Bertha Lum, 1869-1954


color woodblock print on tissue-thin paper; signed in pencil on bottom margin, copyrighted '09 by Bertha Lum, and numbered at far right, no. 19, from an edition of at least 97, published by the artist, self-carved and self-printed in Minneapolis in 1909

21.1 by 35.8 cm

Bertha Boynton Bull was born in Tipton, Iowa in May 1869. Her father was a lawyer but both her parents were amateur artists. In 1895, Bertha enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago in the design department, which she supplemented with classes at the Holme School of Illustration, followed by several years studying stained glass design with Anne Weston. In 1903, she married a prominent lawyer in Minneapolis, Burt Francis Lum. The newlyweds went to Japan on their honeymoon. Although Lum had little predisposition towards Japan and woodblock prints, she nevertheless searched for woodblock carving tools on behalf of a friend from the institute and was dismayed to discover the scarcity of woodblock print craftsmen. On her last day in Japan, Lum finally found a reproduction studio and shop and managed to glean enough information from her one hour visit to pique her interest and get her started.

Upon her return to Minneapolis, Lum managed to produce at least nine woodblock print designs on her own. She was likely aided in her efforts by recent publications on woodblock printing, such as T. Tokuno's Japanese Wood-Cutting and Wood-Cut Printing (Smithsonian, 1892), or even more certainly, Arthur Wesley Dow's 1899 arts manual, Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers. Although Lum's early prints were highly simplified riffs on ukiyo-e classics, the results are strikingly poetic and effective.

In 1907, Lum returned to Japan for a fourteen-week period to seek out more vigorous training in printmaking. Armed with one letter of introduction to a prominent scholar, she was fortunate enough to be admitted to the block-carving studio of Igami Bonkotsu (1875-1933). The master carver was impressed by Lum's determination to self-carve and self-print her own works, a somewhat new concept that had recently begun germinating among Japanese artists and print-makers, and Bonkotsu (although very much a product of the traditional hanmoto system), would become a prominent figure in the developing sosaku-hanga ('creative print') movement.

Although it was primarily adolescent studio assistants who served as her teachers, Lum worked hard during her apprenticeship and carved her own blocks, which were then printed by the studio of Nishimura Kumakichi (1861?-1941) while she observed their techniques. As with her earlier independent efforts, prints from this period focused on soft variations of color and tone, and unlike classic ukiyo-e, often did not rely on a defining black outline block. This attempt at a watercolor-like effect may be in part the influence of Dow, who wrote at length on color and hue and whose own color woodblock prints rarely used outlines.

Meech & Weisberg, Japonisme Comes to America, 1990, pp. 127-155
Gravalos & Pulin, American Printmakers: Bertha Lum, 1991, illus. p. 62, cat. p. 95
Yokohama Museum of Art, Eyes Towards Asia: Ukiyo-e Artists from Abroad, 1996, pp. 240-241

Katherine Martin, Highlights of Japanese Printmaking: Part Three - The International Perspective, New York: Scholten Japanese Art, 2008, no. 10



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