The Woodcuts of Fritz Eichenberg

14 October 2011

The Master at Work

It is difficult to conceive of an artistic medium more naturally suited to the Victorian Gothic than the woodcut, or a graver whose style so powerfully evokes the sinister and tempestuous spirit of the genre so well as Fritz Eichenberg. Distinctive for their dramatic composition and stagecraft, wild, curvilinear textures and darkly-hewn, agonizing characters, Eichenberg’s illustrations are featured in the work of the Brontë sisters and Edgar Allan Poe, as well as Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, and a laundry list of other classic writers distinguished for exploring themes of social injustice, spiritual conflict and emotional turmoil.

Born in Cologne in 1901, his Jewish descent and outspoken opposition to the rising Nazi movement obliged him to emigrate to America in 1933, where he went on to work with such publishers as the Limited Editions and Heritage Club. While German and British aircraft were dueling over the skies of London, he was illustrating what may be the definitive editions of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre: an elegant, two-volume set designed by Richard Ellis and issued by Random House in 1943.

In the novels of Emily and Charlotte, he found characters that seemed to “come straight out of Dostoevsky—with a British accent.” The authoresses own tragic stories, he moreover remarked, endowed the novels with “dramatic impact and shocking authenticity.” He took particular inspiration in the “somber,” “haunted” landscape of Brontë country, which Emily featured to greatest effect in Wuthering Heights, with its two lonely manor houses set upon her beloved moors. 

Wuthering Heights





In the introduction to Eichenberg’s retrospective, The Wood and the Graver, Alan Fern wrote:

It is given to only a few illustrators to create images that so exactly suit the text with which they are working that their pictures fuse with the author’s words. Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland is one of these rare cases. Eichenberg’s Wuthering Heights may possibly be another. Having seen his Heathcliff, I, at least, cannot imagine him any other way.

Eichenberg was able to achieve this effect, in no small part, because he clearly took the time to understand and appreciate the literature he was illustrating. His images do not merely portray the events of the story; they capture its spirit.

Jane Eyre, he noted, was not “just a passionate love story,” but also a “social commentary on pre-Victorian England.” “Charlotte Brontë,” he wrote, 

…had the courage to prove that “conventionality is not morality” (in her own words), as she described Jane Eyre’s fateful encounter with the taciturn Mr. Rochester; her discovery of the horrible secret of Thornfield Hall; her flight back into the cold world; and finally her return into the arms of her blind Master. What might be called a soap opera today turns out to be a powerful drama fighting convention and bigotry in the Brontë’s England.

It is a challenge for the illustrator not to succumb to the heroine’s sweetness but to show beneath that frail exterior the unconventional honesty and firmness that see her through her trials. 

 Jane Eyre





Sadly, the Random House set does not include either of Anne Brontë’s novels. Eichenberg would surely have been in his element portraying the debauched Arthur Huntingdon and reclusive Helen Graham of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The tales Edgar Allan Poe are as diverse as they are iconic, credited with having established such genres as science fiction and the detective story. Eichenberg poured into Poe’s “chilling horror, black humor, and wide assortment of otherworldly apparitions” with relish. “Although I confess that I have never been infected by the Dracula-Frankenstein craze,” he wrote, 

…I cannot resist the repulsive appeal of those classic thrillers, “The Tell-tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”…what a horribly enjoyable task to make the graver bite into the wood and create genuine shivers up and down the reader’s—and illustrator’s—spine! The imagemaker wears a coat of many colors; his assignments run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous.

 The Tales of Edgar Allan Poe






In addition to these giants of the Victorian Gothic canon, Eichenberg also illustrated works by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, as well as the Old Testament, Gulliver’s Travels, and a variety of classic fables. Often, these appear in wonderful collector’s editions, issued by Heritage Press and the like. In his introduction, Alan Fern wrote of Eichenberg’s “respect for all the diverse crafts that go into making a book”:

He understands the sure draftsmanship, sense of proportion, and care for the many different relationships underlying the design of type, creation of bindings, and typographical arrangement of the book. He cares about paper, ink, and cloth almost as much as he cares about wood. This is why his students have been made to be involved in the production of books as well as in drawing, printmaking, and in the actual process of printing and typesetting. And this is why his work is always so beautifully associated with the printed page, and why his illustrations seem to belong to their environment so naturally.

