Invented in 1840 as prepayment for postage in 1840, the postage stamp was the first utilization, on a truly mass scale, of printed artworks. Acting as visual signifiers pertaining to the country of origin, leaders, lands, ideas, ideals, and religions, the postage stamp captured and reflected the spirit of people.
Throughout history, hundreds of paintings, photographs, busts and sculptures by prominent artists have been featured on American postage stamps. Miniature works of art, postage stamps depicting fine art have become another looking glass into this country and its many themes. Designers face a unique challenge when reproducing American art on postage stamps. Although using some of this nation’s greatest works to honor important American themes, but they only have a postage-stamp-sized space within which they can work.
Here are 13 amazing examples of American art featured on postage stamps.
Featured image: Isamu Noguchi Stamps. Images via usstampgallery.com.
In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt formulated The Four Freedoms, identifying them as freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Norman Rockwell, an American painter and illustrator known for his popular depictions of American culture, reinterpreted The Four Freedoms for The Saturday Evening Post in 1943 alongside, which appeared alongside essays by famous thinkers of the day. In later years, the paintings toured the country, raising more than $132 million in war bond sales.
In 1994, Rockwell was honored with a series of 50 cent stamps that reproduced his drawings of The Four Freedoms and his Triple Self-Portrait which was a 1960 Saturday Evening Post cover.
A renowned American artist, Alexander Calder is best known for his Mobiles, which evolved from simple kinetic sculptures powered only by slight air currents into more complex constructions that involved small motors. Moving then in a different direction, he turned to heavy constructions of sheet metal. His work also included jewelry, graphic arts, stage designs, and book illustrations.
The artist was commemorated in 1998 with a series of five stamps. These stamps reproduced his works Black Cascades, 13 Verticals from 1959, Untitled from 1965, Rearing Stallion from 1928, Portrait of a Young Manfrom 1945 and Un Effet du Paponais from 1945.
A commemorative issue of stamps dedicated to four centuries of American art included an expansive series of 20 stamps. It includes Portrait of Richard Mather by John Foster, Mrs. Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary by The Freake Limner, Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog by Ammi Philips, Rubens Peale with a Geranium by Rembrandt Peale, Long-billed Curlew, Numenius Longrostris by John James Audubon, Boatman on the Missouri by George Caleb Bingham, Kindred Spirits by Asher B. Durand, The Westwood Children by Joshua Johnson, Music and Literature by William Harnett, The Fog Warning by Winslow Homer, The White Cloud, Head Chief of the Iowas by George Catlin, Cliffs of Green River by Thomas Moran, The Last of the Buffalo by Alfred Bierstadt, Niagara by Frederic Edwin Church, Breakfast in Bed by Mary Cassatt, Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, American Gothic by Grant Wood, Two Against the White by Charles Sheeler, Two Against the White by Charles Sheeler, Mahoning by Franz Kline, and No. 12 by Mark Rothko.
One of the most gifted sculptors of the 20th century, Louise Nevelson introduced a new form of sculpture that consisted of carved, recycled, and painted wood objects arranged in boxes to create entire sculptural walls. The recurring themes in her work include her personal feelings about an unrooted childhood when she had to leave the Soviet Union and move to America, the clashing cultures and nature’s magnificence.
In 2000, the great sculptor was commemorated with a series of six stamps. Each of the stamps in this series is a photographic reproduction that shows a detail of a larger Nevelson sculpture - Silent Music I, Royal Tide I, Black Chord, Nightsphere-Light, and Dawn's Wedding Chapel I.
Issued in 2002, The Masters of American Photography series honors 20 of the country's most important and influential photographers. The series includes examples of portrait, documentary, landscape, and fine art photography, covering many major themes and events in US history - immigration, the Great Depression, and World War II. These compelling black and white stamp art images include reproductions of Blessed Art Thou Among Women by Gertrude Kasebier, The Octopus by Alvin Langdon Coburn, Lotus, Mount Kisco, New York by Edward Steichen, Hands and Thimble by Alfred Stieglitz, Rayograph by Man Ray, Two Shells by Edward Weston, Washroom and Dining Area of Floyd Burrouths' Home, Hale County Alabama by Walker Evans, Steeple by Paul Strand, Sand Dunes, Sunrise by Ansel Adams, Age and Its Symbols by Imogen Cunningham, and New York cityscale by Andre Kertesz, among others.
