Lucien Pissarro



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In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Lucien Pissarro 1863–1944
Wood engraving on paper
Image: 98 × 89 mm
Transferred from the Library 1982

Catalogue entry

PISSARRO, Lucien 1863-1944
April 1890, reprinted 1981
Wood-engraving 98 x 89 (3 7/8 x 1/2) on handmade Hosho wove paper approximately 153 x 129 (6 x 5 1/8); reprinted from the original wood block by Iain Bain and David Chambers, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 1981, as part of a portfolio of 29 prints in an edition of 175
Transferred from Tate Library 1982
Purchased from Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London 1981
Twelve Woodcuts in Black and Colours by Lucien Pissarro (also known as The First Portfolio), London 1893, no.3

Lucien Pissarro, ‘Catalogue de gravures sur bois’, manuscript studiobook, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 1905-29, I, no.50
‘Peintres-Graveurs Contemporains: Lucien Pissarro’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, November-December 1919, reproduced p.341 (as ‘Avril’)

Alan Fern, ‘The Wood Engravings of Lucien Pissarro with Catalogue Raisonné’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Chicago 1960, no.52
David Chambers, Lucien Pissarro: Notes on a Selection of Wood Blocks Held at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 1980, p.11, p.23 reproduced
Anne Thorold (ed.), The Letters of Lucien to Camille Pissarro 1883-1903, Oxford 1993, pp.140, 142, 186 note 3, 230-4 note 1, 287 note 5, reproduced pl.52b (as Avril)
Lora Urbanelli, The Wood Engravings of Lucien Pissarro & a Bibliographical List of Eragny Books, Cambridge and Oxford 1994, reproduced fig.12 [p.73]
Lora Urbanelli, The Book Art of Lucien Pissarro with a Bibliographical List of the Books of the Eragny Press 1894-1914, Rhode Island and London 1997, reproduced p.67, no.9

This wood-engraving was included in Pissarro’s first published collection of his prints, Twelve Woodcuts in Black and Colours, also known as the First Portfolio. Tate’s version of the design was printed in 1981 for the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, from the original wood block carved by Lucien Pissarro in 1890. For the history of the First Portfolio see the entry for P08186, and for a general discussion of the 1981 reprints see the ‘Introduction’.
Despite being entitled Twelve Woodcuts and containing prints that do resemble the appearance of woodcuts, the entire First Portfolio is in fact made up of wood-engravings. There are some similarities in the technical procedures and characteristics of wood-engraving and woodcuts. Both are examples of relief printing whereby the image stands out from the block (as opposed to intaglio printmaking techniques such as etching and line engraving on metal where the image is cut below the surface of the plate). During the printing process, the raised surfaces of both wood-engraved and woodcut blocks are inked by rollers, and then printed onto paper by applying pressure with a press.[1] However they are in fact two quite independent techniques with different characteristics and which require a different approach by the artist.

Woodcuts are traditionally made so that the parts of the design which are to be left white are cut away, leaving in relief the parts that are to be printed black. In addition, the woodcutter always cuts parallel to the grain of the wood and the tool used is normally a knife. Wood-engravings on the other hand are cut across the end-grain of a very hard wood block, allowing finer, more detailed lines and creating a more textured appearance. The design is incised into the block with a tool known as a burin or graver, similar to that used in line engraving on a metal plate, and when printed the lines that are cut appear as white spaces. This can be simplified by saying that wood-cuts involve the cutting away of the ‘negative’ spaces and printing a ‘positive’ image in black. However, wood-engraving prints a ‘positive’ image in white line against a black background.
It is unclear why Lucien Pissarro chose to use the misleading term of ‘Woodcut’ for his first published venture into wood-engraving but he was perhaps employing it as a generic description of a printing technique with wood. The term ‘wood-engraving’ only came into use in the later nineteenth century. Prior to this no distinction was made between the two types of wood block printing. It can sometimes be quite hard to differentiate visually between the two techniques. Pissarro’s wood-engraving, particularly the earlier prints and those illustrations that owed more to a French naturalistic tradition than to the mannered English decorative style, sometimes have simple and literal descriptive outlines more characteristic of a woodcut than the complex textures and details possible with wood-engraving. A handwritten note by Pissarro in the ‘Catalogue de gravures sur bois’ indicates that the block for April (which is an end-grain block) was cut with a ‘gravure au canif’, a penknife, rather than an engraving tool.[2] This was a characteristic of the medieval-style engravings of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, a highly influential private press that was certainly known to Pissarro. The use of the knife partly accounts for the thickness and boldness of the printed lines which are similar in effect both to the appearance of a pen and ink sketch and also to the look of a woodcut.

