The first impression is that the American popular culture started developing from the first decades of the 20th century onward, supported by the technological advancement and the emergence of new media such as photography and cinema. A closer look at history indicates that the first impulses of what later became popular culture as we know it are to be found several decades earlier.
The medium which allowed wider audiences of lower classes to enjoy art was print. During the Victorian era, the American society was thrilled with cheap prints that quickly took over. Alongside individual artists, there was Currier and Ives, a company that seized the moment as their prints became the most desirable items on the market.
Through their idealized images of the American everyday, people were able to dream about the sweet tomorrow or contemplate the glorious past while the national myth was in creation. These well-equipped lithographs portrayed the western expansion, economic development, the Civil War, as well as racial and class stereotypes and current events in favor of American statehood and moral values.
To revisit this astonishing production and analyze the influence it made on society, Joslyn Art Museum, one of the largest public collections of these images, decided to organize an all-encompassing exhibition under the title Revisiting America: The Prints of Currier & Ives.
Currier and Ives operated in New York City from 1835 to 1907 was initially founded by Nathaniel Currier, who was later joined by his partner James Merritt Ives. They gained fame for producing black and white lithographs after paintings by fine artists. The lithographic prints were hand-colored, quickly reproduced, and sold after prices affordable to different classes. The company called itself the Grand Central Depot for Cheap and Popular Prints and marketed its lithographs as colored engravings for the people.
In 1857 Currier offered the partnership to the company's bookkeeper and accountant James Merritt Ives (1824–95), and the same year the firm was named Currier & Ives. The two men were connected via family, and after Nathaniel encountered Ives's dedication and his artistic knowledge, he appointed him the general manager of the firm; thanks to his efforts, the firm modernized in the terms of bookkeeping, streamlining the print process, and reorganizing inventory. Ives also helped Currier to select potential artists and insisted on including political satire and sentimental scenes to expand the range of interests.
Throughout the 72 years of its existence, Currier & Ives published around 7,500 lithographs, as the artists produced two to three new images every week. The company used to employ or use artworks made by numerous established artists at the time such as George Inness, James. E. Buttersworth, Thomas Nast, Eastman Johnson, and others. Among the best-selling works were winter scenes by George H. Durrie, the sporting scenes by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, and picturesque panoramas of the American landscape by Frances Bond Palmer, the first fully independent female artist in the United States.
All lithographs were executed on lithographic limestone plates by hand. The earliest examples were printed in black and then hand-colored by employed women who were often German immigrants with an art background. Large artworks were sold for $1 to $3 apiece, while smaller ones were sold for five to twenty cents each. The Currier & Ives prints were adored by the 19th-century audience and were considered a desired commodity in every household.
After Currier’s death in 1888, Ives remained in the business until he himself died in 1895. The sons of both co-owners continued the family business until 1907, when the company was eventually liquidated. The public interest in lithographs ceased to exist due to the technological improvements in photoengraving and offset printing.
The popular prints featured different depictions of American life, including pictures of ships, horse-racing and other sports events, winter scenes, the building of cities and railroads, portraits of people, as well as historical events, including battles of the American Civil War. Interestingly so, to follow up the racist sentiment of American society, Currier and Ives produced different disputable prints such as the Darktown Comics series which offensively featured Afro-Americans.
The original lithographs were similar in inking and paper, and the sizes of the images were standard, although their measurement did not include the borders or title. Depending on the folio size, Currier initially used the medium to heavyweight paper for his prints until the late 1860s, and then from the 1870s Currier & Ives used paper mixed with a small amount of wood pulp.
The upcoming exhibition at Joslyn Art Museum will cast a new light on the company’s intriguing production and artistic endeavors it promoted, and will certainly underline the way the largest nineteenth-century printmaking company in America penetrated the nation’s social, political, and economic sphere.
Through five thematic sections, the visitors will get the chance to understand the novelty Currier & Ives introduced in terms of very modern approaches to visualizing both the rural and an emerging urban and industrial ideal.
Revisiting America: The Prints of Currier & Ives will be on display at Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha from 21 November 2020 until 11 April 2021, and then it will travel to six museums across the country.
Editors’ Tip: Revisiting America: The Prints of Currier & Ives
Currier & Ives was a powerhouse of 19th-century publishing and had an immeasurable influence on American visual culture. Founded in New York in 1834 by Nathaniel Currier, the company expanded to include a new partner, James Merritt Ives, after 1857. Currier & Ives produced millions of affordably priced copies of over 7,000 original lithographs, living up to its self-appointed title as “The Grand Central Depot for Cheap and Popular Prints.” The firm took advantage of New York City’s booming arts culture in the latter half of the 19th century, but its output was not seen as fine art by critics, nor was it intended as such. Its prints were first and foremost commodities; the choice subjects often determined by popularity and sales figures.
Featured image: James E. Butterworth (American, born England, 1817–1894) - Clipper Ship "Flying Cloud," 1852. Lithograph. Collection of Joslyn Art Museum (Omaha, NE), Gift of Conagra Brands. All images courtesy Joslyn Art Museum.