Bernhardt Wall was an American illustrator and lithographer. He was born in 1872 in Buffalo, New York, to German parents who had recently emigrated to the United States. Sometime before 1893, Wall moved to New York City, where he briefly studied at Art Students League before pursuing a career as a commercial lithographer. While in New York City, Wall also worked as a watchmaker and photographer.
During the Spanish-American War, Wall enlisted in the New York Volunteer Infantry. After the war, Wall lived and worked in New York City, where he designed postcards that were popular for their distinctive coloring. Wall created several comic cards, most notably the “Sunbonnet Babies,” as well as popular patriotic postcards during the First World War, in which he also served. Having designed over 5,000 unique postcards for various companies, Wall was coined the “Postcard King.”
Wall’s personal interests were rooted in history and the American West. In 1893, he took an extended trip to the American West, which heavily impacted his life and his work. There he befriended Texas artist Jennie Hunter and, in 1899, they married. The two bounced between the East Coast and Texas, where they spent their winters.
Wall’s artistic direction shifted around 1913 as he started working with etching, a process slightly different from lithography:
- Lithography: the process of printing from a plane surface (such as a smooth stone or metal plate) on which the image to be printed is ink-receptive and the blank area ink-repellent
- Etching: a printmaking technique that uses chemical action to produce incised lines in a metal printing plate which then holds the applied ink and forms the image
Wall wanted to create etchings that told stories about the lives and legacies of American historical and cultural figures. His works included figures such as Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, Texas General Sam Houston, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Edgar Alan Poe, Mark Twain, and Abraham Lincoln. In addition to etching the illustrations, Wall wrote, designed, printed, cut, sewed, and bound many of his books himself.
Wall and The Horners
Bernhardt Wall also produced several unique bookplates for individual collectors and friends. Through their mutual love of Abraham Lincoln, Bernhardt Wall became friends with Harlan Hoyt Horner and Henrietta Calhoun Horner, whose Lincoln library was donated to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1951. Their donation founded the Lincoln Room, which now comprises the core of IHLC’s Lincoln collection. The Horners wanted Wall to design the Lincoln Room bookplate. Although they ultimately went with a University-affiliated artist to design the Lincoln Room bookplate, Wall produced several Lincoln Room bookplate drafts, which are housed in Box 2 of IHLC’s MS 1200 Horner Papers.
Following Abraham Lincoln
Wall’s biggest project was a complete telling of Lincoln’s life from his ancestry to his final resting place. Following Abraham Lincoln was an 85-volume project that Wall sent to subscribers (limited to 100) in monthly installments between 1931 and 1942. Each volume contained five etchings related to a specific period or place in Lincoln’s life. The Horners received subscription No. 27, and Volume 47, which has one plate related to Albany, New York (where the Horners lived), is dedicated to them. Following Abraham Lincoln used over 400 unique etchings to expand on the story of Lincoln’s life and legacy.
The Horners maintained a friendly correspondence with Bernhardt Wall for decades. Wall’s work was well-represented in the Horner library. As a result of their donation, the IHLC has all 85-volumes of Following Abraham Lincoln, as well as other publications by Wall.
Other Lincoln projects
Overall, Wall published eight books on Abraham Lincoln. Other titles include Lincoln’s Gettysburg Speech (1946) and Lincoln’s New Salem: a pilgrimage (1926), an oversize book with large plates that recalls Wall’s trip to Illinois, where he visited New Salem, the village in which Lincoln lived as a young adult, and Springfield, Illinois. During his trip, Wall connected with Illinois-based Lincoln scholars such as Harry E. Pratt. Wall also published an illustrated edition of Lincoln, Man of the People (1922), a poem by Edwin Markham that was recited at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1922.
Following Bernhardt Wall
Later in life, Wall moved to California. He was active in the Lincoln Fellowship of Southern California. In 1943, Wall was awarded the “Diploma of Honor,” a “distinction given annually to the one person in America who has produced the most outstanding work in the field of Lincolniana.”
Wall died on February 9, 1956, and was fittingly interred at a cemetery in California on the anniversary of the birth of Lincoln.
Following Bernhardt Wall, a “bio-bibliographical sketch” featuring work based on Wall’s etches, was written by Francis J. Webber in 1994.
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