Back to the William R. Talbot Home Page.  Back to the Prints Page.
  Howard Cook. "River Baptism,"
Cook, River Baptism
An Important Wood Engraving by Howard Cook

Howard Cook. “River Baptism” (“Southern Baptism,” “Negro Baptism”), 1935. Wood engraving. Image size: 10 x 7". Edition of 50. Signed in pencil in l. r. margin: Howard Cook, Imp. 1935. Inscribed in pencil in l. l. margin: 50. Artist’s monogram in block, l. r. corner: HC. Duffy 182. Uneven lower margin. Overall, excellent condition, with beautiful tones of black and white.

A second Guggenheim Fellowship, awarded in 1934, took Howard Cook on a yearlong excursion through the American South, including stops in Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Alabama, and Texas. “I was fascinated by the contrasts offered from one state to another,” he wrote upon his return, “from the red earth of Virginia and its Negroes and White renters to the rugged Cumberland Mountains . . . ; contrasts again between a wild and remote Kentucky valley and warm, sunny cotton fields of Alabama, its Negro rituals, agricultural exuberance, and hillbillies.” Cook’s southern sojourn produced a memorable series of portraits that are “at once archetypal symbols of all humanity and highly individualized studies” (Flint, p. 37).

The present print is one of Cook’s strongest works from this period. Using stark contrasts of deep, velvety blacks and crisp whites to achieve a sculptural quality, Cook captured a climactic moment in a baptism he witnessed early one cloudy Sunday morning near Moundville, Alabama. Cook wrote of the ritual:

“October was approaching . . . so the muddy stream swollen by heavy rains was not the most comfortable place in which to immerse communicants for baptism. In spite of this about twenty-five Negroes dressed in white robes with Moorishly-draped white head pieces were lined up in several rows at the bank of a deep pool. . . . Two deacons gently led in the first victim who received a benediction from the minister. Then the two strong-armed deacons took the communicant around the shoulders and waist, thrusting her with a great splash completely out of sight. She came up quickly on the rebound, blowing spray and waving her arms wildly, thrashing about like a large fish caught in too shallow water. As soon as the choking was over the energy created by the shock was unloosed, causing a hoarse screaming and sobbing. She was thoroughly baptised so, somewhat embarrassed by the way the soaking thin robe clung to her body, she was led by the deacons up to dry land again. Disappearance into a clump of bushes produced a dry change of clothes.”

He translated his observations into an image of great dignity and monumentality that results not only from his sensitive depiction of the communicants but also from his masterful manipulation of formal elements. As Flint observed, Cook's figures are “delineated with strong draughtsmanship and intense, sculptural contrasts of dark and light. The dark tones, composed of many fine, sensitively etched and inked lines, are not opaque, but richly luminous. Indeed, light seems to pervade the image . . . invoking a presence that is both humble and hieratic.”

Complementing the formal aspects of the print, Cook introduces a new human warmth and almost iconic intensity in his subjects, despite his Modernist tendency to abstract the figure into idealized shapes and powerful tonal contrasts. Consequently, the formal innovations of Cook's earlier Mexican phase and his deep reverence for the rituals of Southern regionalism combine in a happy balance of form and content. A beautiful and moving image from Cook’s most intensely creative period of printmaking.

Ref.: Janet A. Flint, “Comments on Howard Cook’s Graphic Work” in Betty and Douglas Duffy, The Graphic Work of Howard Cook: A Catalogue Raisonné (Glen Echo, MD: The Bethesda Art Gallery, 1984), pp. 33–38, illus. p. 32, cat. no. 182 (illus.).

Copyright 2003, William R. Talbot