Chance Encounters: Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Print Enthusiast

Although I’m risk averse in most things, I’m a gambler when it comes to choosing my pleasure reading. One of my ongoing sources of literary surprises is the Free Little Library boxes that have sprouted all over my community, stocked alluringly with books my neighbors are ready to pass along. The joys of discovering an author or subject I might never have otherwise sampled are multiplied when such chance encounters lead me right back to the Library’s picture collections.

Justice Oliver W. Holmes. Photo by Harris & Ewing, between 1905 and 1935. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.16410

Justice Oliver W. Holmes. Photo by Harris & Ewing, between 1905 and 1935. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.16410

Thomas Healy’s The Great Dissent (New York: Picador, 2013), offered just such a homecoming. Healy lays out the sequence of events in 1918 and 1919 that changed the thinking of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., regarding issues of free speech. It wasn’t an easy time, and the stresses and strains Holmes endured in those years are palpable in the correspondence Healy quotes. The pressures of work were compounded by worry about the flu epidemic that was raging in Washington, D.C. in Oct. 1918. In fact, the Supreme Court postponed oral arguments for a month to contain the spread of the illness. How did Justice Holmes keep himself occupied while the court stayed out of session? He caught up on correspondence, read a biography of Abraham Lincoln, and—seemingly the best stress reliever of all—made a visit to the Library of Congress print collection.

The Library was also closed because of the flu but, Healy recounts, “Holmes was given permission to browse through the collection. A pretty young lady waited on him—a granddaughter or niece of the Civil War general George Meade, he thought. She fetched the portfolios he requested, then sat with him as he turned over their contents” (p. 50).

Holmes was an avid print collector himself. Healy notes that earlier in the year, when news of the war in Europe was grim, Holmes brightened his days by spending Saturday afternoons at a gallery across from the British embassy, where he bought a few small prints—two van Dycks, a Rembrandt, and a Whistler that “he passed off as a Christmas gift for Fanny,” his wife (p. 12). Healy also recounts how friends reproached Holmes for spending several hundred dollars that could have gone to war bonds, spurring him to defend the importance of philosophy and art in times of war. During a holiday break at the end of 1918, he splurged on a print by Adriaen van Ostade, depicting a peasant family saying grace over a bowl of porridge that conveyed “piety…so simple, so unconscious, so immediately sympathetic. I mean you don’t feel that Ostade was seeing himself sympathize.” (p. 78)

Viewing prints had restorative powers for Holmes, and he ensured that future generations of Library of Congress researchers could share that experience. In a 1935 bequest, Holmes gave about 500 prints to the nation that have been integrated into the Prints & Photographs collections. Imagine my delight in finding the van Ostade that so moved him among the fine prints that have been digitized, so that I could share it here!

Flemish family saying grace. Print by Adriaen van Ostade, 1653. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b20684

Flemish family saying grace. Print by Adriaen van Ostade, 1653. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b20684

The European, American, and Japanese prints that he contributed to the collections also include this early sixteenth-century print by German master, Albrecht Dürer, of St. Jerome in his study. Given Healy’s many descriptions of Holmes’s intensive writing sessions in his own study, I can’t help but think it appealed to his intellectual spirit, and it holds appeal to one of my profession, because Jerome is recognized as the patron saint of translators, librarians and encyclopedists.

St. Jerome in his study. Print by Albrecht Dürer, 1514. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3m00158

St. Jerome in his study. Print by Albrecht Dürer, 1514. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3m00158

I shared my appreciation for Justice Holmes as a print enthusiast with Katherine Blood, P&P’s Curator of Fine Prints, and she turned up some further insights on his passion. The Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress for 1935 observed that not only was Justice Holmes’ interest in the graphic arts “lifelong and inclusive” but he tried his hand at etching as a young man before becoming a lifelong collector (p. 273). Katherine was particularly delighted that his collecting included works by Japanese woodblock print master Tsukioka Yoshitoshi whose work she describes as “marvelously inventive, sometimes wild, and can be seen as foreshadowing elements of contemporary anime.” On the occasion of Justice Holmes’s 91st birthday, a Baltimore Sun article (March 9, 1932) featured his poetic observation, quite expressive of how art and philosophy informed his world view: “Life seems to me like a Japanese picture which our imagination does not allow to end with the margin. We aim at the infinite and when our arrow falls to earth it is in flames.”

This print from his bequest perhaps expresses not only his appreciation for the importance of art in our lives, but how that appreciation gets carried through the generations.

E o narau kodomo tachi (Children in a painting class). Print by Kuniyoshi, Utagawa, between 1830 and 1848. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/jpd.01925

E o narau kodomo tachi (Children in a painting class). Print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, between 1830 and 1848. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/jpd.01925

Do you need a break from everyday stresses and strains?  Would you like to settle outside a 17th century cottage, observe an 18th century Japanese rice planting festival, or witness the amazing feats of 20th century superheroes in original drawings for comic books? Visit our collections online, or come into the reading room to experience art firsthand. Anyone 16 or older who has a Library of Congress  Reader Identification card can request to view materials in the reading room (as some materials are stored off site or require special handling, contacting us in advance is a good idea if you have specific items in mind).

Our quarters and service routines have changed a bit since Justice Holmes’s time, but just as he found, our staff enjoys talking with researchers about the collections and comparing reactions to what we all see. As I’ve learned through my Little Library forays, chance encounters can add so many dimensions to our understanding and appreciation for history and art.

P&P staff members Anne Mitchell and Katherine Blood enjoy examining a print that may have come from the Holmes bequest--we're in the process of confirming! Enchu no tsuki (Moon through the smoke of a blaze) by Yoshitoshi, 1886. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/jpd.01534

P&P staff members Anne Mitchell and Katherine Blood enjoy examining a print that may have been part of the Holmes bequest–we’re still confirming! Enchu no tsuki (Moon through the smoke of a blaze) by Yoshitoshi, 1886. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/jpd.01534

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Photo by National Photo Company, ca. 1924. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.26411

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Photo by National Photo Company, ca. 1924. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.26411

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