By Jim Rosenthal
Success as an etcher came quickly for John W. “Winks” Winkler. He made his first etching as a student at the San Francisco Institute of Art in 1913. He was 19. By the time he was 28, he had won 3 Logan Awards from the Chicago Society of Etchers, had one of his etchings selected as a Presentation Print for that organization, had a one man show at the Print Rooms in San Francisco, had exhibited nationally at the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and had exhibited at the Brooklyn Society of Etchers.
The body of work he created during this period included his Chinatown etchings, his Telegraph Hill etchings and his San Francisco harbor prints – collectively known as his San Francisco portfolio and it represented some of the finest work done in America in the early 20th Century. The Boston Evening Transcript characterized him as the “artist laureate of San Francisco.” John Taylor Arms, one of the leading lights of the etching world and a very fine etcher himself, said of Winkler – “he is the master of line” and “he is the master of us all.” Bolton Brown ranked him on a par with Whistler, Hayden and Meryon. His prints sold briskly through his West Coast, middle America and East Coast representatives. He was at the pinnacle of his profession and enjoying the fruits of his labors.
Winkler was born in Vienna, Austria in 1894. He dropped out of school and emigrated to the United States in 1910. His goal was to see the American West and “meet Buffalo Bill.” He first moved to Giltner, Nebraska and shortly after that he was in San Francisco. When he enrolled at the San Francisco Institute of Art, he wanted to become a cartoonist. But he quickly embraced the more traditional art curriculum and was introduced to the art of etching – which became his overriding passion.
A fortuitous introduction to Bertha Jaques, the Secretary and Founder of the Chicago Society of Etchers, resulted in a fruitful mentor-mentee relationship. Jaques became his most enthusiastic and committed supporter. Her assistance – both with the technical aspects of etching and with introductions to the most influential people in world of prints – was a catalyst for his precipitous rise in the etching community.
In 1918, Winkler married Nora Crowe, the older sister of a classmate of his at the SFIA. Nora was the daughter of a wealthy Seattle shipbuilder and the recipient of an excellent education in the fine arts. She was also a very good violinist. From the start of their marriage, she assisted Winkler with the business aspects of his etching career.
In 1921 the Winklers moved to Paris. Like many artists of his era, he felt that a European experience would enhance his artistic skills and career. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a very bad decision. Shortly after his arrival in France, he contracted Typhoid Fever and spent several months recovering. He never really adapted to living in Europe (although he grew up in Austria) and the creative flame that had been burning so brightly in San Francisco was quashed. He started to suffer from depression and self-doubt and his production dropped off dramatically. (The depression and self-doubt would last for many years.). He did not produce an etching for over two years. One benefit of his Parisian experience is that he became good friends with John Taylor Arms and Arthur Heintzelman (another luminary in the etching world).
While he was in France, he did some wonderful pencil drawings of cathedrals. Eventually, he produced some etchings of Parisian artisans and scenes – but nothing like his inspired San Francisco works.
About the same time, Winkler made an equally bad decision. He decided not to participate in any more shows of the American etching societies. In effect, he shut off the best marketing venue for his work. The societies made his reputation and he ensured that he would not keep it.
Winkler accepted a commission to produce etchings of English scenes in 1925. The idea was that he would produce the same types of etchings that worked so well for his Chinatown series for the picturesque Thames River. But, once again, the light flickered. He did not make one etching in his first year and did not have a plate in production until 1928. Nora left for the United States in 1926.
Two letters found in the Bertha Jaques papers in the James Swann Archives at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art give us some insight into the situation. The first is from Nora Winkler, who is back in Berkeley, to Bertha Jaques dated May 9,1927.
