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J.J. Lankes (1884-1960): Woodcuts of Rural America


Marsh Art Gallery, University of Richmond Museums


In 1917, while working at the Newton Arms Company factory in Buffalo, New York, Julius John (J. J.) Lankes created his first woodcut. His only implements were a graver, used to score rifle stocks, and a block of apple wood he had cut from a fallen tree. The experiment proved a turning point in the life of the thirty-one-year-old laborer, draftsman, and erstwhile art student. Rapidly mastering the difficult white on black woodcutting technique, he went on to produce some 1,300 designs over the next forty years.

J. J. Lankes moved to Virginia in 1925. His artistic interests were ideally suited to the depiction of the landscape and houses of rural Tidewater Virginia in the 1920s. He saw in these deteriorating buildings the erosion by time and nature on man and his monuments. Lankes found and recorded, in its unretouched condition, a Williamsburg of decaying eighteenth-century structures together with more stately edifices. In virtually all his images, nature is a strong, often controlling, presence: beneath the surface of the natural object, it lurks as a mysterious, perhaps hostile, force. Generally, we are reminded of the power and endurance of nature, beside which man and his creations are shown as insignificant and transitory.

Lankes' major subject was pre-industrial America, rich in natural beauty, history, and sturdy people who bonded with the land. In his life as in his work Lankes remained a democrat -- a scoffer at pretension, a skeptic of entrenched authority, champion of the plain, and respecter of the natural. These values, combined with extraordinary technical skills, won praise from such notable contemporaries as John Taylor Arms, Charles Burchfield, Rockwell Kent, Ray Nash, Charles Harris Whitaker, and Carl Zigrosser. Several of these artists helped pave Lankes' way as an illustrator of books by prominent authors of the 1920s and '30s, most notably Sherwood Anderson, Roark Bradford, Robert P. Tristram Coffin, Robert Frost, and Ellen Glasgow.

Today, Lankes' woodcuts remain evocative representations of American rural life of an earlier time. His unique vision is evident in this retrospective, which includes works ranging in date from 1917 to 1955. Carl Zigrosser wrote in 1942, "his woodcuts are of the country, and have the smell and feel of the country in them." We not only perceive Lankes' contribution to "American scene" printmaking but also take delight in his vision of early twentieth-century America and of universal themes.

But one should bear in mind that however lofty the larger themes of his work may be, Lankes' approach to art was primarily specific and not theoretical. Thus his more expansive ideas are to be inferred. As Sherwood Anderson observed in ''J.J. Lankes and His Woodcuts" (1931), Lankes "is a man deeply concerned with life, but it is his way to get at life through things. He feels always the reflected life in things, in barns, sheds back of barns, in little houses in which poor people live. 'Look,' he says. 'Look again. Don't you see it? .. . Life is here in these inanimate things people have touched."'

The "things" subsumed in these images reflect a broad and richly detailed spectrum. They range from historical figures and buildings to rural domestic life; from the seasons to commonplace natural objects; from literature to plowing; from Buffalo, New York, to the lower Chesapeake Bay; from the James River to the stars. The sheer variety of these subjects defies neat summarization; each image conveys a unique message. However all of them, to borrow a phrase from Gray's Elegy, are "short and simple annals" evoking a rural past that has all but disappeared.

Welford Dunaway Taylor
James A. Bostwick Professor of English, University of Richmond

Richard Waller
Director, Marsh Art Gallery, University of Richmond

Publication Date



University of Richmond Museums


Richmond, VA


rural America, woodcuts, printmaking, J.J. Lankes, pre-industrial America, representations of rural life


Art and Design | Fine Arts | Printmaking

J.J. Lankes (1884-1960): Woodcuts of Rural America