By Theo Merrill Fisher
The American Magazine of Art
SINGLY or in groups, American painters have in recent
days been seeking out those sections of the land which, until their coming,
were, from an artistic standpoint, practically unappropriated ground. The
pictorial trophies of these questings have been significant, frequently as
tokens of native genius of the first rank, as well as revelations of the
amazing diversity and richness of our scenic resources. As an interesting aside
we may observe, too, that as stimulators of travel at home these artists must
be given a place second only to that of the professional "See
There are, then, today artists aplenty who are responding to the lure of the Rockies, the Great Southwest, and the wonderland of the Pacific Coast and, cutting loose for a while from familiar Eastern environments, are experiencing the thrill and accepting the challenge of these fresh fields of work.
But it is of one who has done the much rarer and more difficult thing—severed all his former ties and chosen to identify his life and activities with a region not only artistically but socially virgin territory—in fact, a wilderness, of whom we purpose to here give an account.
Dean Babcock went out to Colorado directly following his art school studies, presumably for a summer holiday, but, falling under the spell of the Estes Park region, the venturesome young man concluded to stay and stake his first artistic "claim" right there. It is, then, of the pictorial "pay dirt" that he discovered and is developing—a "lead" quite his own, as we shall directly see—of which we will take cognizance.
Any time of year, with but rare intervals, you will find him at "The Ledges," his log-cabin home near Long's Peak; although, if you call between October and April, the chances are you will have to break the trail on snowshoes.
This Estes Park sojourn was really undertaken with the purpose of self-discovery; to find out, if may be, whether or not he had .in him, after all, the essential personal elements out of which to shape an artistic career. This particular location was determined upon first, because its solitude simplified the process of adjustment he had to face (for his formal studies had failed to give him either impetus or direction), and because Babcock felt that if he did go on as an artist, it would be some such primitive environment that would furnish him both the sort of material that appealed to him and the inspiration to blaze an artistic trail all his own. The reaction of his self-reliant yet sensitive temperament to such surroundings is of general interest for the graphic records of unusual kind and quality which have come out of this intimate association with the "silent places" during the ten years' residence that has followed.
In oil painting and water colors he has done some eminently creditable work, but as time has passed his interest in these two mediums has largely given place to occupation with pen-and-ink drawing and woodblock prints. In these mediums, largely self-taught, Babcock has attained a remarkable proficiency and found congenial avenues of expression. First, then, concerning his decorative pen drawings, which are, of course, devoted to landscape themes. The illustrations and incidental designs for "Songs of the Rockies," a book of verse by Charles E. Hewes, would alone confirm his right to be ranked with our most distinguished men in this field. Unhappily for the artist's fame, the book was a privately printed one of small edition and so known to but few. This work has a technical maturity, with that incisiveness and assurance in drawing and design which the medium so preeminently demands. Of like kind are Babcock's bookplates. These were originally taken up to meet the requests of friends, but in time have come to be one of his chief occupations. They offer added confirmation of the artist's ability to see things in the large, and combine a few significant elements in a pleasing and striking way, all of which are, of course, prime requisites of the successful bookplate.
In recent days the wood-block print has come into a hitherto unknown prominence, manifesting in this latest phase a striking range of treatment and the capacity of widely different effects. Babcock's interest in the medium and his introduction to its handling trace back to a chance meeting some years ago with the late Helen Hyde. Already a close student of Japanese art, and finding his conception of design predominantly influenced by the Oriental masters, Babcock was thus prepared to take up block printing, not only with the avidity that one essays a new medium of expression and a technical initiation, but with a sympathetic understanding of what it meant in the art history of such a nation as the Japanese. As a result of her thorough knowledge of the technical methods of the process, Babcock had, through Miss Hyde, just the right start in his handling of its mechanical phases. Did space permit, a consideration of his methods, and particularly his departures from Oriental precedents, would be of interest. We will but remark that his handling of the medium from a color standpoint is perhaps midway between the straight or elemental conception and the highly elaborated processes of such a worker as Gustave Baumann. He usually employs only from four to six blocks for color prints and handles tints in very nearly the Japanese manner. The simple black or one-tone print is a favorite sort with him, too.
Frankly experimental and tentative as his endeavors in this particular field were at the outset, and even after the long period of learning its craft, and deemed of but minor consequence in the catalogue of his activities,
Babcock has decided recently to make the block print one of his major interests. He is, of course, strongly .aided in the purpose by the growing interest in this form of artistic expression, the consequent wider sale of his subjects making possible the full development of what hitherto could be held only as a pastime. We will then see constantly new subjects added to his present brief total of seven or eight titles.
Finally, we should consider the outstanding characteristics of this artist's productions and briefly indicate his point of view with respect to art, and particularly the special field he is making his own.
He tells us that his highest aspiration "is to do with tints and lines what Thoreau did with words: to present the more subtile truths of-Nature for their own sake, yet with emphasis on their relation to human life and thought. Artists in general seem prone to copy the subjects, but vary the methods of their predecessors; while I should rather copy, if anything, the methods, but explore new fields for my subjects. I will doubtless always remain primarily a reporter of the facts of nature rather than an inventor of fancies, approaching my work not only as a lover of nature, both in detail and mass, but as a scientific observer; in short, a naturalist-artist."
This reporting the facts of nature, Babcock is quite sure, is far from being such an obvious matter as it appears at first glance. His remarks on this phase of artistic method and attitude are so interesting for their own sake as well as for the light they throw on his own purposes that we again quote him directly.
"Let the average person who 'likes outdoors,' " he observes, "go for a half-day's walk in the hills, come back, and write out what he saw that interested him; and then compare what he has written with a page from Thoreau's Journal or an essay by John Burroughs."
A self-discipline in this art and science of acute, comprehensive observation, which Babcock sets as properly one of the primary aims of the landscape artist, is reflected in his own work and is one of its marked and most pleasing characteristics. Not that he is a slave to painstaking detail or, like some, secures it at the expense of the larger elements of his compositions—for as the illustrations confirm, he handles even the simplest pen decoration or woodcut with a superb conception of design and elimination of pictorial unessentials—but rather, that his long and intimate contact with nature has given him a vision that comprehends nature’s significance and beauty, whether in the sweep of a mountain range or the delicate beauty and elusive charm of a wayside flower.
If it is true that all art is spiritual autobiography, we are not surprised, then, to find reflected in Babcock’s work the inclusiveness of scope and interest just suggested, but as well, a basic sincerity and masterly handling of all he attempts. One is impressed by an originality and authority of method on the one hand, and on the other with a personal outlook matured yet charged with the unbounded vigor of youth, a freshness as of mountain winds, a flash and sparkle like that of woodland streams, and the virile poetry of the snowy peaks and timbered wilderness.