Wood engraving

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WOOD ENGRAVING. The earliest images produced in British North America were relief cuts engraved on wood blocks or type metal by printers such as John Foster (1648–1681), and others who worked anonymously. During the colonial period and later, these cuts appeared in publications such as almanacs, primers, newspapers, and periodicals and on broadsides, government proclamations, currency, and advertising materials. Artisans and skilled engravers used knives to incise type metal or planks of wood cut with the grain for illustrations and decorative ornaments during the colonial and the Revolutionary War periods. These images were inexpensive to produce and decorative. The skill and the training of the engravers varied from almost none to expert. Even well known silversmiths such as Paul Revere (1735–1818) and James Turner (1722–1759) made cuts for newspapers and broadsides, in addition to engravings on copper for an elite audience.

In England during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, Thomas Bewick and others made relief cuts using the burin of an engraver on the end grain of dense wood, particularly boxwood. In New York, Alexander Anderson (1775–1870), a self-taught engraver, followed their lead, producing thousands of cuts over his seventy-five-year career. Changing technology led to the use of wood engravings as the basis for stereotyped plates that could be produced to order for printers and publishers across the nation. Anderson's cuts appeared in tract society publications and children's books issued by publishers in New York and other cities in the Northeast.

During the 1840s, the training and skill of wood engravers improved; their engravings after drawings by artists such as Felix Octavius Carr Darley (1822–1888) and John Gadsby Chapman (1808–1889) graced the pages of novels, drawing manuals, Bibles, and other publications. The widespread popularity of the pictorial press, beginning with Ballou's Pictorial in Boston and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper in New York in the 1850s, led to the proliferation of images. The circulation of the copiously illustrated Harper's Weekly reached over 100,000 in the 1860s, bringing reproductions of designs by Winslow Homer (1836–1910) and other artists to a sizeable portion of the literate public. Depictions of camp scenes of the Civil War made details of that conflict vivid to Americans everywhere. In the 1870s, reproductive wood engraving reached its height in The Aldine, a fine-art journal with full-page reproductions of paintings by European and American artists. The wood engraver and historian William J. Linton (1812–1897) considered the engravings that he did for that journal to be the best of his career.

In the 1870s, artists' drawings were transferred to wood blocks photographically, changing the role of the engraver from interpreter of an artist's drawing to copyist. The so-called New School of Engraving was characterized by prints that reproduced drawings exactly using short white lines and cross-hatching as well as dots to simulate stippling. Linton and his followers preferred the old methodology, but they were challenged by others who preferred exact facsimiles. The advent of photoengraving a few years later rendered the controversy moot.

During the twentieth century, artists turned to woodcuts and wood engraving as an artistic medium. Artists such as Arthur Wesley Dow (1857–1922), Rockwell Kent (1882–1971), Clare Leighton (1901–1988), Thomas Nason (1889–1971), Rudolph Ruzicka (1883–1978), Blanche Lazell (1878–1956), Louis Schanker (1903–1981), and Leonard Baskin (1922–2000) have created relief prints of great interest and originality.


Acton, David. A Spectrum of Innovation: Color in American Printmaking, 1890–1960. New York: Norton, 1990.

Linton, William J. American Wood Engraving: A Victorian History. Watkins Glen, N.Y.: American Life Foundation and Study Institute, 1976.

Reilly, Elizabeth Carroll. A Dictionary of Colonial American Printers' Ornaments and Illustrations. Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society, 1975.

Wakeman, Geoffrey. Victorian Book Illustration: The Technical Revolution. Newton Abbot, U.K.: David & Charles, 1973.

Georgia BradyBarnhill

See alsoPrintmaking .

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wood engraving Print made by incising a design on the flat, polished transverse section of a block of hardwood. Textural and linear effects can be achieved by varying the pressure and direction of the cutting strokes. This technique developed from the less-sophisticated woodcut in 18th-century England.