“Dear Mrs. Jaques – Yes, John received the hundred dollars and I’m surprised that you have not heard from him. Surely he must have acknowledged it. If not, he did not deserve to receive it. To be sure he has been in a dreadful state of mind this past winter but things will go better now as he will get to London next month. I regret, however, that you have been put to so much inconvenience and I assure you that I appreciate all that you have done for us more than I can tell you. Affectionately yours, Nora Winkler”
Actually, he had been in a “dreadful state of mind” for quite some time – which surely was one of the reasons Nora had returned to the United States. The second letter is from Winkler to Bertha Jaques dated July 19, 1927. Winkler was living in France. The letter is a three-page rambling account of his art activity. In it he says that he has: 1. taken out parts of the plates on four of his most popular etchings but did not have the time to etch things in again; 2. had printed his etching Delicatessen Maker in five different ink colors on a dozen different papers; 3. decided that he was only going to sell some of his San Francisco portfolio etchings in sets and if they would not sell “donate them to libraries and museums”; 4. withdrew all of his etchings from his two largest US dealers – Keppel and Doll Richard and 5. was getting ready to embark on a trip to Joigny (a small town in France). He closed the letter by saying that he had 3 more letters to write that night. (Three days later, after returning from Joigny, he realized he had not mailed the letter and sent it to Jaques on the 30th of July.)
In a short period of frenzied activity Winkler had made a number of career changing decisions – all of them bad. He did say that he had a “wonderful time in Joigny.
Eventually, the Thames River commission did result in some interesting etchings. Here are two of them:
When Winkler returned to San Francisco in 1928, it was a different world. The vibrancy of Chinatown and the Bay were gone. Plus he was still in his “dreadful state of mind” and had an aversion to etching. He tried to make some income by reissuing his old plates.
But the Great Depression hit in 1929 and within a short period of time, the market for etchings was almost non-existent. As we have seen, many etchers of this period went into some other line of work. Some became teachers. Others went into book illustration. Others found unrelated occupations and did etching as an avocation. Winkler continued to be an artist – and an artist only. In 1932, he and Nora separated. By 1935 he became a caretaker for an aging mansion at 1049 Keith Avenue in Berkeley. He was a recluse known for two things – an aversion to being around people and having strange pets including skunks and, believe it or not, a Gila monster named Montezuma.
But Winkler also had the good fortune of meeting a very remarkable woman by the name of Elizabeth Ginno. Elizabeth had grown up in Berkeley and attended two private schools there. She received a scholarship to Mills College and majored in art and drama. She married Carol Aronovici and had two children, John and Carol. She was the co-founder of Stagecraft Studios. The marriage ended in divorce in 1933.
Through a series of circumstances Elizabeth was introduced to Winkler and agreed to help him make some order out of his chaotic existence in exchange for art lessons. Somehow she balanced the responsibilities of raising two children with a commitment to Winkler’s well-being. She was also able to understand that despite the chaos of his personal life, Winkler was an engaging, humorous, caring, talented and interesting person. There was a good man inside the facade.
And there was also a good etcher (and lithographer) in Elizabeth. She learned the basics of drawing and etching from Winkler, but also learned painting and lithography in classes at California College of Arts and Crafts, the San Francisco Institute of Art and UC Berkeley. She had a talent for design and a good sense of humor – both evident in her art. In the mid-1930’s she did a set of 30 hand-colored flower etchings. In the late 1930’s she did paintings, drawings and pastels for the National Park Service as a part of the WPA museum project at Berkeley. During the Golden Gate International Exposition (World’s Fair) of 1939-40 she demonstrated etching at the Fine Arts Palace. She also did a superb set of 50 drawings in pen and ink and watercolor of typical native dress from the countries represented at the Exposition (and some that could not be represented because they were occupied by Nazi Germany).
John Winkler and Nora were divorced in 1948 – over 20 years since they separated. Elizabeth and “Winks” married in 1949.
This article from the Berkeley Daily Gazette does an excellent job of summarizing Elizabeth’s art career. Even though I was not able to determine a date for the article, I believe it was published in 1953 or 1954.
In 1955 she accepted the position of President and Secretary of the California Society of Etchers. She held the position for 15 years and was instrumental in the merger of the California Society of Etchers and the Bay Printmakers Society into the California Society of Printmakers – the oldest continuously operating printmaking society in the United States.
