Drawing was the opportunity of the century

AS a painter in my young adulthood in the 1950s and '60s, I witnessed a transformation of the position of American art. New York City, my hometown, burgeoned from a town full of artists of national interest into the world's art center. In New York, I taught art to children and witnessed the universal aptitude and pleasure that children have in drawing. My black and Puerto Rican students in that East Harlem school, like their age mates everywhere, delighted in picturing what they knew. Yet back when I had studied the history of art in college, I learned that everything I was -- American, Jewish, and female, and indeed also what my students were -- was outside of that history.

I wanted to understand how the world of art -- art museums and galleries and all of us who were artists and teachers -- arrived at what counted as art and who would count as artists, who was to be forgotten and who was to be remembered. Because I could deal only with a small piece of the puzzle, I decided to look at who, other than the few known ones, really was drawing and painting here in this country a century ago.

This work began after I completed my doctorate at Harvard on the psychological developments reflected in the changes in young children's drawings. As a native New Yorker only recently come to Boston, I found in flea markets an excitement that may pale for those who have grown up in New England. Inspired and informed by the century-old art library at Massachusetts College of Art where I had just begun to teach, I devoted Sunday mornings, even in the dark of winter, to trips north in my old blue Valiant hunting for objects: old art books, drawing paraphernalia, and paint sets of people who had learned to draw and paint in the 19th century. These I hoped could give me clues as to who had been drawing and painting here and why.

For some dozen years, the collection grew. It includes how-to-draw books that showed ways to draw trees, houses, landscapes, animals, and people as well as students' sketchbooks showing their efforts to copy these. Here, too, are art theory books and art suppliers' catalogs which provide clues, often indirectly, of what the many Americans hoped for when they drew.

Affidavits by authorities, more directly, extolled the virtues of learning to draw. Even farmers, they said, if they studied drawing, could expect to plow a straighter furrow. All these items claimed that drawing benefited every facet of the population. Skill with the pencil would improve each individual's as well as the nation's life, economically, socially, and culturally.

One Sunday morning conversation at a flea market led to an opportunity that New Yorkers believe can happen only in New England: I was introduced to one family, the Crosses, whose generations of scrapbooks, letters, drawings, photographs, watercolors, and notebooks, enabled me to extend my understanding of who drew. The possibility of reconstructing one family's origins seemed especially hopeful to me as the daughter of first-generation Jewish immigrants whose distant Czechoslovakian and Lithuanian roots are too sad and vague to trace.

When I actually saw the cartons of Cross papers in a barn in Merrimack, N.H., all the prior glimpses of 19th-century attitudes toward art suddenly became visible in three dimensions. Gaps were filled in.

Carefully stashed away for a century, the Cross memorabilia are documents of the lives of three children, two boys and a girl, born at midcentury, all of whom practiced visual art from their early years through adulthood. They were part of that emerging mass of Americans who believed that drawing was the opportunity of a century.

In these boxes were their childhood drawings, including copies of storybook illustrations from Harriet Beecher Stowe's ``Queer Little People'' (1868), a family of ducks dressed like people sitting around a Sunday dinner table; Jacob Abbott's ``The Gibraltar Gallery'' (1856), a charming group of seals sticking their noses out through holes in a frozen Arctic lake; and Henry Walker Herrick's illustrations for ``Aesop's Fables'' (1865).

Here, too, were Herrick engravings, pyrography (lines burned into wood panel), and one watercolor. Herrick, I was to discover, was the children's neighbor and mentor. He was an illustrator as well as a prominent wood engraver and feminist art educator. ONE box contained the actual ink-stained wood blocks incised by the children, who used these to practice to become engravers, along with piles of professional wood-engraving proofs pulled from the presses at the preeminent Boston engraving shop of S. S. Kilburn, where the two brothers went to work.

Drawings done by their sister, Emma, were there, too. Her British art instruction books, Boston art class diploma, and her meticulous flower paintings were packed away with her portfolio of charcoal drawings from the Free Boston Evening Drawing Classes. Such instruction was mandated by law: 1870 Massachusetts legislation required cities and towns with populations of more than 10,000 to offer free drawing classes.

After studying these documents and objects and others that were still in the possession of the Cross descendants (such as Civil War letters from the father advising them on their art and their farming), I was able to piece together how art fitted into this family's life.

I could glean what drawing meant to many other farming and newly industrial families. The Crosses, after all, were just a few of the masses of Americans who devoted their lives to art.

Even those elderly New Hampshire people who knew and remember Emma and Foster Cross, whose lives extended well into this century, are surprised to see the secret stock of art their neighbors produced.

Why was their story -- and those of their fellow Americans -- simply forgotten? One possibility is that those who themselves painted and drew in the 19th century were so convinced that they and all the rest of their compatriots were unartistic that they believed what that British authority, Walter Smith, told his many audiences of American corporate leaders, teachers, and even state legislators: that America was on the bottom of the cultural totem pole. Perhaps their distrust of their own work led them to hide their work in barn lofts and attics.

By the turn of the century the dream of mass art had crashed. The vision of personal pleasure and refinement of skill gave way to work that was done by tradesmen who served at the bidding of the increasingly wealthy class. The virtuoso wood engravers, whose cuts into wood blocks captured the windswept blades of grass or the finest details in a new industrial invention, suddenly became objects of contempt. Their works were rejected because they too readily revealed the hand of the artist. The newfangled photographic reproduction processes were preferred because they seemed objective and were believed to make their subjects look more ``real.'' Modern meant superior. Technology condemned the vulnerable human hand.

Why have we forgotten the mass wave of American art -- at least until recently? I believe it is because the American 19th-century ideal, democratization of art -- the creation of a mass art -- had become a dinosaur and contradiction in terms. A picture emerges for me of our country trapped by our political ideals. We wanted everyone to make art. At the same time, as we understood it from the European tradition, art had to be the work of rare geniuses, almost always men, living centuries ago in places far removed from us.

The very success of the Drawing Law of 1870 was perhaps the reason for denial of the talent of people who so avidly drew and painted. People must have been convinced that, if it were everywhere, practiced by men, women, and children, what we were making here in America must not really have been art.

As long as we define art by scarcity, we must deny what is right in front of us. Many forgotten people here in America have had images on their minds. In our century, Holger Cahill, director of the Federal Art Project of the WPA, wrote in his book ``Art for the Millions,'' ``One of the things which the history of art indicates is that great art arises only in situations where there is a great deal of artistic activity.''

We have inherited art museums, art schools and colleges, even art in the public schools, from the era when drawing was law, and it seems to me that they still offer us an opportunity to revise our old notions so we may truly democratize art.

Diana Korzenik is the author of ``Drawn to Art,'' published by the University Press of New England. An exhibition, ``A Nineteenth-Century Art Education,'' is at the University Art Galleries, Paul Creative Arts Center of the University of New Hampshire, Durham, through Oct. 22, and a companion exhibit, ``Henry W. Herrick, Mentor,'' at the Manchester Historic Association, Manchester, N.H., through Nov. 29.

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