Special Collections & Archives Blog

A Northern Christmas, by Rockwell Kent (1941)

Thursday, December 5, 2013 4:34 pm

A Northern Christmas, by Rockwell Kent, was an American Artists Group gift book for 1941

A Northern Christmas by Rockwell Kent was an American Artists Group gift book for 1941

American artist Rockwell Kent spent Christmas 1918 in a small cabin on an island off the south coast of Alaska. More than twenty years later he recalled the experience in words and woodcut illustrations in a holiday gift book titled A Northern Christmas.

Title page from A Northern Christmas

Title page from A Northern Christmas

The small book was published by the American Artists Group, an organization founded in 1935 for the purpose of providing art for the masses and, in the process, creating a market for artists to earn a living during the difficult years of the Depression. Many prominent artists were members, including Edward Hopper, John Sloan, Thomas Hart Benton, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Max Weber, and Eugene Speicher. The American Artists Group published small monographs and offered unsigned engravings, lithographs, and woodcut prints for sale at very affordable prices. But the group was perhaps best  known for its yearly offerings of Christmas cards designed by its artists. In 1941 they also began a series of small holiday gift books, of which A Northern Christmas was the first.

Frontispiece illustration from A Northern Christmas

Frontispiece illustration from A Northern Christmas

Let it snow or rain and grow dark at midday! The better shall be our good Christmas cheer within. This is the true Christmas land. The day should be dark, the house further overshadowed by the woods, tall and black. And there in the midst of that somber, dreadful gloom the Christmas tree should blaze in glory unrivaled by moon or sun or star.

Rockwell Kent, A Northern Christmas

Cover from American Artists Group Illustrated Monograph no. 2

Cover from American Artists Group Illustrated Monograph no. 2

Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) was born and educated in New York. His first art teacher was William Merritt Chase; later he studied with Abbott Handerson Thayer, Robert Henri, and Kenneth Hayes Miller.  Kent also trained as an architectural draftsman and was an accomplished carpenter. He worked in a variety of artistic media, but he is best known for his prints and for his many illustrations for classic literary works like Candide, Leaves of Grass, The Canterbury Tales, and, perhaps most famously, Moby Dick.

Rockwell Kent's famous dust jacket design for Moby Dick (Random House trade edition, 1930)

Rockwell Kent’s famous dust jacket design for Moby Dick (Random House trade edition, 1930)

Kent also wrote and illustrated several of his own books, many of them memoirs of his extensive travels. He often sought out remote areas of untouched wilderness for artistic inspiration. In 1918-19 he spent several months in Alaska with his young son (also named Rockwell).  The resulting book, called Wilderness, was published by G. P. Putnam in 1920.

Cover illustration for Rockwell Kent's Wilderness (1920)

Cover illustration for Rockwell Kent’s Wilderness (1920)

The south coast of the mainland of Alaska is a wilderness of spruce-clad mountains whose outlying, isolated peaks are islands. On one of these we lived, a father and his eight-year-old son. . . . the man in pursuit of his profession, the boy in pursuit of what of education lay in doing things, and both in that pursuit of happiness which, with whatever right, is still what every living creature wants. . . .

Of the fullness of the days–fullness of work and thought, of play, of little happenings, of uneventful peace–we kept record. That record is a book: its name is WILDERNESS. From WILDERNESS these notes about a happy Christmas in the north are drawn.

A Northern Christmas

The Rockwell Kent Papers in the Archives of American Art include extensive correspondence between Kent and Samuel Golden of the American Artists Group. In the 1941 correspondence they discuss all aspects of the production of A Northern Christmas, beginning with the necessity of getting permission from G. P. Putnam for the use of excerpts and illustrations from Wilderness. The publisher at first demanded a rather steep fee but became more reasonable after a “sharply worded letter” from Kent. In the end, Kent insisted that Putnam’s cooperation should be acknowledged in the colophon of A Northern Christmas.

Colophon from A Northern Christmas

Colophon from A Northern Christmas

A Northern Christmas  consisted mostly of excerpts from Wilderness, along with an introduction and a few new illustrations.

From A Northern Christmas

From A Northern Christmas

For Rockwell Kent, the wilderness idyll was a welcome respite from the materialism of the modern world. In the excerpts chosen for A Northern Christmas, Kent describes, in words and pictures, the spare and simple Christmas that he and his son celebrated with their landlord, an old Swedish homesteader named Olson.  The presents are few– young Rockwell receives a pocket knife, some old National Geographic magazines, and a broken fountain pen, but he “sits on the bed looking at the things as if they were the most wonderful gifts.” The holiday proves all the more memorable for its minimalism.