In the mid-1930’s one of her main missions was encouraging Winks to return to his active etching production. Through her encouragement and that of others including John Taylor Arms, Winkler re-engaged in active work on new etchings. His major focus was Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. During this period he was very productive and created many of my favorite Winkler etchings. He visited the wharf on a daily basis and etched “en plein air”. For five years he was as much a part of the activity on the wharf as the fishermen themselves.
There was another very important development in Winks’ life in the mid-1930’s. He found California’s magnificent Sierra Nevada mountains. He became a constant visitor, so much so that “he often said it was the only place where a human being could be truly alive.” As an off-shoot of his love for the Sierra Nevada, he started making wooden boxes from hardwood pieces that he found on his trips. These boxes – and not his etching – became his consuming artistic passion for many years. Eventually, he created 230 boxes – each one elaborately carved and shaped. All incorporate extensive inlay. Dave Bohn describes them: “As a body of work, as an extraordinary statement of love and participation with subject matter, the boxes are every square millimeter the equivalent of the etchings and not a whit short of that.” As we shall see, Winks also created many drawings of his Sierra Nevada trees and landscape.
(Much of the above information about the life of John Winkler is from the excellent biography – Master of Line: John W. Winkler – American Etcher by Mary Millman and Dave Bohn. Published by Capra Press, 1994.
All images used in this blog post are from prints in the author’s personal collection and are reproduced here for educational purposes only.)
And now we come to the most interesting part of this blog post. A few years ago I purchased a collection of Winkler Christmas cards on eBay. The eBay seller had purchased the collection at a liquidation sale of a San Francisco rare book dealer. It appears to be not just a collection – but the collection – of Christmas cards from John and Elizabeth Ginno Winkler. I say that because of the cover of the collection portfolio. It has his very distinctive “J. W. W.” initials in his unmistakable hand written in pen at the top.
There is a gap in the collection between 1938 and 1948. Either Winks did not create any Christmas cards or they were not included in the collection. However, there are a series of cards created by Elizabeth during this period.
In 1950 Winkler decided that his Christmas cards would feature a battle for the world between Demons and Cherubs – good and evil. For the next nine years he produced cards with some new development in this conflict. There could be some deeper meaning expressed in the cards – the Cold War perhaps. Or it could just be Winks’ way of providing interest and humor to the exchanging Christmas cards custom. Whatever the purpose – these cards present a fascinating series.
By the late 1960’s artistic tastes started to change again. Representational black and white etchings were increasing in popularity. Winks had the good fortune of being one of the few artists from the etching revival period (1910-1928) to live long enough to be able to benefit from this shift. His friends from the early days like John Taylor Arms had passed away years before (Arms died in 1953). In effect, Winks was one of the last etchers standing.
In 1971 his friends and supporters organized a one man show for him. He approached this opportunity with renewed vigor. Many prints were pulled from his old plates – some of which he reworked for this purpose. He also completed many etching plates that had been stored, unfinished, in his studio. The result was that over 40 new pieces were ready for his artistic reintroduction. That event took place in San Francisco in November of 1971. Here is a copy of the preview reception invitation.
The show presented a wide range of Winkler’s work from the early Chinatown series to his work on Fisherman’s Wharf. Thirty three etchings were featured with an additional portfolio of prints from his London and Paris scenes.
The Winkler show was a success with good crowds and significant sales. The first sale was to the Winkler’s Christmas card friend – Elsa Gerstel. She bought a print of “Ross Alley” from the Chinatown series.
The Powell Street show created so much momentum that additional shows followed in 1972, 1973 and 1974. Also, in 1974 a major retrospective was held at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.
Interest in Winks and his work continued to grow. It is said that the 1970’s were some of the happiest of his life. His art was being recognized. He was still active but not driven. He had time to enjoy his many friends and they had the time to enjoy his somewhat mischievous sense of humor. By 1979 a major one-man exhibition was scheduled for him at the Brooklyn Museum. The show was held in April. Unfortunately he was not able to attend. He passed away in January of 1979.