famous.
Lewis quickly settled into his new life, writing his mother soon after his arrival, "I have fallen in love with Paris."3 He soon began to take advantage of what the city offered the artist:
I have gone to the Louvre day after day but I have not seen half of it vet. Everything I have ever heard of or almost dreamed of seems to be there.4
He established a routine, sketching during the day and attending sessions at the Academie
Colarossi during the evening. In addition, Lewis enrolled in the atelier of the well-known
French painter Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904), at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Many American
artists, including Thomas Eakins
Little of Gerome's detailed and highly finished style can be seen in Lewis's work, but the Frenchman's strict discipline did provide his students with a solid foundation in design upon which they could build their own styles. Gerome taught his students to study their subject thoroughly before beginning work, and this deliberate, careful approach remained with Lewis, is for the rest of his career.
In October 1895, Lewis made his first etchings, some of which he proudly sent home. His
friend, Ernest Haskell (1876-1925), the American printmaker and illustrator, encouraged him
in these earliest attempts.5 Lewis's continued efforts eventually
led to his acceptance into the Paris Salon of 1900. Along with James Abbot McNeill Whistler
My etching is placed along side of Whistler's and not hurt very much by the comparison although he is one of the greatest modern etchers as well as the greatest painter.6
His Salon entry was a portrait of the American illustrator, cartoonist, painter, and muralist, Boardman Robinson. Lewis had posed Robinson standing on the balcony, for, as he later recalled, "My studio was too small for both of us to be in the room at the same time."7 He was clearly gaining confidence in his graphic abilities, constantly studying the work of others to see how he measured up. By now, he seemed to have given up the idea of becoming a painter.
Lewis lived frugally while in Paris, supplementing the small allowance he received from his parents with a salary of fifty francs a month which he earned as a church sexton. The church post was strictly a business arrangement for him, for he was a free thinker and did not take seriously the things he encountered in the church. In addition, an occasional pupil provided him with additional funds. His pupils were either wealthy amateurs desiring a few lessons, or more serious artists, like Donald Shaw MacLaughlan (1876-1938), a Bostonian.
Over the years Lewis also augmented his slender means by working for other, more established artists. He apparently came to Paris at the request of John Taylor Arms (1887-1953), who became a printmaker in 1919, to sketch figures for use in his drawings of architectural subjects."8 However, this must have been a short-lived venture, as no mention of Arms occurs in Lewis's surviving Parisian correspondence. Another of Lewis's friends in Paris, the painter Frederic Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928), had also studied with Gerome, and eventually became to Lewis "a regular father," 9 giving him advice and securing small jobs for him. As early as October 1895, Lewis had found part-time employment through Bridgman, with a painter named Dodge, who was at the time working on murals for the Philadelphia Court House. It appears likely that this painter was William de Leftwich Dodge (1867-1935), an American muralist who resided in Paris and had also studied with Gerome.10 While the mural work provided Lewis with needed funds, it was tedious mechanical work, which he eventually quit. And as he worked for other artists, Lewis further sought to increase his contacts in artistic circles by joining the American Art Association of Paris, an organization founded in 1877.11
As he worked and studied abroad, Lewis kept his parents regularly informed of his activities. They appear to have been well pleased with his progress but they wanted him to return to his native land. Lewis, though, was reluctant to leave, as he wrote them in 1900:
No I do not want to come home just yet. I am here to succeed and I am going to do it. In America, or at least in Chattanooga, the standard of art is not so high as in Paris or London.12
And in fact, he did not return until the summer of 1902, having spent almost eight years abroad.
When he did return, Lewis settled in New York and set up a studio in a warehouse owned by Hamilton Easter Field (1874-1922). Field, whom Lewis called "my guardian angel,"13 had helped the struggling artist to sell some of his prints in Paris. While in Paris, Lewis had designed five lithographed bookplates for Field, and then created two more following his return. Lewis was grateful for the free space Field made available to him, although the rats, the dampness, and the flaking paint from the ceiling made his printmaking work all the more difficult.
