James E. Allen (1894-1964) was an important American printmaker famous for his etchings and lithographs that documented the American worker and the American industry of the 1930s. He was born in Louisiana, MO, and raised in Montana, but left home in 1911 to study painting and drawing at the Art Institute of Chicago. Soon after, he headed for New York where he took classes at the Art Students’ League, the Grand Central School of Art, and the Hans Hoffman School. Ever the perfectionist, Allen studied illustration with Harvey Dunn and etching with Joseph Pennell and William Auerbach-Levy. He also worked with sculptor Naum M. Los to improve his sense of 3-dimensional form, and spent almost seven years experimenting with copper and acid before allowing his prints to be exhibited.
With the advent of World War I, Allen was an established illustrator, working as a staff artist for Doubleday-Page Publishing Company. He also produced illustrations for publications such as Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post, but left when the war broke out in earnest to volunteer his services as a fighter pilot. In 1925 he moved to Paris where he met Howard Cook. The two artists shared a studio and began to experiment with a variety of printmaking techniques. Allen systematically absorbed the teachings of his “graphic heroes” Kasimir Malevich and Paul Cezanne. He admired the work of the Cubists and George Rouault, but he continued to search for economy of line and careful orchestration of tone in his own work. Unlike many artists of the time, Allen always worked directly from the model, executing exhaustive life-size charcoal studies for all of his prints.
During The Great Depression, Allen returned to New York, working consistently in the field of commercial art. His etchings and lithographs began to receive widespread academic and critical acclaim around 1932 when his etching “The Builders” garnered both a Shaw Prize from New York’s Salmagundi Club and a Henry B. Shope Award from the Society of American Etchers. A year later, “Brazilian Builders” took a Charles M. Lea Award at the Philadelphia Print Club Exhibition (at the same exhibition Howard Cook, George Burr, and Ernest Roth all received an “Honorable Mention” for their submissions). Allen also began exhibiting his work in galleries during the 1930s, including at Kennedy and Company and the Grand Central Art Gallery. He later exhibited and acted as a juror for exhibitions at the Society of American Etchers.
Mary Ryan Gallery published a monograph, with an introduction by David Kiehl, in conjunction with a solo exhibition of Allen’s prints in 1984.