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 Earl Howell Reed  (1863 - 1931)

About: Earl Howell Reed
 

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Lived/Active: Illinois/Indiana      Known for: etching and landscape painting, drypoint

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Ad Code: 4
Earl Howell Reed
Under His Quiet Skies, etching on paper, 8 1/4 x 11 1/2", n.d.
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
Biography from Brauer Museum Of Art:
Earl Howell Reed, American (Chicago), 1863-1931
 
Before Earl Howell Reed brought national attention to the Indiana Dunes, growing to fame as an etcher of the wild and spiritual dunes landscape, he was for 20 years a grain broker in the Chicago Stock Exchange. He had worked previously as a reporter for the old Chicago Times before meeting a Mr. Hutchinson - “Old Hutch” - of the Chicago Board of Trade who introduced him to the business. Yet throughout this period Reed maintained the artistic and writing interests he developed in his youth. These likely matured under his well-off parents: scholar and minister Hiram and author-mother Elizabeth who earned an honorary degree from Northwestern for her books on Buddhist and Hindu literature.  What he carried with him from this period was a literary pursuit of and infatuation with romance: the kind which revels in emotive response, and which places an aesthetic importance on the spectacle of nature.
 
Perhaps it was in response to the commodities-based nature of his brokering position, or perhaps it was merely a desire to escape the city, but Reed began to take trips to the Dunes via the South Shore Line.  He would wander, and sketch, and began to see the landscape not as widely considered – a wasteland of sparse scrub and sand – but, as J.R. Engel in Sacred Sands describes, “a place pregnant with the creative emergence of life out of non-life” (102). It is clear in his work that Reed experienced the Dunes as a transformative space, one in which the absence of humans, indeed civilization, allowed a kind of primeval communion with nature and reflection on its beauty. It was a spiritual place for him, and that is perhaps one of the major forces that drew him back, again and again to etch, and re-commune with the landscape.
 
Reed gave up his position with the Stock Exchange and committed fully to transcribing the landscape through etching and writing in 1910. His book, The Voices of the Dunes in 1912, contained his first series of Dunes etchings and accompanying poems by Chicago authors. It was entirely successful on two ends. For one, it earned Reed a publishing deal with the John Lane Publishing House for several other books, thus assuring him a living as a writer and artist. These included texts such as The Dune Country (1916) and Sketches in Duneland (1918) in which Reed is philosophical explorer of the dunescape, collecting narratives of its “strange human characters, whose little drift-wood shanties are scattered along the shore.” This strand of adventure and mystery to be found in the Dunes is transmuted into storytelling in The Ghost in the Tower (1921) and The Silver Arrow and Other Indian Romances of the Dune Country (1926).

Secondly, the popularity of Reed’s books brought not just regional, but national attention to the Dunes in a new light: as an alluring, unique landscape. People were drawn to the romanticized way in which Reed collected and transcribed a romantic landscape of the Dunes, much how Western writer Zane Gray helped turn the West into a mythic place of cowboys and battles of machisimo. Voices of the Dunes’ titular etching reveals what critic Lena McCauley describes as “the unceasing battle between the surging inland sea and the land that holds it in bonds.” The reader cannot help but be drawn into the opposition between land and sea, the sweeping motion of sand below under a whirling sky. Reed romanticizes the dunes not as a wasteland but a place of activity, mystery (as the viewer follows the trail of birds to the horizon), and spirituality.
 
From this point forward, Reed exhibited widely and his work was added to the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Library of Congress, and the Art Institute of Chicago (where in the 1920s there was a Reed Room devoted solely to his work). He grew to prominence not only as an advocate and storyteller of the Dunes but as one of the first and most important American etchers whose treatise on the art is still used and referenced today. Though self-taught, he developed his talent through 25 years of devoted practice to the art of etching. His achievement in the art is evinced through his text Etching, a Practical Treatise, in which he writes that the medium is “an art for an enthusiast and poet.” He continues, describing “The wonderful eloquence of the black line, the brilliance and mystery attainable through it . . . [when] a subtle witchery begins to brood over the plate when the bubbles of the acid appear on its face.” This description reveals his own transfixion with the magical charm of not only the Dunes but the methodical and arcane craft of etching.
 
