Friday, October 12, 2012

Transmitting Our Story, Print by Print

Season’s greetings often carried their art. People recognized their tremendous contribution to American culture. They transmitted images of everyday life before electronic communication, even railroads. They were 19th century businessmen with a vision: they were Currier & Ives, printmakers.

Currier & Ives, Printmakers to the American People, by Harry T. Peters. Doubleday Doran and Company, Inc., 1942

Harry Peters’s details about the firm and its artists provided the expected historical facts, but also imparted a sentimental tone, published as it was in the early 1940s. Peters capitalized on the then surge of interest in a long-ago America when the country was a great deal less complicated and its people far more innocent than they had become by the middle of the next century.

In the introductory chapter, Peters writes: “In 1834, when Nathaniel Currier formed his first partnership, Andrew Jackson was President, the South was a slaveholding oligarchy, Texas still belonged to Mexico, the Great West was a wilderness, and the industrial revolution had yet to penetrate what was still an agricultural nation. In 1888, when Currier died, he left a country spanned from coast to coast by railroads…"

Another book on the prints of Currier & Ives features maritime subjects exclusively. It’s written by Felix Riesenberg who is these days viewed as a maritime historian with literary flair. The writer himself contributes much to maritime lore as each entry in the catalog of images is rich with detail about the ships.

Illustration of The MISSISSIPPI, a paddle-wheel steamboat: “The MISSISSIPPI in a typhoon”, as seen in Currier & Ives Prints No. 4 by Felix Riesenberg London: The Studio Publications Limited and New York: The Studio Publications, Inc., 1933.

The dots and splotches on this image represent foxing, a term that refers to substances in the printing ink that break down over time and migrate as rust-colored discoloration. Since this book is almost 80 years old, the deterioration is typical for early to mid-twentieth century paper, and also for much older books. The surface of the prints, all on coated stock and pasted onto each page, are not subject to decay because coated paper has been treated to have a hard surface. In the case of this book, text is printed on pages that back the illustrations, thus the splotching “walks” all over the text pages as well as the illustrations.

First of the prints offered in this slim volume, this one sets precedent for scenes of action or destruction on rivers and seas. In this scene, the steam frigate MISSISSIPPI barely acknowledges gigantic waves though they enfold the vessel in their fury, and plows through on a mission to a port in Japan. According to the author, the ship is illustrated with remarkable accuracy regarding fittings and structures. Storms notwithstanding, the ship circumnavigated the globe two times, having served as flagship for Commodore Matthew C. Perry for his travel to Japan, in the Mexican War; later the frigate served in the Civil War, and gallantly sank under fire in the river which was her namesake.

These illustrations informed the public at a time when photography had been invented but generally was not available for action shots such as this heady image relates. As the following 24 images attest, early steam-propelled vessels encountered major challenges, such as fire. Illustrations portrayed the moment of conflagration as realistically as could be imagined. And fire, however ruinous in the end, did not obliterate the view of a ship as it was portrayed faithfully, historically correct in every detail. Sort of like a well-directed movie, the life of a vessel is concatenated to one instance, one portrait, with all of its back-story that can be read again and again while appreciating in value.

Image of print, "The Fireman", from Currier & Ives, Printmakers to the American People.

See another commentary, Behind the Scenes the Artists who worked for Currier & Ives.

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