The generous Field introduced Lewis to many of his friends, who in turn offered commissions to the young artist. Much of the demand was for Lewis's bookplates. He favored this type of commission and would execute more than fifty bookplates in the course of his career.14 His first bookplates date from 1900, when he etched ones for Nanny F. Danby and Ralph Roswell Fitch. In 1902, he designed one for the print connoisseur William M. Ivins, Jr., who later became Curator of Prints at the Metropolitan Museum in 1916. Lewis later produced two bookplates for Paul Burry Haviland (1880-1950), a member of the Limoges china-making family and Field's cousin, in 1904 and 1906. Lewis made portraits of both Paul and his younger brother, Frank Burry Haviland (1886-1971), a Cubist painter.15 Walter Conrad Arensberg (1878-1953), who headed with his wife Louise, an important avant-garde salon in New York between 1914 and 1921, requested bookplates from Lewis. And the sculptor Robert Laurent (1890-1970), another of Field's proteges, commissioned a plate in 1909.
Lewis regarded each of his bookplates as experiments whose designs grew out of his client's specific needs.16 To achieve the effects he wanted, Lewis often fashioned his own printmaking tools from such unconventional materials as bicycle spokes, forks, and crochet needles. He felt strongly that while bookplates should be both well-designed and personal, they should not be too complex, for, as he cautioned, "a bookplate is primarily a label, so this use should not be lost sight of."17 n his best bookplates he did indeed create designs which were distinctive, yet suitable for his clients' needs. He remained constantly aware of the limitations as well as the possibilities of these small-scale art works.
Among progressive circles in New York, Lewis became well-known; famous enough, in fact, for Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) to present a show of Lewis's work at gallery 291 in 1909.18 Founded by Stieglitz in 1905 to display the best in contemporary photography, 291 broadened its scope in 1907 to exhibit works in other media. In time, 291 was to show the works of such avant-garde European and American artists as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marsden Hartley, and Georgia O'Keeffe. Although Field frequented 291, it was Paul Haviland who introduced Lewis to Stieglitz. Haviland, who proposed Lewis's exhibition19, was one of Stieglitz's closest associates providing financial support for 291, writing articles for Camera Work, and making photographs himself.
Lewis showed forty-three drypoints, etchings, and bookplates at 291. Haviland wrote an astute commentary on this, Lewis's first one-man exhibition, and the commentary was accompanied by a special catalogue designed and printed by the artist:
In this age of superficiality and skepticism, where the chief interest of artists is to record the mere externals of life; where graceful lines and pleasing spotting are sufficient aims in themselves, it is singularly refreshing to come across the work of a man who seems to have kept himself untouched by the modern spirit of indifference to the philosophy of life; and who combined a remarkable feeling for composition with a seriousness of purpose and a simple faith reminiscent of the spirit of the old German masters.20
While Lewis cannot be regarded historically as an avant-garde artist, he did possess qualities which would have attracted Stieglitz's attention. Lewis was a slow and careful worker who, much like Stieglitz, was always concerned to maintain the highest standards of craftsmanship. Lewis never sought to produce art on a mass scale, and Stieglitz must have admired this selfless devotion to a craft.
Lewis's contact with Stieglitz did not end with his exhibition. He became an Associate Member of the Photo-Secession2l and advertised his bookplates in Caniera Work.22 Stieglitz thought highly enough of Lewis's work to select one of his photographs, Winter, to be reproduced in the August 1912 issue.23 Then, in 1913, Lewis designed both a bookplate and a monogram for Stieglitz. The making of the bookplate, a wood engraving, entailed the use of ten separate blocks, each of which had to be carefully registered during the printing of each color. Lewis long remembered this arduous task:
Here [in Brooklyn] I printed the Alfred Stieglitz bookplate. An experiment I will never repeat. There were many blocks, ten I think, and some were printed a second time with certain portions cut away. There was much overprinting, one color printed over another. All the blocks combined to make the back of the hair. That this did not produce a shine was due to the thinness and the transparency of each printing. The fact that the press was worn in all its joints, kept changing the register and gave me no end of trouble.24
His considerable effort elicited the admiration of Alfred Fowler, who edited The Bookplate Annual:
The Alfred Stieglitz bookplate by Allen Lewis has such great distinction of design that it may be paid the tribute of silence. To discuss qualities that so cry out to be seen, only profanes them. Of all bookplate designs which he can remember to have seen, the writer would place this among the very first as a work of art.25
Even though this bookplate was executed for one of Lewis' most distinguished patrons, one cannot regard this as one of his most successful designs. Though technically difficult to execute, the bookplate lacks the straightforward, legible design characteristic of his other work. Lewis achieved his most effective designs within a more limited range and with less complex means.
