Manhattan Backwash 1938

Grace Arnold Albee, Manhattan Backwash, 1938; Gift of P. Frederick Albee

The wood engraving Manhattan Backwash illustrates two of Grace Arnold Albee's favorite themes: the effects of human habitation on the natural landscape and the passage of time.

A dilapidated Victorian house with blank windows and disintegrating fence appears abandoned. A long series of steps, barren trees, and fences create a barrier between the house and the viewer. The term “backwash” suggests that the condition of the house is the result of some unknown, previous detrimental event.

Albee created small images because she worked with the end-grain of the wood block to create her engravings. Their size required precision to form the intricate shapes and rich, varied textures that characterize her prints.

Albee's method involved sketching her subjects in pencil on site, then taping her drawing to the end of a block of Chinese boxwood and tracing its outlines onto the wood. Cutting away the areas she wanted to retain the white of the paper, the artist inked sections that remained in relief.