In mid-twentieth-century America, Bernard Brussel-Smith was a well-respected illustrator, graphic designer, and printmaker. His career did not follow the typical path of that time, but instead presaged our current times, when artists frequently work across media and the fine and commercial fields. Contemporary scholarship allows current scholars to better understand Brussel-Smith’s multi-dimensional career and show his value as a participant in mass media culture in an era of prime importance in the shaping of American identity.
Brussel-Smith employed his favorite medium of wood engraving, and the historical associations attached to it, as the primary vehicle for his personal crusade against established art world definitions and hierarchies. Brussel-Smith found a way to merge his interest in tradition with the modern culture in which he lived by using the process of wood engraving and his skill as a draftsman and designer for his commercial work. The historic technique was skillfully employed by Brussel-Smith to illustrate a host of modern subjects for his clients from pharmaceutical, manufacturing, telecommunications, and other industries. These choices implicitly challenged art world definitions about creative impetus, style, and originality.
Brussel-Smith also worked for many widely-recognized names in the publishing industry. He illustrated articles for Life and Holiday, as well as lesser-known periodicals. He created illustrations for The Reader’s Digest Association’s book publishing branch. Additionally, Brussel-Smith was the illustrator and designer for several books. The time period and the venues in which Brussel-Smith worked allowed his images to be viewed by a large reading audience and thus made his illustrations part of the debate on the definition of culture and American identity that was an important part of the post-World War II era.
Alongside his commercial pursuits, Brussel-Smith created fine art prints for the pleasure of capturing images of importance to him. While he would argue that his commercial works were also fine art, these are images not created in response to a commission or commercial demand. In the 1940s, Brussel-Smith began his career at a time when printmaking was becoming more popular in the fine arts community, but just before this popularity exploded into the “American print renaissance” of the 1960s. Brussel-Smith was in the vanguard of artists who believed in the originality of printmaking and desired to use the medium to the fullest of its reproductive abilities. Brussel-Smith chose the print as his medium because of its history as “the greatest source for the dissemination of visual communication to the largest number of the world’s people” and because the “combination of art and craft” of the graphic arts gives the artist a “special niche in the community of art.”
Further information about the career of Bernard Brussel-Smith can be found in archival collections held by the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, and Special Collections at the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library.*
Jae Jennifer Rossman
* Bernard Brussel-Smith, “Relief Etching,” American Artist 23, no. 10 (December 1959): 23.
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