The Twelve Woodcuts portfolio contains three multi-block colour wood-engravings with the remaining nine images printed in a single colour ink (usually an ochre-brown). There were twelve sets of prints created in the first print run. In both of the two surviving complete sets of Twelve Woodcuts (Ashmolean Museum and Hood Museum, California) all of these monochrome prints, including April, are hand-coloured in watercolour. It is not known whether all of the portfolios were hand- coloured but Pissarro had presumably left large areas of the prints white for this purpose, which also makes the wood-engravings look like woodcuts.
Pissarro very soon came to believe that wood-engraving should not try to reproduce the effects of other media. Instead, the design of a picture should make use of the special properties unique to the particular form of printing, ‘in order to reveal’, as J.B. Manson commented, ‘the natural beauty concealed as it were in the material’.[3] Pissarro wrote to his father Camille in April 1891, after finishing April, explaining the kind of wood-engraving he would like to make next:

J’ai envi d’essayer de faire de la vrai gravure sur bois, c’est à dire, au lieu de découper simplement un dessin fait sur bois, je vais interpréter avec les outils sans tracé préalable et le bois ainsi taillé sera véritablement de la gravure, au lieu de render les formes et les effets par des lignes noirs laissé en relief ce sera fait par des lignes blanches creusées, cela n’a pas l’air à première vue de faire une sensible différence et cependant c’est énorme.[4]

[I really want to try to do true wood-engraving, that is to say, instead of simply carving a drawing made on wood, I am going to interpret with the tools, without preliminary tracing and the wood thus cut will really be an engraving, instead of rendering forms and effects by black lines left in relief it will be done by the hollowed out white lines, which at first sight does not have the appearance of making a perceptible difference and nevertheless it is enormous.]

In 1913 Pissarro told J.B. Manson that when making preparatory drawings for wood-engravings he thought in the material he was going to use, making ‘the drawing to the scale and possibilities of the engraved wood’.[5]

Many of the designs for the Twelve Woodcuts originated from drawings that Pissarro had intended to illustrate the months and seasons (see Tate, P08186 and P08226).[6] There is an ink drawing, now in the collection of the Ashmolean, illustrating March, upon which the two figures of April are based.[7]

Nicola Moorby
January 2002

[1] See photograph of Lucien Pissarro at the Eragny Press applying ink to wood blocks with a roller, reproduced in Marcella D. Genz, A History of the Eragny Press 1894-1914, Delaware and London 2004, p.[2].

[2] Lucien Pissarro, ‘Catalogue de Gravures sur Bois’, manuscript studiobook, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1905-29, I, no.50.

[3] J.B. Manson, ‘Notes on Some Wood-Engravings of Lucien Pissarro’, Imprint, April 1913, p.241

[4] Reproduced in Anne Thorold (ed.), The Letters of Lucien to Camille Pissarro 1883-1903, Oxford 1993, p.204.

[5] Lucien Pissarro, Notes on the Eragny Press, and a Letter to J.B. Manson, ed. Alan Fern, Cambridge 1957, p.12

[6] See Thorold (ed) 1993, p.232 note 1
[7] Reproduced in ibid., pl.52a.

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