Christmas menu from A Northern Christmas

Christmas menu from A Northern Christmas

The food is good and plentiful, the night is long, only the Christmas candles are short-lived and we extinguish them to save them for another time. Finally, as the night deepens, Olson leaves us amid mutual expressions of delight in one another’s friendship, and Rockwell and I tumble into bed.

A Northern Christmas

Rockwell Kent wrote and illustrated a very different gift book for the American Artists Group the next year. The 1942 book, called On Earth Peace, is a rather bleak wartime fable about a Jazz Age princess humbled by loss and privation.

Cover illustration for On Earth Peace, Rockwell Kent's gift book for 1942

Cover illustration for On Earth Peace, Rockwell Kent’s gift book for 1942

Kent’s popularity as an artist waned somewhat after the war. His style fell out of fashion in the age of abstract expressionism, and his ongoing involvement in  socialist causes aroused suspicion in the Red-baiting 1950s. At one point Kent’s passport was revoked, and he sued to have it reinstated. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled in his favor, a landmark decision that made it more difficult for the government to curtail a citizen’s right to travel.  Kent continued to work for progressive causes and tried to promote improved relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Typed letter to Lynwood Giacomini, signed by Rockwell Kent

Typed letter to Lynwood Giacomini, signed by Rockwell Kent

The items pictured here are all held by ZSR Library’s Special Collections. The library has a sizeable collection of Rockwell Kent books, most of them previously owned by publisher Lynwood Giacomini, whose collection of American literature was purchased by the library in 1976. Giacomini kept up a friendly correspondence with many authors, and his collection includes a few typed letters from Rockwell Kent.

Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers, edited by Denis Diderot (1751-1780)

Thursday, November 7, 2013 3:12 pm

Title page from vol. 1 of ZSR's Encyclopedie

Title page from vol. 1 of ZSR’s Encyclopedie

The Encyclopédie; ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers is a 28-volume monument to the French Enlightenment, combining a wealth of information about all aspects of  human thought and achievement with a subversive attack on the stifling old regime of religion, classical tradition, and superstition. Many hands contributed to the Encyclopedie, but the man most responsible was Denis Diderot, whose recent 300th anniversary was marked by a renewed interest in his life and work.

The Encyclopédie was first conceived as fairly simple moneymaking venture. In 1745 printer/bookseller Andre-Francois Le Breton enlisted three other partners in a project to produce a French translation of Englishman Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. The two-volume Cyclopaedia, one of the first modern encyclopedias, had been a strong seller in England, and Le Breton saw a niche in the French market. But the first translator he hired proved incompetent, so he turned the project over to two young rising stars of the 18th century French philosophes: Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert.

From the outset, Diderot and d’Alembert saw the Encyclopédie project as an opportunity to set out their iconoclastic ideas on a grand scale. D’Alembert’s introduction, the Preliminary Discourse, has often been called a manifesto for the French Enlightenment. It reads in part:

 The work whose first volume we are presenting today has two aims. As an Encyclopedia, it is to set forth as well as possible the order and connection of the parts of human knowledge. As a Reasoned Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Trades, it is to contain the general principles that form the basis of each science and each art, liberal or mechanical, and the most essential facts that make up the body and substance of each. These two points of view, the one of an Encyclopedia and the other of a Reasoned Dictionary, will thus constitute the basis for the outline and division of our Preliminary Discourse. We are going to introduce them, deal with them one after another, and give an account of the means by which we have tried to satisfy this double object.

If one reflects somewhat upon the connection that discoveries have with one another, it is readily apparent that the sciences and the arts are mutually supporting, and that consequently there is a chain that binds them together. But, if it is often difficult to reduce each particular science or art to a small number of rules or general notions, it is no less difficult to encompass the infinitely varied branches of human knowledge in a truly unified system.
[All English translations from The Encyclopedie of Diderot & d'Alembert:  Collaborative Translation Project.]

Frontispiece to vol. 1 of the Encyclopedie

Frontispiece to vol. 1 of the Encyclopedie

Diderot and d’Alembert attempted nonetheless to offer a unified vision of human knowledge. The engraved frontispiece for Volume I set out the basic ideas in visual form: the personification of Truth is illuminated in her temple, with her handmaidens Reason and Philosophy at her side. Theology is relegated to a subordinate position at Truth’s feet, and other branches of the arts, sciences, and trades fill out the scene.

