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Friday, September 2, 2016

Charles W. Bartlett

Surf Riders, Honolulu, 1919, (woodblock print) Charles W. Bartlett
In June of 1994, my wife and I, along with our son, celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary by spending a week aboard the then newly refurbished S.S. Constitution cruising among the islands of Hawaii. It was an unforgettable vacation; and though we were still in the "good old U.S. of A.," the culture shock between the mainland and the islands halfway across the Pacific was considerable. Moreover, I don't mean that in any negative light. The Islands are, indeed, as beautiful and "laid back" as everyone thinks of them. I wouldn't change a thing...except maybe to move them a little closer to California. The jet lag, both coming and going, was considerable. We flew non-stop from Chicago to Honolulu (the same coming back). If for no other reason, the old saying having to do with vacations continued to apply, "It's a great place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there." I couldn't afford to, but that's another matter. In 1917, the British watercolorist and printmaker, Charles W. Bartlett and his wife stopped at the Islands in making their way back to England from Japan. They never made it on home. As so many have, they fell in love with this tropical paradise. Bartlett died there twenty-three years later, in 1940, at the age of seventy-nine.

Though Bartlett painted in both oil and watercolor, he is
best remembered for his exotic woodblock prints.
Charles William Bartlett was born 1860 and raised in England. As a young man, he worked for a large metallurgical company, before deciding to pursue a career in art. At the age of twenty-three, he began studying at the Royal Academy in London, then after three years moved across the channel to the Academie Julien in Paris. In 1889, he returned to England and married, but shortly afterwards both his wife and infant son died in childbirth. In an attempt to shake off his grief, together with an artist friend, Frank Brangwyn, Bartlett traveled about Europe, spending several productive years in the Netherlands, Brittany, and Venice. Brangwyn is believed to have introduced Bartlett to Japanese prints. During this time, Bartlett produced some of his most important early works, especially studies of peasants painted in broad areas of color. His Captives in Rome (below), painted in 1888, was done during this period. Though it is quite typical of the style and content of British painting at the time, is not typical of Bartlett's other works.

Captives in Rome, 1888, Charles W Bartlett. The children's faces,
hairstyles, and pale flesh tones seem quite anachronistic.
In the following years, as he pursued his art career, Bartlett remarried in 1898. He exhibited several oil paintings at prestigious galleries, including the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon des Beaux Arts. He also became interested in printmaking, creating many etchings and woodblock prints. Bartlett returned to Paris with his second wife in 1908. There he helped found the Société de la Peinture a l'Eau (literally translated, "paint is water." Several museums in Paris and elsewhere acquired his paintings.

Prayers at Sunset (Udaipur, India), c. 1919,
woodblock print, Charles W. Bartlett
In 1913, with financial backing from his wife's wealthy family, the couple traveled to British India, Ceylon, Indonesia, China, and Japan for the purpose of sketching and painting the landscapes and people. They planned to stay in Asia for several years and eventually travel around the world. Bartlett loved the vivid colors of India, and they spent a year and a half travelling through the country. His woodblock prints, Prayers at Sunset (above), from 1919, and Peshawar (below), from the same year were both created from watercolors painted on this visit.

Peshawar, ca. 1919, woodblock print, Charles W. Bartlett
The Bartletts arrived in Japan in 1915, where the artist met woodblock print publisher Watanabe Shōzaburō, who was a major force in early 20th-century Japanese art (shin-hanga). In 1916 Watanabe published 21 woodblocks from Bartlett's designs, including six prints of Japanese landscapes. Bartlett's exquisite Iwabuchi, (below) from 1916, was one of them. A return visit to Japan in 1919, resulted in sixteen more shin-hanga prints for Watanabe.

Iwabuchi, 1916, woodblock print, Charles W. Bartlett
A WW I recruitment poster
designed by Bartlett.
Once the Bartletts had fallen in love with the lush scenery and people of Hawaii, they decided to settle in Honolulu. Charles stayed in close contact with Watanabe. Also among the sixteen woodblock prints mentioned ear-lier were three Hawaiian subjects including Surf Riders, Honolulu (top) from 1919. Bartlett and his wife continued to travel fre-quently. They attended several commercial print exhibitions in mainland United States as well as visiting Java in 1922. During the 1920's and 1930's, Bartlett and his wife became prosperous members of the Ha-waiian art community. His popular wood-block prints sold for between $15 and $30 per print, at a time when $15 was equivalent to a week's salary. Bartlett was also com-missioned to paint portraits for wealthy Ha-waiian families. Unfortunately, most of the blocks used to make Bartlett's woodblock prints were destroyed in Japan's Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

Prints of the Taj Mahal created over the course of several years
for sale in Honolulu. All of Bartlett's prints were "made in Japan."
Among the most popular of Bartlett's woodblock prints were those based upon watercolor painted as the couple spent time in Agra, India, home of the famous Taj Mahal. One of the interesting features of color woodblock prints is that each one is slightly different as to color...sometimes, even strikingly different as seen in the two different versions of Taj Mahal, Sunset (above) printed a year apart. After Bartlett's death, all his remaining woodblocks were "scored" to prevent additional prints from ever being made. In 2001, Richard Miles and Jennifer Saville authored a book on Bartlett's life and art titled, A Printmaker in Paradise: The Art and Life of Charles Bartlett (below). Incidentally, my wife and I, Lord willing, intend to return to Hawaii for our fiftieth wedding anniversary in 2019. I wonder what Charles Bartlett prints are selling for now.

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