The Etching Revival was a movement of its own begun in the 19th century. It achieved a high point with the publication of A Treatise on Etching by Maxine Lalanne in America in 1880 along with the work of artist James McNeill Whistler. Reed likely was attracted to the two tenets of the Revival, realistic perception of the world and individual craftsmanship. The first he achieves in how his work preserves the Dune’s memory, before the destructive modern encroaching of marsh draining, harbors, shipping, and rampant tourism. It documents a landscape without humans, where there is no more activity than the rush of wind or far-off flight of birds. The second he achieves in his decades-long honing of craft, his lectures on etching, and his Treatise. Yet what likely also appealed to him was the very task of etching, the cutting in of the needle to the plate to create life from nothing, or the absence evoked by the eating away of acid to leave just the lines of composition which form an etched scene.
 
Though Reed spent much of his time in the Dunes and at his country home along Lake Michigan, he was also an important member of the Chicago artistic scene. He was a member of the Chicago Camera Club and the Chicago Society of Artists as well as the Society of Midland Authors and the Writer’s Guild. He was the first president and founding member of the Chicago Society of Etchers, the first such society in America in 1910. Its mission, as secretary Bertha Jaques describes, was to “make more widespread an intelligent interest in and appreciation of etching – hitherto one of the least understood and most neglected of the fine arts” (1911 exhibition catalog). Reed and his fellow society members sought to bring the Etching Revival to full force in America through national exhibitions, distribution of its member’s etchings, and education on the genre. The Society partnered with the Art Institute of Chicago to hold annual juried exhibitions of society “associates,” a selection of which were purchased for the Art Institute’s permanent collection. The catalog describes the art of etching as “a translation of nature,” necessarily a commentary on what is seen, an impression of a moment incised by the tip of a needle.
 
What is seen in Reed’s work is sweeping wind, active lines which pull from the landscape a natural vitality. In the absence of color, it is individual lines which tell the narrative of a scene. As critic McCauley describes, “it is not the wind that has blown, but is sweeping across the world” in Reed’s etchings. This “force of the unseen” she describes is itself the animation which draws a viewer into each scene, indeed beyond the line of horizon as in The Tryst (1931). In the spare lines, the coils of black, swirls of leaves and dark incision of limbs lives another world, as in The Requiem of the Leaves (1918).  Each work is a kind of revelation, impossible to comprehend without experiencing the Dunes themselves, without having one’s own transformational experience. The absence and seeming desolation of such landscapes imply the viewer, invite him or her to enter the scene and expand the narrative beyond the bounds of the etching plate. It is this quality which drew Reed back to the Dunes throughout his life, which provided him with endless inspiration and transformed the artistic legacy of the landscape for many artists to follow.
 
Even so, the prominence Reed, along with artist Frank Dudley, brought to the Dunes also drew attention from developers, steel companies, and tourists alike. Both artists were early and important members of preservationist group Save the Dunes whose original mission was to create a national park of the Dunes area. Reed was an important part of the push for preservation of the region, presenting in a national legislative hearing along with other important Chicagoland figures in 1916. Though the proposed “Sand Dunes National Park” fell through, Indiana Dunes State Park was eventually established in 1923. The Brauer Museum’s collection of Reed’s etchings is a testament to the artist and his undeniable legacy on etching in America, as well as the artistic and spiritual value of the Dunes.
 
Sources
 
Darbee, Leigh. "Sketching the Dunes: The Life and Work of Earl H. Reed." Traces Spring 1997: 32-33. Print.
 
Engel, J. Ronald. "Of Time and Eternity." Sacred Sands: The Struggle for Community in the Indiana Dunes. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1983. 101-02. Print.
 
McCauley, Lena M. "Earl H. Reed, Painter-Etcher." Art and Progress 6.8 (1915): 269-72. JSTOR.
 
"The Chicago Society of Etchers." Art and Progress 5.8 (1914): 286-88. JSTOR.
 
Monroe, Harriet. Exhibition catalog, An Exhibition of Etchings and Monotypes by Earl H. Reed. Chicago, IL: Marshall Fields & Co. Picture Galleries, N.D. Print.
 
"Reed, Earl Howell." Dictionary of American Biography. First ed. 1928. Print.
 
Reed, Earl H. Etching, A Practical Treatise. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1914. Print

Reed, Earl H. Preface. The Voices of the Dunes, and Other Etchings. Chicago: Ralph Fletcher Seymour, 1912. Print.
 
Sander, Inara C. "Earl Reed: Etcher and Writer of the Dunes." Dunes Country Fall 1980: 16-17. Print.
 
Jaques, Bertha E. and Stevens, Thomas Wood. Exhibition catalog, An Exhibition of American Etchings. Chicago, IL: Chicago Society of Etchers, The Art Institute of Chicago, 1911. Print.

Written and submitted by Gregory Maher, 2014
 
 


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Earl Reed is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915

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