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A later volume includes a large folded engraving of a “Tree of Knowledge” representing a taxonomy of human knowledge. Following the ideas first set forth by Francis Bacon, the Encyclopédie’s tree has as its three main branches Memory, Reason, and Imagination.

Tree of Life fold-out frontispiece from the first Table Analytique volume of the Encyclopedie

Tree of Life fold-out frontispiece from the first Table Analytique volume of the Encyclopedie

Diderot was the general editor for the project, and he and d’Alembert wrote many of the articles themselves. But Diderot also enlisted many other authors, including Louis de Jaucourt, Baron d’Holbach, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Some of the contributors to the Encyclopedie

The first edition of the Encyclopédie was offered for sale by subscription, a common practice for expensive works at this time. Originally conceived as a work of just a few volumes, the Encyclopédie quickly grew into a massive undertaking. The first two volumes of text appeared in 1751. Fifteen more text volumes followed over the next several years. Over 2500 engraved illustrations were also published in eleven volumes separate from the text. Subscribers did not receive the last volume until 1772, and the cost was far greater than had originally been proposed. But the readership was undaunted: as the publication process progressed, the number of subscribers increased from 2000 to over 4000.

The large folio volumes of the first edition were printed by at least four Paris printing houses. Illustrations in the Imprimerie section of the Encyclopédie itself illustrate the process by which the volumes were constructed.

18th century printing press in action

18th century printing press in action

Printing in the 18th century was a labor-intensive process. Compositors set each letter by hand; pressmen printed sheets one at a time. Binding was a completely separate process. It is estimated that a single volume of the Encyclopédie took nearly five months to produce, even with four or five compositors and twenty pressmen on the job.

diderot_printing3

Not surprisingly, the Encyclopedists often ran into trouble with the civil and  religious authorities in 18th century France. Printing and selling of books was tightly controlled: one had to have an official permit from the king– called a privilege—in order to publish anything, and Diderot was constantly in danger of losing his. But the Encyclopédie project also had friends in high places. One of the officials in charge of government censorship of the press was Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, himself a proponent of Enlightenment thinking. Malesherbes made sure that the work of the Encyclopedists could continue without interference, at one point hiding Diderot’s manuscript in his own home while government officials searched Diderot’s residence for subversive material.

Title page for vol. 7 of the Encyclopedie

Title page for vol. 7 of the Encyclopedie

In 1759 the Catholic church placed the Encyclopédie on its index of prohibited books. Even though French officials had little desire to interfere with what was by this time a very profitable enterprise, they had to pay at least lip service to the Pope’s ban.  Diderot’s privilege was revoked, and publication (which had reached the letter G) was temporarily halted. But with assistance from Malesherbes and others, Diderot was soon back in business, publishing the remaining volumes under the false imprint of a Swiss printer.

Title page for vol. 8

Title page for vol. 8

In the end the Encyclopédie contained over 70,000 articles on the widest imaginable range of topics. Subjects included a staunch defense of Reason (vol. 13) as the primary source of human knowledge:

No proposition can be accepted as divine revelation if it contradicts what is known to us, either by immediate intuition, as in the case of self-evident propositions, or by obvious deductions of reason , as in demonstrations.

And an equally impassioned condemnation of the Slave Trade (vol. 16):

Slave trade is the purchase of Negroes made by Europeans on the coasts of Africa, who then employ these unfortunate men as slaves in their colonies. This purchase of Negroes to reduce them into slavery is a negotiation that violates all religion, morals, natural law, and human rights.

But not all entries took on lofty subjects. An article on Werewolves (vol. 9) is decidedly skeptical:

The demonologists add that these men are not really transformed into wolves, but that the devil simply gives them that shape, or that he carries their bodies somewhere and substitutes for them the appearances of a wolf. The existence of such creatures is proven only by stories that are totally unconfirmed.

And in his entry on Chocolate (vol. 3), Diderot tries to be diplomatic on the controversial topic of whether or not to add vanilla:

The sweet scent and potent taste [vanilla] imparts to chocolate have made it highly recommended for it; but time has shown that it could potentially upset one’s stomach, and its use has decreased; some people who favor the care of their health to the pleasure of their senses, have stopped using it completely. In Spain and in Italy, chocolate prepared without vanilla has been termed the healthy chocolate ; and in our French islands in the Americas, where vanilla is neither rare nor expensive, as it can be in Europe, it is never used, when the consumption of chocolate is as high as in any other part of the world.

