- Wood Engravings, the "Marvellous Spread of Illustrated Publications," and the History of Art
"Mechanical reproduction of a work of art," Walter Benjamin wrote in 1936, "represents something new."1 For Benjamin, art became mechanically reproducible with the invention of the woodcut in the fifteenth century, and "reached an essentially new stage" in the nineteenth century when traditional means of artistic replication, such as the woodcut, the line engraving, and the etching, were "surpassed" by technologies that kept pace with modernity: first lithography, which "virtually implied the illustrated newspaper" in its ability to "keep pace with printing" and the rapid changes of everyday life; then photography, which freed the hand of the artist and relied on the more swiftly perceiving eye; and, finally, film, which captured images at the speed of speech.2 Missing from this picture of art reproduction in its so-called "new stage" is the wood engraving. Notably, Benjamin does not connect the late-eighteenth-century resurgence of the wood engraving to its precursor, the woodcut, as a relief image that could keep pace with textual printing. Nor does he view the wood engraving as a technological contemporary of lithography, photography, and film, associated, as are these other media, with the rapidity, mobility, and mass culture of the modern age.3
By contrast, more recent scholars of media history have recognized the particular modernity of wood engravings. Brian Maidment, for instance, has identified "the interdependence of the emergence of mass circulation popular literature and the rise of the commercial wood engraving" as one of the "key historical narratives" of the nineteenth century.4 Unlike the earlier woodcut, with its rougher linearity and lack of detail, the wood [End Page 515] engraving produced finely detailed images that could be printed on the most advanced steam-powered presses simultaneously with relief type. Even more than the lithograph, wood engravings shaped the rise of the illustrated newspaper and the mass press.
Benjamin was not interested in the circulation of all imagery, of course. His essay focused specifically on the replication of works of art and has had a profound influence on the way art historians think about this history, including their tendency to overlook the wood engraving.5 Borrowing insights from recent scholarship on media history, this essay argues that wood engravings—as the most common and affordable means of illustrating histories of art in the nineteenth century—played a unique and important role in the history of art history both as an academic discipline and as a subject of interest to general audiences. Even more than other printed and photographic media, wood engravings circulated images of visual art in the context of the written word. In so doing, they enabled the internationalization and popularization of art history. Publishers across a variety of national contexts exchanged wood-engraved illustrations for printing in art history books and art magazines, creating opportunities for cross-cultural audiences to learn art's history from identical imagery. The story of art history's emergence as an academic discipline during the nineteenth century will be familiar to many readers of Modernism/modernity.6 In this same period, mass-market publishers deployed the technology of wood-engraved illustrations to produce a popular version of art history accessible for the self-education of audiences beyond the context of the university, the art academy, or the museum, a development that has not yet been recognized broadly, even in the discipline of art history. An advertisement in the London trade journal Publishers' Circular in 1874 summarizes this popularization: "the marvellous spread of illustrated publications has helped to plant a love for Art in the public mind."7 This ad was written to promote one of the many affordable handbooks of art history illustrated with wood engravings that circulated internationally between 1860 and 1910: Nancy Bell's Elementary History of Art, a book that I will discuss in detail later in this essay.8
More than any other medium, wood engravings enabled this "marvellous spread" of illustrated art histories, thereby encouraging an interest in art and art history among audiences beyond the academy. To illuminate the importance of wood engravings for art history, I will focus on...