Master artist and craftsman: Gustave Baumann

With Gustave Baumann you are drawn to the period of woodblock prints he did based on the geographical region you are from, or so I have heard. Interestingly, I found myself drawn to his woodblock prints of two different places: Brown County, Indiana and the California coast.

Baumann was one of the waves of German immigrants in the 1880s. At sixteen, his father left, resulting in him quitting school to support his mother and siblings by becoming a commercial artist in Chicago. He later took some classes at the Art Institute and then traveled back to Germany for training.

Back in Chicago, he fell in with the Chisel and Palette club and then wandered to Brown County where he lived for six years and became acquaintances with the grand old artist of Brown County, T.C. Steele.

Eventually he moved out to New Mexico where he lived the rest of his days, traveling to spots in the West to do sketches and then woodblock carvings.

Baumann was an artist for the people, never charging more than $100 for any of his prints. (They now go into the tens of thousands.) He believed that art should be affordable and enjoyed by the common man.

Although known for his woodblock prints, he also made furniture, toys, and marionettes. (He made a pull toy affectionately called Mr. Crow who was omnipresent, often hovering nearby in the house or in his workshop.) He was a true craftsman who brought art to all he made. Or a true artist that made art into a craft.

In 2008, his daughter Ann invited the curator of the Indianapolis Museum of Art to pick out prints and other art from her father’s collection for placement in the museum. A current exhibit at the IMA shows many of these works, along with others on loan from elsewhere. Some woodblocks and his tools are on display with an explanation of the process he followed to make the designs, cut the woodblocks, and create the prints.

Each print is made from multiple woodblocks that may be inked with one or more colors. And he didn’t use just any ink but ink that he produced himself. Not only did Baumann have to determine what to carve into which woodblock to get a certain color, he also often overlaid colors to produce yet another color. The process and the outcome are astonishing. Baumann was a very talented—and patient—man.

Each series of prints differ. With time the details in the blocks wear down. Or he produced the inks slightly differently. Or the woodblocks were pressed in different orders. Or he used different paper, which would absorb the inks differently. All of these things meant that he produced slightly different prints even with the same blocks—and that his art died with him. New prints cannot be made from the existing woodblocks.

With that in mind, take a look at one of the many interpretations of his woodblock Spring Blossoms.

His life was one devoted to his art….and craft. The quote hanging in one of his early workshops says it all: Il faut cultiver notre jardin from Voltaire’s Candide. “We must cultivate our garden.” Basically, devote yourself wholeheartedly to your art. It seems that Baumann lived that quote.

The exhibit at the IMA runs through February 14, 2016.

For some more Baumann prints:


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