The rise of the woodcut illustration

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When you hold a deck of cards, you're holding a significant stage in the history of the book. Woodcuts made it possible to reproduce detailed designs in a small format. Early woodcut artists in Europe made playing cards and pictures of saints. Eventually the technique was employed to illustrate books. Early book illustrations in woodcut included many religious works, but also books of Aesop's fables, instructional manuals, and mathematical and scientific texts.

"A Heavenly Craft: The Woodcut in Early Printed Books" is a handsome and informative exhibit that debuted at the Grolier Club in New York and features the Rosenwald collection of books from the Library of Congress. The collection is the library's "most important book collection after Jefferson's," says Daniel De Simone, curator of the collection. He is also curator of the traveling exhibition, which traces the development of the woodcut in Germany, Italy, and France from Medieval times to the Renaissance.

A woodcut began with a design drawn on a plank of wood. Another person, a craftsman, often did the actual cutting. Inked areas were left uncarved, and blank areas were cut away. Early woodcuts were crude, with thick lines. Some were hand-colored.

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As the craft became more refined and widespread, shading was added: first with parallel lines and later with complex cross-hatching. The cutter's skill could be seen in the final image's tonality, particularly in the way drapes of fabric were rendered. In Venetian and, later, French printing, images had borders that often were more intricate than the images framed.

The exhibit also traces the shift from religious to humanist subjects. The cutters began to try to "show individuality" in the people they portrayed, De Simone says.

Illustrations cut into wood are some of the most beloved and collected of book arts. Woodcut printing is also one of the earliest art forms in the history of printing. Woodcuts emerged in the 1500s, the first century after Gutenberg. It is uncertain where the craft began, but Germany was the most prolific source of woodcuts. Early Italian and French woodcuts copy German technique, but with Italian themes or Spanish decoration.

This exquisite collection of books is the work of two collectors. They shared a passion for early books, though they never met. The first collector was British industrialist C.W. Dyson Perrins, who sold his collection and used the proceeds to preserve the Royal Worcester Factory, part of British industrial history. The collection was purchased at auction by Lessing J. Rosenwald, bibliophile and former chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Co., who continued to add to the collection with the intent of donating it to the Library of Congress.

• 'A Heavenly Craft: The Woodcut in Early Printed Books' opened Thursday at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. It is on view until July 9. For further information, see: www.loc.gov/exhibits

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