The Isles of the Cyclops, near Catania, Sicily, ca. 1892

Oil on canvas

17-1/8 x 23-1/2 inches

Signed lower left: J.H. Twachtman

From 1889 through 1893, John Twachtman supplemented his income as a teacher at New York’s Art Students League by producing illustrations for Scribner’s Magazine.   Such work would seem to have limited appeal to an artist who enjoyed spontaneity and exploring textural variation.  However, changes had occurred in American illustration techniques during the 1880s that allowed artists to take new experimental approaches to images meant for mechanical reproduction. 

Whereas previously artists created illustrations by drawing with lead pencils and India ink upon blocks coated with Chinese white, which were then cut away by the engraver, the development of photo-engraving made possible the production of facsimile images executed directly from artist’s works rendered in any media--from pen and ink, to charcoal, to watercolor and oil.  This advance made illustration work accessible to a much broader group of participants than the commercial illustrators who had previously controlled this field, and brought about the rise of the painter-illustrator movement.  By 1892, William Coffin was able to write that “the group of painter-illustrators in the United States is a large one, and includes some of the best-known of all our artists.  Some of them are constant workers in drawing for reproduction, while others contribute irregularly, but often enough to have become noted in this branch of art.”1 

In the distinction made by Coffin, Twachtman certainly belonged to the occasional painter-illustrator category rather than a constant worker in drawing for reproduction.  His illustrations appeared infrequently in Scribner’s, but they nonetheless drew significant praise.  Coffin singled out Twachtman for his ability to make “a beautiful page with the simplest of motives . . . . Color is suggested oftentimes in his black and white drawings, and they are always eminently decorative.”[2]

Of the works Twachtman created to be used as illustrations that have emerged, most were executed en grisaille, probably because they were rendered from photographs.  One of these is The Isles of the Cyclops, near Catania, Sicily, which was reproduced in an article in Scribners in June 1892 by N. S. Shaler entitled “Sea-Beaches.” Twachtman created four of the seven illustrations for the article, which focused on sandy beaches “where the surges are effectively assailing the land [and] where breakers are continually at work grinding the stone they have rent from the cliff into small bits.”[3]  His image of the Isles of the Cyclops bears the caption: “Showing the extremity of a lava stream much carved by the sea.  The bowlders (sic) in the foreground and middle distance constitute a natural sand-factory.”[4]

Twachtman’s image depicts the lava-formed islands in the Ionian Sea on the eastern side of Sicily, near the city of Catania.[5]   While he recorded the scene in accurate terms, undoubtedly using a photographic source as a guide, he departed from a strictly topographical approach in order to explore the scene’s artistic possibilities.  Throughout he used the direction and force of his paint strokes and shifts of tone and value to indicate forms.  In the sky, he used a thin gouache-like consistency conveying the movement of the light hazy cloud cover that gathered at the horizon.  At the shoreline, he used a brown wash with sketchy dark lines for the scoring in the rocks and inky washes for shadows across their surfaces.  Thin, broad strokes of impasto suggest the reflective surface of the water, while the canvas prime is brought into the design in the sky and water.  Although based in reality, the image is highly structured, with the curve of the shore guiding us to the prominent rocky land forms.  The result is that the work may be read as a real scene and as a composition worthy of aesthetic consideration. 

An image that captures the unique features of its site in factual terms, The Isles of the Cyclops, near Catania, Sicily is also a refined and lively arrangement that reveals Twachtman’s ability to see a scene in terms of the pure appeal of its masses, forms, lines, and tonal harmonies.  Among Twachtman’s illustrations, the work certainly stands out as one of the artist’s “beautiful pages” made “with the simplest of motives.”


© The essay herein is the property of Spanierman Gallery, LLC and is copyrighted by Spanierman Gallery, LLC, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission from Spanierman Gallery, LLC,  nor shown or communicated to anyone without due credit being given to Spanierman Gallery, LLC.

[1]  William A. Coffin, “American Illustrators of To-Day,” Scribner's Monthly 11 (February 1892), pp. 196.

[2]  Coffin, pp. 198-199.

[3]   N. S. Shaler, “Sea-Beaches,” Scribner’s Magazine 11 (June 1892), p. 758.

[4]   Shaler, “Sea-Beaches,” p. 774.

[5]   This work was inexplicably entitled The Needles, Isles of Wight beginning in the 1930s. The title was probably assigned to the work because the site resembled that of the Needles.  It was probably not known at the time that the work appeared as an illustration in Scribner’s with its proper identification.

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