In 1915, Lewis received his first commission for a book illustration--
Lewis produced some of his most beautiful illustrations for the Limited Editions Club, for which he did Undine in 1930 and Ivanhoe in 1940. Undine, a seventeenth century German tale of a water nymph, was one of the first books issued by the Club. The Club gave Lewis almost complete freedom, allowing him to choose not only the artistic character of the work, but the book itself. Lewis designed the Morris-like borders and type for Undine, supervised each stage of production, and executed as much as he could by hand himself to avoid using machines. He paid such attention to detail that it took fifteen months to complete the work.
To understand the painstaking task of making such engravings, we can turn to Lewis himself for a description of his methods as a craftsman and artist. In the following passage he describes how he created The Preaching of St. Francis to the Birds, a work executed in 1933 for the Woodcut Society:
This second block, bearing the offset to guide my graver, is used to carry the tint and
high lights in the light side of different objects. Because I wished to give a feeling of the
figure somewhat enveloped by the background I cut away the black outlines of the figure and
other objects which indicate the contours on the light side. Live models I seldom use. In
place I have a wooden mannequin for which I make costumes.
The monks robe was made out of a crude silk fabric-which looks like wool-used during the war
to enclose charges of powder. The lady's train in the Undine illustration was made of tissue
paper arranged on a mannequin. At this time-when it is the practice to divide art into many
different schools, such as'Modern,"American Scene,'etc., and strive so horribly for
something new-it may look 'old hat' to take such a hackneyed subject as
Lewis exhibited his works and won honors for them throughout his career. In 1904 the first honor came, a bronze medal at the St. Louis Exposition. A decade later, at the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, he won a gold medal for his showing. In the following year, Lewis participated in the first annual exhibition of the Brooklyn Society of Etchers, an organization of which he served as the first president. This 1916 show included works by Eugene Higgins, John Marin, and Abraham Walkowitz. Two years later, in 1918, he had two more oneman shows, one in Boston at Godspeeds Bookshop and the other at Milch Galleries in New York. Finally, in 1929, he was elected an Associate of the National Academy of Design, and in 1935 made a full Academician.
Through his teaching, Lewis was able to transmit his convictions about art to a new generation of students. He taught printmaking and illustration at the Art Students League in New York from 1924 until 1932, working in the graphics department under Joseph Pennell. Between 1932 and 1934, he taught at the New School for Social Research in New York. Lewis did not like to lecture, but preferred to work with his students individually, conveying to them that appreciation of line and form so important to him. His students included Norman Kent (1903-72), Warren Chappell (b. 1904-), and John Howard Benson (1901-56). 27
Lewis was at the height of his career during the 1930s, but the 1940s proved discouraging for him. He began to receive fewer commissions, and his health deteriorated. Never an extrovert, he lacked a keen business sense, and his precise techniques made his work slow and difficult. In these later years, he turned from the production of art to the study of the Old Masters. He devised a theory in which he sought to demonstrate how all art, from the prehistoric to modern times, was based upon a system involving the square and the compass. He was hardly successful, however, in his attempts to disseminate his ideas.
When his former student, Norman Kent, wrote about Lewis's long and quiet life, he noted
that, "in his modesty he [Lewis] considered himself a
failure."28 Lewis never did achieve
the wide success of some of his contemporaries, such as Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), but
Zigrosser, among others, feels that Lewis was one of the "pioneers in the rehabilitation
of the woodcut as a means of creative
expression."29 In his work, Lewis
attempted to restore to the craft that devotion he so admired in old books and that he felt
conspicuously lacking in modern work. The painstaking care, high standards, and sound
The Allen Lewis Collection Digital Library has been made possible by a grant from The Ameritech Foundation
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