Wood-engraving reached its height in mid-nineteenth century America; it was utilized as an inexpensive method of reproducing drawings, and even paintings, in periodicals – the most noted probably being Winslow Homer’s work in Harpers Weekly.
Many American wood-engravers (notably Linton, Juengling, Kruell, Closson, J.P. Davis and Kingsley) became known for their contributions to the craft. Two other wood-engravers, Timothy Cole and Henry Wolf, brought a virtuosity that went beyond craft to their work. While Cole’s work tended to be coldly accurate, technical masterpieces, Wolf was able to give his wood-engravings a life of their own – whether the subject was a painting by Velasquez or Hals, William Merritt Chase or Homer Martin.
At the turn of the twentieth century, when the craft of the illustrative wood-engraver was rapidly disappearing due to new technology that allowed for photographic and half-tone reproduction methods, Wolf was at the height of his artistic career. His work was considered fine art and was being handled by noted American print dealer Frederick Keppel. Wolf was receiving numerous awards and accolades for his work.
The ultimate recognition of Wolf’s contribution to printmaking came in 1915, the year before his death, when he was awarded the Grand Prize in printmaking at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, an exhibition still unequalled in its importance for bringing together art from around the world.
Wolf exhibited 144 wood-engravings at this venue.
Henry Wolf was born in Eckwersheim, Alsace, France in 1852. He studied with J. Levy in Strasbourg, and came to New York in 1871, after exhibiting throughout Europe, Paris in particular.
Henry Wolf was the premier wood engraver working in America from the late 1800’s through his death in 1916. He primarily copied the “greats” for publication in the three most popular literary magazines of the time, “Century Magazine”, “Harper’s Monthly” and “Scribner’s Magazine”. The American artists he presented for public consumption included John Singer Sargent, Gilbert Stuart and Frank Weston Benson, the Europeans included Jan Vermeer, Edouard Manet and Jean Leon Gerome.
In the book “The Life & Work of Henry Wolf” by Ralph Clifton Smith, there is a quote from a letter received by Mr. Wolf from W. Lewis Fraser, for many years connected with the art department of the Century Magazine. In 1905 the quote, referring to Gerome, “Many thanks for your letter. Gerome’s expression as he looked at the proofs of your engravings of his paintings was ‘they are beautiful, Mr. Wolf knew better than my brushes what I wanted to do.’” He began publishing original works of his own design, beginning in 1896 with “Evening Star”. He worked until his unexpected death in 1916 in New York, at the age of 64
Many years ago I added to our inventory over 60 of Wolf’s wood-engravings. As we began cataloguing them we found they were all signed proofs, printed on a thin Japanese paper, many of them had the original labels from the Panama Pacific Exposition and listed the small edition and how many from the edition were still available.
Wolf’s work also fell out of favor by the 20’s and is now mostly appreciated as a small niche in the overall history of printmaking, however they deserve a serious consideration, they are really quite remarkable. Especially if you keep in mind the fact that the engraving of the block had to be done as in reverse so that the images, many of which were familiar to the viewer, had to print correctly and be in absolute proportion.
We have a number of Henry Wolf prints still in inventory as well as a couple of his blocks. Here is a link to those works on our website.