John Baptist Jackson has received little recognition as an artist. This is not surprising if we remember that originality in a woodcutter was not considered a virtue until quite recently. We can now see that he was more important than earlier critics had realized. He was the most adventurous and ambitious of earlier woodcutters and a trailblazer in turning his art resolutely in the direction of polychrome.
To 19th century writers on art, from whom we have inherited the bulk of standard catalogs, lexicons, and histories—along with their judgments—Jackson's work seemed less a break with tradition than a corruption of it. His chiaroscuro woodcuts (prints from a succession of woodblocks composing a single subject in monochrome light and shade) were invariably compared with those of the 16th century Italians and were usually found wanting. The exasperated tone of many critics may have been the result of an uneasy feeling that he was being judged by the wrong standards. The purpose of this monograph, aside from providing the first full-length study of Jackson and his prints, is to examine these standards. The traditions of the woodcut and the color print will therefore receive more attention than might be expected, but I feel that such treatment is essential if we are to appreciate Jackson's contribution, in which technical innovation is a major element.
Short accounts of Jackson have appeared in almost all standard dictionaries of painters and engravers and in numerous historical surveys, but these have been based upon meager evidence. A fraction of his work was usually known and details of his life were, and still are, sparse. Later writers interpreting the comments of their predecessors have repeated as fact much that was conjecture. The picture of Jackson that has come down to us, therefore, is unclear and fragmentary.