Leonard Baskin was born August 15, 1922, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. At the age of seven, Baskin moved with his family to Brooklyn, New York, where Baskin attended yeshiva and spent the remainder of his childhood. Baskin showed interest in art at an early age, participating in his first art exhibition in 1939 at the Glickman Studio Gallery in Manhattan. The show featured Baskin’s sculptures.
Between 1941 and 1943, Baskin attended Yale University on scholarship. His encounter with the work of William Blake inspired Baskin to begin his own printing press, which he did in 1942. He named it Gehenna Press after the line in John Milton’s "Paradise Lost," which reads “And black Gehenna call’d, the type of Hell.” Fittingly, as J.P. Dwyer noted in "A Bibliography of the Gehenna Press, 1942-1975" (1976), many of Gehenna’s early pressmarks, such as the pomegranate and the owl, represent images associated with hell.
Baskin left Yale to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He married Esther Tane in 1946 and received his B.A. in 1949 from The New School of Research in New York. He studied art in Florence and Paris in 1950 before moving to Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1951. Baskin taught at the Worcester Art Museum from 1951 to 1953 before joining the faculty at Smith College, where he taught art until 1974.
1n 1955, Baskin established Gehenna Press headquarters in Northampton, Mass., and entered into a partnership with Richard Warren, who managed Metcalf Printing Company. Later, he hired Harold McGrath to work full-time as a Gehenna pressman. Despite the extra resources and manpower, Gehenna Press remained devoted to publishing high-quality, artistic books with elegant printing and binding. Trademarks of Gehenna Press books include the use of a wide variety of rare paper and ornaments to indicate new paragraphs. Several Gehenna Press books contain textured paper handmade in France in 1905.
Baskin divorced Esther in 1967 and married Lisa Unger. In 1974, the couple moved to Devon, England, in part so Baskin could be closer to friend and poet Ted Hughes, with whom he collaborated on several works, including "A Primer of Birds," printed by Gehenna Press in 1981. In 1983, Baskin left England, moved to Leeds, Massachusetts, and took a job at Hampshire College, where he taught until 1993.
In addition to his prints, Baskin earned several awards and recognition for his woodcarvings and sculpture. In 1991, Baskin was commissioned to construct a 30-foot bas-relief of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s funeral procession as part of the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. Four years later, he received the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.
Throughout his career, Baskin’s art dealt mainly with religious themes, human nature, mythology, and animals. One of his last exhibitions, “Angels to the Jews,” featured a bronze sculpture and 20 paintings of angels completed by Baskin in 1991.
Baskin died in 2000 at age 77.