Bertha Lum, a printmaker and illustrator fairly unknown to women’s art history, features traditional Asian motifs and flat lines in her artwork, but with a distinctive style coveted by critics and collectors from both the East and the West. Born in 1869 in Typton, Iowa, as one of four children, Lum was privy to modest beginnings. Between 1895 and 1869 and again from 1901 to 1902 she took courses at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in figure drawing, design, and illustration. Lum married in 1903 to a wealthy Minnesotan and decided to honeymoon in Japan to satisfy her curiosity for Japanese color woodcuts. While in Japan, Lum purchased low quality woodblock printing supplies and began to produce her own prints when she returned to the United States.
Several years later, Lum traveled to Japan again and apprenticed with Japanese craftsmen, including an engraver and printermaker, over the course of several months. When she returned to America, she began to sell and show her artwork. In 1912, Lum became the only Westerner to exhibit her work at Tokyo’s Annual Art Exhibition. In 1915, she was awarded one of four silver medals at the prestigious Panama Pacific International Exposition. Lum also became the first American woman artist to have her artwork acquired by the British Museum. Lum took her daughters Eleanor and Catherine on several extended vacations to China and Japan. She divorced in 1917 and took up residence in California, where she established a clientele and lived comfortably earning five hundred dollars per month from sales of her artwork. Between 1924 and 1927, Lum diversified her work and began making screens, a technique she learned in Beijing in the early 1920s.
After 1937, Lum’s eyesight began to deteriorate, ending her ability to make prints. The last years of her life were spent in China, but in 1953, she moved to Genoa, Italy to be with her daughter Catherine. Bertha Lum died in 1954, at the age of seventy-five. Undoubtedly, Lum opened many doors for other women artists reproducing Asian prints in the early twentieth century. NMWA has two of Lum’s engravings in the collection.
Ali Printz is currently an intern in the Library and Research Center at NMWA