However, as there is still quite a large number of people who favor the use of vanilla, and as it is only fair that we should respect their feeling, we shall use vanilla in the composition of the chocolate , the one that might be the better-prepared and the best overall…. Since there are in tastes an infinite variety of opinions, everyone wants their interest to be reckoned with, and one would concede what the other refuses; and even if we were to agree on the ingredients to be mixed, it proves impossible to pinpoint dosages that would be universally accepted; and it should be deemed enough that these dosages suit the highest number of people, thus forming the trend that is most popular.

diderot_s

More than 3000 engraved illustrations accompanied the text volumes. The plates are equally detailed and wide-ranging in subject matter. They cover everything from Shipbuilding . . .

diderot_p

diderot_o

. . . to horsemanship (or lack thereof).

diderot_l

Music. . .

diderot_q

. . .to Mammals.

diderot_t

Astronomy. . .

diderot_a

. . . to Anatomy.

Volume of plates from the Encyclopedie currently on exhibit in ZSR Special Collections, along with artifacts from the Coy C. Carpenter Library archives

Volume of plates from the Encyclopedie currently on exhibit in ZSR Special Collections, along with artifacts from the Coy C. Carpenter Library archives

More than 4000 copies of the first edition of the Encyclopédie were printed in large folio format– a very large print run for an expensive book in the 18th century. Nearly half of the first edition went to subscribers outside of France, in other parts of Europe and North America. The Encyclopédie was reprinted in smaller, cheaper editions that proved equally popular. Many copies still exist in libraries throughout the world, providing countless readers with a direct link to the 18th century Enlightenment.

ZSR Library’s complete first edition was purchased with funds endowed by George W. Paschal, Jr.

diderot_r

Recommended Reading

Ethiopian Psalter, 18th or 19th Century

Thursday, December 13, 2012 2:10 pm

Illustration from an Ethiopian manuscript psalter, depicting King David with a harp

Ethiopia, the oldest independent nation in Africa, has a unique Christian tradition dating back to the 4th century. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church developed largely in isolation after the Islamic conquest of Egypt in the 640′s. But Christianity remained the official state religion for many centuries, and the Ethiopian imperial family claimed to be descended directly from the Biblical King Solomon.

The Ethiopian Bible is unique, containing several apocryphal books that are preserved nowhere else. The Ethiopian Church maintained a strong tradition of manuscript Bibles and other religious texts, and illuminated Bibles were very popular from at least the 12th century onward. The 15th century was a golden age of artistic achievement in Ethiopian illuminated Bibles, and many later manuscripts contain copies of illustrations from this period. Ethiopian iconography, although it shows some influence of European and especially Byzantine artistic traditions, is as distinctive as the religious tradition from which it stems.

The Ethiopian manuscript in ZSR’s Special Collections is a psalter (a collection of the Psalms of David from the Christian Old Testament) probably dating from the late 18th or early 19th century. The printing press was not widely used in most of Africa until the mid-19th century, so a strong manuscript tradition persisted much longer that it had in Europe. The psalter is written in Ge’ez, a syllabic script traditionally used for Ethiopian liturgical texts, in red and black ink on vellum pages. Some pages, like the one pictured above, have decorative headpieces.

The psalter also has five full-page illustrations with iconography very typical of Ethiopian religious texts. The colors are bright and saturated, and the figures are outlined in black and are depicted in full face with wide eyes (in the Ethiopian as in many other African artistic traditions, only enemies are depicted in profile).

In addition to King David pictured above, there is a crucifixion scene.

Mary’s halo and the tears on her face and St. John’s were added in pencil by a later owner of the book.

Illustrations of St. George slaying a dragon and of the Madonna and child are featured on facing pages:

Both the St. George legend and the cult of the Virgin Mary were extremely important in the Ethiopian religious tradition. Illustrations of St. George slaying the dragon to rescue a north African princess were common in Ethiopian Bibles. And since the saint was also supposed to be the protector and frequent companion of Mary, depictions of George were often juxtaposed with  illustrations of the Virgin and the infant Christ.

The final illustration is a figure of an aristocratic Ethiopian man in contemporary dress holding a small book.

This is almost certainly a depiction of the patron who commissioned the psalter. The volume in his hand looks very similar to the manuscript book in the ZSR collection.