An American painter and printmaker, Mary Cassatt is known for works depicting the social and private lives of women, with particular emphasis on the intimate bonds between mothers and children. Through her vigorous, innovative style, she rendered her domestic subjects with a refreshingly unsentimental intimacy.
In 2003, the artist was commemorated with a series of four stamps. The works appearing in the stamps are Young Mother from 1888, Children Playing on the Beach from 1884, On a Balcony from 1878/79, and Child in a Straw Hat from circa 1886.
A son of a Japanese poet, Yone Noguchi and an American writer, Leonie Gilmore, Isamu Noguchi strived to expand the role of the sculptor throughout his career. He worked with an extremely imaginative range of materials, including wood, stone, marble, steel, bamboo, paper and even water, continuously expanding the scale of his works. In addition to sculpture, he also designed building interiors, courtyards and large-scale landscapes around the world.
The sculptor was commemorated with a series of four stamps depicting his famous works - Akari 25N, Black Sun, Mother and Child and Figure (detail).
In 2010, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 44-cent Abstract Expressionists souvenir sheet of 10 stamps. These ten works, which celebrate the abstract expressionist artists of the 20th century, were selected by Ethel Kessler and Jonathan Fineberg. This colorful pane of self-adhesive stamps features a frame made of elements from Barnett Newman's Achilles from 1952, with an arrangement suggesting paintings hanging on a gallery wall. The works are accompanied by selvage text and a quotation by Robert Motherwell.
Among works featured in the sheet are Asheville by Willem de Kooning, Orange and Yellow by Mark Rothko, Convergence by Jackson Pollock, The Liver is the Cock's Comb by Arshile Gorky, 1948-C by Clyfford Still, Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 34 by Robert Motherwell, and La Grande Vallée by Joan Mitchell, among others.
An artist of exceptional talent, Romare Bearden encompassed a broad range of intellectual and scholarly interests, including music, performing arts, history, literature and world art. Recognized as one of the most creative and original visual artists of the twentieth century, he experimented with many different mediums and artistic styles but is best known for his richly textured collages.
The 2011 commemorating series in his name featured four of his famous works.
On the occasion of the 100 years after the first Armory Show, a groundbreaking international exhibition which offered many a first look at modern art, the United States Postal Service presented a series of stamps dedicated to the Modern Art in America, between 1913 and 1931. These vivid stamps, which graced letters and packages sent to millions of households and businesses throughout the country, celebrate 12 influential American modern artists.
The selection includes Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp, Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico/Out Back of Marie’s II by Georgia O’Keeffe, Noire et Blanche by Man Ray, and Brooklyn Bridge by Joseph Stella, among others.
Andrew Wyeth, one of America's best-known Realist painters of the 20th century, is known for works imbued with the mysteriousness of the real world, thus challenging traditional notions of reality. Working primarily in watercolor and tempera instead of the more typical oil or acrylic, he rendered scenes of his everyday life in rural Pennsylvania and Maine, landscapes, and portraits with exacting detail.
On his birth centennial, the artist was commemorated with the issuance of 12 stamps highlighting his paintings. The stamp pane includes his iconic painting Christina’s World, alongside Frostbitten, Sailor’s Valentine, Soaring and Young Bull, among others.
One of the greatest 20th-century abstract artists emerging from the United States, Ellsworth Kelly blended pure forms and colors with the tendency to suppress gesture in favor of creating spatial unity within the composition. Among his greatest contributions to modern and contemporary art history are his efforts towards validating Abstraction as a genuine creative expression.
Issued in 2019, the stamp collection features 10 of his works - Yellow White (1961), Colors for a Large Wall (1951), Blue Red Rocker (1963), Spectrum I (1953), South Ferry (1956), Blue Green (1962), Orange Red Relief (for Delphine Seyrig) (1990), Meschers (1951), Red Blue (1964) and Gaza (1956).
The mesmerizing wire structures by the celebrated American artist Ruth Asawa are be featured on the US postage stamps. Among the images of her work on a total of 20 stamps in 2020 are details and full views of ten of her artworks, including the 1955 Untitled (S.055, Hanging Asymmetrical Nine Interlocking Bubbles), and Untitled (S.039, Hanging Five Spiraling Columns of Open Windows) from 1959. The release date of these postage stamps is yet to be announced.