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Bertha Lum
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Tipton, Iowa
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
Genoa, Italy
Printmaker, painter and illustrator Bertha Lum is best known for her color woodblock prints, made using Japanese techniques, which reflect the style and often the subject matter of classic Japanese ukiyo-e (“floating world”) prints. Bertha Boynton Bull was born in Tipton, Iowa in 1869. Her father was a lawyer and both of her parents were amateur artists. At some point her family moved to Duluth, Minnesota. There is no record of her education until she enrolled in the design department of the school of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1895, where she remained for about a year. She then studied at John Francis (“Frank”) Holme’s (1868-1904) Chicago School of Illustration and with the stained glass designer Anna Weston. Lum returned to the Art Institute to study figure drawing in late 1901. During her five months of study she was presumably used Arthur Wesley Dow’s new textbook, “Composition, A Series of Exercises Selected from a New System of Art” (Boston, 1899), that extolled the Japanese color woodcut. From this and other influences Lum became fascinated by Japanese art and culture. After she married Burt F. Lum, a Minneapolis lawyer, in 1903, they spent a seven-week honeymoon in Japan. Back in Minneapolis Lum experimented with woodcutting tools she had purchased in Japan and created her first prints in 1904, adaptations of Japanese prints of geishas. Her 1905 print “The Home Coming” (G/P 6) probably based on a Japanese drawing she had seen, was illustrated in 1908 in an article on woodblock prints in the London periodical “The Studio.” Lum returned to Japan in 1907 for fourteen weeks. She trained with the woodblock cutter Bonkotsu Igami (1875-1933) for two months and the printer Nishimura Kumakichi (1861-1941?) for a month. Her greater understanding of the process of creating woodcuts led to prints of increasing subtly. Lum traveled to Tokyo for six months in late 1911, this time with her two daughters, one aged three and the other six months. She employed Japanese block cutters and printers, with the printers working under her close supervision. In the spring of 1912 her prints were shown in the annual exhibition of Tokyo’s Pacific Painting Society and drew much favorable attention, particularly one of her “self-made” prints from Minneapolis, “Fox-Women” (1907, G/P 12), depicting goblin foxes which have taken the shape of women, a theme in Japanese mythology. She drew other themes from the ghost stories drawn from Japanese legends by Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), an American living in Japan. Later that year solo exhibitions of her work were held at the Albert Roullier Art Gallery in Chicago and the Katz Gallery in New York City. Thirty-one of Lum’s prints were shown in San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, for which she was awarded a silver medal. She continued to exhibit at the Post-Exposition Exhibition in 1916. Lum took additional trips to Japan in 1915 and 1919. Around 1917 the Lum family moved to San Francisco, where her husband continued his law practice. She exhibited paintings, watercolors and prints in galleries in Chicago and on both coasts, and was included in the major 1919 exhibition of “Etchings and Block Prints” at the Art Institute of Chicago. One of her best known prints, “Point Lobos” (G/P 55), was made in San Francisco in 1920. Lum went to China with her daughters in 1922, staying for two years, mostly in Peking (now Beijing). There she developed a technique she called “raised-line” prints, in which outlines were printed with a key block and the print is then hand-colored with watercolor. Her book based on Japanese legends, “Gods, Goblins and Ghosts,” which she wrote and illustrated, was published in 1922. An earthquake and fire in Tokyo destroyed her blocks stored there along with impressions of her prints. After her return to California in 1924 Lum maintained a studio in Hollywood and lived in Pasadena. Sometime during the 1920s she and her husband were divorced. She returned to Peking in 1927, where she lived until 1931, interrupted by a visit to San Francisco in 1929. The Depression cut into sales of her works, and a trip to America to sell Chinese antiques and paintings in 1931 was unsuccessful. She survived on meager sales of her art and illustration work. Enough of her works were sold from a gallery show in Los Angeles in 1933 to allow her to return to Peking that year. Her second book, “Gangplanks to the East,” was published in 1936. Her artistic production slowed; her last print was made in 1937. With the onset of World War II she returned to America, living first in San Francisco, then Washington, D.C. and New York City. In 1948 she returned to Peking, staying until 1953, when she left for Genoa, Italy and the home of her older daughter, where she died in February, 1954. (TNB 10/2015) Selected bibliography: Gravalos, Mary Evans O’Keefe, and Carol Pulin. Bertha Lum. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991. Meech, Julia and Gabriel P. Weisberg, eds. Japonisme Comes to America: The Japanese Impact on the Graphic Arts, 1876-1925. Exhibition catalog, pp. 127-156 and passim. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in association with the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 1990.