Painter & Engraver: The Artistic Endeavors of Jonathan Fisher
Jonathan Fisher claimed that his artistic talent developed because of his passion for mathematics and geometry, and his need to work on such problems by drawing out their solutions. In his autobiographical Sketches he states:
“Between the years of 10 and 15 of my age I began to exhibit some traces of a mechanical genius and a turn towards mathematics, spending my leisure time . . . in solving various questions in mathematics, sometimes with a pin on a smooth board and sometimes on a slate, which led the way afterwards to a small measure of proficiency in sketching and painting.”
Fisher illustrated many of his college notebooks with vivid watercolors. The parson later collected these pages and bound them into volumes, many of which remain in the possession of the Jonathan Fisher House. Fisher also painted views of Harvard College—which he sold to augment his humble income as a student—as well as numerous illustrations of animals, plants, and other scenes of natural history.
Fisher also learned to paint with oil on canvas. He produced landscapes, portraits, and images of nature. He also painted several still lifes at a time when few Americans practiced that art.
The parson also made numerous engravings and built his own press on which he could strike prints. Fisher, as often was the case, turned his talent to commercial use and sold several of his woodcuts to local newspapers. His masterpiece in the medium was a natural history book written for children, Scripture Animals, which depicted every creature named in the Bible.
Jonathan Fisher began making woodcuts in the summer of 1793 while home on vacation from his studies at Harvard. His journal entries from the time record the following:
Dedham July 22-27, 1793. Worked on the farm; engraved on boxwood, began a small printing press.
July 29-Aug. 3. Worked on printing press and haying.
Aug. 5-10, 1793. Worked some on the farm. Finished my printing press; engraved a little and struck off a number of prints from boxwood cuts.
Fisher illustrated two of his books with his own engravings. The Youth’s Primer, published in 1817 with 28 engravings, was patterned after the New England Primer. Scripture Animals, published in 1834, took 15 years to compile and was filled with 140 woodcuts depicting each of the creatures mentioned in the bible. Fisher’s preface to the volume states:
As respects the cuts, a few of them are from nature, but most of them are copied, and generally reduced a little, to bring them conveniently within the compass of the page I have chosen for the work. Of the execution, I may remark, that not being able to hire them engraved, I have engraved them myself, and having had no instruction in the art, and but little practice, I can lay claim to no elegance in their appearance. I have endeavored to give a true outline; the filling up must speak for itself.
Fisher also engraved a bookplate for the Blue Hill Library—still used to this day—as well as stamps for the Blue Hill Academy and the Congregational Church Library.
Karl Kups, curator of prints at the New York Public Library, characterized Fisher’s engravings thusly: Fisher’s style of engraving, in the manner of the typical primitive, shows the lack of training, of “how-to.” But it is made up by a most fervent desire to please, and by an almost childlike persistence to get that animal upon the wood block, come what may.