The library’s manuscript psalter is also a small book bound in dark red leather over wooden boards.

The book also has a leather cover and carrying case. This type of case, called a mahedar, is very typical of Ethiopian Bibles from this time period.

Small books like this one were intended for personal use, in contrast to larger volumes for church or ceremonial uses. The portability and personalized iconography of this psalter suggest that it was an object of private devotion and study. There is also much evidence of use by a later owner in the book itself. There are pencil notes throughout the book and extensive notes and sketches on the endpapers. At least one of the book’s owners apparently had an artistic bent:

Ethiopian manuscript texts like this one are found in libraries and private collections throughout the world. Many were dispersed in 1868 after British troops defeated the Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros and looted the churches and monasteries of Maqdala. The exact origins of the ZSR manuscript psalter are unknown; it was acquired as a gift in the 1940′s as part of the personal collection of Oscar T. Smith.

Images of the Old Testament, by Hans Holbein (1549)

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 3:59 pm

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) is now best known as portrait painter of some of the most famous figures of Renaissance Europe, including Erasmus, Thomas More, and King Henry VIII of England. But as a young artist in his native Basel, Holbein also worked as an illustrator, producing drawings that would be reproduced in woodcuts and included in printed books.

Holbein’s most famous illustrations are his Dance of Death series. The drawings that make up The Images of the Old Testament (better known by its Latin title Icones Historiarum Veteris Testamenti) were likely done at about the same time as the Dance of Death, probably between 1523 and 1526. The first four illustrations in the Icones are taken from the Dance of Death series. The depict the creation of Adam and Eve and their fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, with Death personified as a skeletal figure.

The rest of the illustrations are in landscape format and demonstrate Holbein’s movement toward increasingly complex spatial structure in his drawings.

Woodcut illustrations of the 16th century required collaboration between artist and craftsmen. Holbein would have provided the original drawings for engravers to transfer onto woodblocks for the printing press. There is considerable discussion among art historians about who the engravers for the Icones might have been. A few of the engravings have been attributed to Hans Lützelburger, a particularly skilled wood-engraver who had also worked on the Dance of Death. ButLützelburger died in 1526, and it is clear that a number of other engravers worked on the illustrations.

Holbein’s Icones are part of a long tradition of biblical illustration in Europe. Lavishly illustrated manuscript Bibles were a popular luxury item during the Middle Ages. The religious Reformation of the early 16th century, with its emphasis on bringing scripture directly to the laity, created a new demand for Bibles translated into the language of everyday speech rather than scholarly Latin. Many of these vernacular Bibles contained illustrations, maps, and diagrams. It is not known who commissioned Holbein’s Old Testament illustrations, but they may have been intended for an illustrated Bible.

Proof copies of the Icones woodcuts are known to have been in existence by 1531, but the entire set was not published in any form until 1538. By the 1530′s religious conflict and Protestant iconoclasm were on the rise in Germany, and religious illustrations fell somewhat out of favor. This may account for the fact that the first appearance of the Icones was in a Catholic folio Bible printed in Lyons.

The Icones prints were published separately for the first time in the same year by the Lyonnais publishers Francis and Johan Frellon. This small book, with verses in French by Gilles Corrozet and an introductory poem in praise of Holbein by Nicholas Bourbon, was likely intended as a Christian version of the classical emblem books that were extremely popular at the time.

Over the next decade the Frellons published several editions of the Icones with text in various combinations of Latin and vernacular languages. The 1549 edition held by Wake Forest has verses in French below the woodcuts and English text above. The English spellings are peculiar even by 16th century standards, suggesting that the translation was probably done by the French-speaking printers or one of their employees.

The late art historian Arthur M. Hind wrote that

Holbein’s Images of the Old Testament, as they were called in the English edition of 1549, are the most wonderful series of illustration to the Bible in existence. Even outside the more limited sphere of book illustration they have practically no rivals, except the scriptural printes of Dürer and Rembrandt. Inspiration is so much more often found in separate works than in a series, that it is all the more remarkable to see so high a level of artistic power preserved throughout the ninety-one uniform cuts that make up Holbein’s Old Testament.

Z. Smith Reynolds Library’s copy of The Images of the Old Testament was purchased for the Rare Books Collection with funds from the Oscar T. Smith endowment. The book is part of the Historic Bibles exhibit on view in the ZSR Special Collections Reading Room, September 2011 through January 2012.

 

 


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