In the age of Kindle and the iPad, one wonders how long that tradition can survive.  

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15 Comments to “The Woodcuts of Fritz Eichenberg”

  1. I’ve never seen these before and they are gorgeous. Great post.

  2. I would love to own the versions with his drawings. He really did capture the spirit of the stories.

    • They made 750,000 copies, so they’re actually pretty affordable. I’m thinking of rebinding some of them in 3/4 leather with marbled paper.

  3. Hi everyone,
    I am a great fan of Fritz Eichenberg’s work. I have
    many of his original prints which have been signed
    by him. If anyone is interested in buying, I am planning
    On selling part of my collection.
    For more information about what prints are for sale, please
    feel free to contact me via e-mail.
    Christine J.

    • I’m wondering what original Eichenberg prints cost. I have two (from Erasmus’ “In Praise of Folly”) and am planning to donate them to a Quaker retreat center (Eichenberg was a Quaker). What is the approximate evaluation?

    • Hi Christine J,
      I would like to find out what pieces you are selling. I don’t know where to find your email though.

      • Hola Kerr:
        Please feel free to contact me via e-mail if you would be interested in knowing more about what prints I am selling . I have quite a few prints by Fritz Eichenberg.
        Christine Jensen

  4. Thank you for sharing this. I had seen a couple of these engravings before but was unaware of the artist. Fascinating article and lovely site.

    Yours Sincerely


  5. please, please, please note: these works are WOOD ENGRAVINGS, an entirely different and much more exacting medium than wood cuts.

    This is not to belittle wood cuts, which are made across the length of a plank of wood.

    Wood engravings are made across the end grain of very hard wood such as box (preferred) and require not only different tools but a different mindset. The relative looseness of woodcut as a technique gives a broad spectrum of styles, which the Japanese exploit most fully – at least to me. Wood engraving, on the other hand, can be in danger of being too rigid. It requires a very sure sense of self to walk that fine line between wood engraving’s natural tendency to pedantry and the wrong sort of looseness, which can make it appear simply sloppy.

    Moreover, it is far easier to correct a wood cut error than to remediate a mistake in a wood engraving: depending on where, and at what point of the work the error occurs, it is nearly impossible. Oh, the artist may be able to cut out a small section of wood, replace it with a plug and hope that everything will fall into place, but one does not know until the end.

    Wood engraving as a technique for providing durable illustrations that could be shared by numerous magazines very nearly did the medium in. Eichenberg brought his approach to the technique to North America, where he found a ready pupil in Bernard Brussel-Smith, a highly underrated and still sadly neglected wood engraver of the first rank.

    Visit my blog,, to look at a truly spectacular wood engraving by the great English artist Garrick Palmer.

    • Thanks for the correction. Is there a simple way to differentiate a wood cut from a wood engraving, if you have one in front of you?

      • Just saw this today; sorry for the delay.

        is there a simple way to differentiate?

        Depends on the amount of printed surface. If you see the wood grain you would see on a book case, for example, it is a wood cut, if you see the pores of an end-grain piece, it is an engraving.

        That doesn’t always work as wood cutters may cut such elaborate images that there isn’t enough wood to show its grain. And wood engravers will use the latter characteristic within their conception of the work.

        Look at the lines. Bernard Brussel-Smith was a superb American wood engraver whose lines were phenomenally fine. He had a sure and steady hand. In that close-up you will also see the many dots which wood engravers will use – they already have the pores on the block, even tho it is very smoothly sanded.

        But even at that, I have seen a Japanese wood block with exceptionally fine lines, on cherry. We thought it was an engraving but the owner assured us that it was a woodcut.

        You have to look, and look, and look, and look until one day your brain begins to spot the differences automatically. Send me yr email and I will send you a few more examples.

  6. I have a first edition of the Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (Random House, 1943) signed by Fritz Eichenberg. Is it of any value?

    • Sure. Depending upon condition and how quickly you’d want to sell them, my guess is that you could get $100 – $200. He signed a lot of books for the Limited Editions Club, I see some of those on eBay for around $100, but it doesn’t look like he signed the Random House set very often.

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