We are jaded by an abundance of color images.
Dazzled, distracted and spoiled by color’s overt and often brash appeal, we can easily lose sight of the sublime pleasures to be had in the appreciation of black and white artwork.
There is a visual charm and magic to black and white images that is difficult to describe, a sensation of value, texture and tonal contrasts that have their own kind of appeal quite separate than that of painting, or even drawings in colored media. (True aficionados of black and white film will confirm that appeal in a different medium.)
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the work of the master illustrators from the Golden Age of Illustration, roughly from the 1880’s through the 1920’s.
Particularly in the early part of that span, when reproduction techniques improved dramatically, but had not yet made color printing inexpensive enough to be widespread, black and white illustration flourished and bloomed, producing astonishing works from the masters of the genre.
Pen and ink drawing, in particular, achieved a kind of modern Renaissance, with masters like Howard Pyle, Franklin Booth, Joseph Clement Coll, James Montgomery Flagg, Arthur Rackham and many others producing drawings that are masterworks of the medium.
In addition, great illustrators like Howard Pyle and others painted beautifully evocative oil paintings in black and white (If you ever get a chance to visit the Delaware Art Museum, you’ll see what I mean).
Unfortunately, this work is overshadowed by color images, even those by the same artists, and is not widely reproduced these days, even on the web. Fine lined pen and ink drawing, in particular, does not fare well in reproduction on the web, suffering from the limitations of low-resolution display on screen.
As I’ve pointed out before, even though it’s not evident at first glance, computer monitors are low resolution (about 103ppi) — print images in glossy magazines and books are almost three times higher in resolution than your monitor (300dpi); and the difference in reproducing this kind of image is striking.
Fortunately, there is a source for some of the most beautiful black and white images from that period when great illustration was at its height, printed as they should be; and a terrific new collection has just been released.
Black & White ImageS: The Fifth Special Collection of Images from the Vadeboncoeur Collection is the latest in a series of annuals form the ImageS series of collections of great Golden Age illustration (see my previous posts on The Vadeboncoeur Collection of ImageS and ImageS 11).
As always, Vadeboncoeur has managed to feature work by some of the best known names along with discoveries that are likely to be new even to those already hooked on the beauty of great Golden Age illustration. The issue features over 35 artists, including Howard Pyle, Joseph Clement Coll, James Montgomery Flagg, Arthur Rackham, Rose O’Neill, Herbert Railton, Howard Chandler Christy, Dorothy Lathrop, Daniel Vierge and Elizabeth Shippen Green (links to my posts).
There is a preview on the ImageS site of the entire issue. Vadeboncoeur is showing larger previews for this issue than for previous issues (and I take a little bit of credit for encouraging him to do so), but I have to stress again that you cannot begin to appreciate the quality of these images, or their true visual appeal, from small reproductions on the computer screen. (As an example I’ve included at left, bottom, a detail from the image above it.)
In particular, the printing of ImageS goes beyond even normal high resolution printing, with image quality and printing standards comparable to limited edition prints. The edition is oversize at 9×12, on 100lb matte paper, and can be ordered from the publisher for $25 + $5 postage (U.S., postage is higher elsewhere). Many $100 art books don’t give you this many great images.
To order online, go here, click on “Product Overview”, then “The Vadeboncoeur Collection of Images” and then scroll down to Black & White ImageS Special #5. You can also contact the publisher by phone or email here.
Whether you’re reading by gaslight, or Edison’s newfangled electric bulbs, images like these are a rare treat.
(Images above left: Henri-Jules-Ferdinand Bellery-Desfontaines, Elizabeth Shippen Green, Wladyslaw T. Benda, Will Crawford)