This post comes to us from Jan Czepiel, curatorial volunteer at the NBMAA.
It was around the holidays that I first heard of Currier & Ives prints. Introduced in 1936, calendars with Currier & Ives reproductions were part of the Travelers market branding efforts. As an employee of the Travelers Insurance Company – before all the mergers and spin-offs – my aunt received free calendars. I think she was quite an enthusiast and knew all the images ever printed, which prints were repeats, and looked for her favorites. When over time employees were limited to a fixed number, she doled them out only to “those who would appreciate them.”
In reading about the history of Currier & Ives lithographs, it became clear that their creation was a commercial endeavor first and foremost. Invented in 1795 by Alois Senefelder, lithography did not reach America until 1819. At the age of fifteen, Nathaniel Currier (1813-1888) became an apprentice at the first commercially successful lithography shop owned by William S. & John Pendleton in Boston. Currier realized the groundbreaking potential, and in 1834 at the age of twenty-two, he established his own printing company.
After selling thousands of prints depicting the terrible fire in New York City’s business district in 1835, he understood that there was a market for current news; a thirst to see more disasters, and local and national events. When the New York Sun produced its Sun Extra edition with Currier’s dramatic image of the “Awful Configuration of the Steam Boat Lexington in Long Island Sound on Monday/ Eve’ Jan. 13th 1840, by which Melancholy Occurrence over 100 Persons Perished”, he gained a national reputation and an increased number of sales agents and peddlers in other cities.
In 1852, James Ives (1824-1895) joined Currier as a bookkeeper, and five years later became a full partner. He was a self-taught artist and lithographer who also had a keen sense of popular tastes and what was salable. Reducing the amount of job printing, they now started creating and marketing their own designs of inexpensive, decorative pictures for the American public.
The Currier & Ives shop had floors of artists, lithographers, letterers, stone grinders, and trained colorists. Many prints were unsigned, as it was believed that most consumers were not interested in the artist’s name or their artistic development. Most appreciated was the inherent appeal of the prints’ subject and workmanship. While the quality varied greatly among the over 7,500 different images, the firm employed many talented artists in order to produce fine prints, a tactic believed to bring them commercial success.
For commissioned jobs, the approach differed. The firm sought out well-known artists, such as Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, Louis Mauer, and Fanny Palmer – each having a general specialty. In other instances, they reproduced works of artists such as George Henry Durrie and George Catlin. However, overall, they saw themselves primarily as a commercial enterprise. Their catalog of prints advertised Currier & Ives as “Publishers of Cheap and Popular Pictures” – wholesale 6¢ each; $6 for 100, $60 for 1,000. It is estimated that 10 million prints of 7,500 images were made.
Currier & Ives images captured a whole range of subject matter from American society: country farming, family life, sporting events, outdoor scenes, railroad expansion, westward expansion, and many others. With an eye for marketability, the firm often produced pictures that were composed and idyllic.
Some art critics have compared the Currier & Ives images to Norman Rockwell (1894- 1978) cover illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post. Critics in Rockwell’s time acknowledged his expert technique, yet they did not consider Rockwell a serious artist as his work was viewed as an idealistic and sentimental reflection of American life, intended for the enjoyment within the mass market.
Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) and Hermann Broch (1886 – 1951), 20th century art critics, contended that commercial art, which appeals to mass tastes and is easy to market, was not a true art form. In his essay “Avant-garde and Kitsch,” Greenberg argued that art should “keep culture moving,” not be a “rear-guard.” According to Greenberg, while its style may have changed over time, commercial art neither challenged the culture nor uncovered the complexities of life. Such works were claimed to be “parts of the same culture and products of the same society” and they remained just easy to consume.
Is this critique of art applicable today? Or is it historical perspective that allows us to see other aspects of commercial work or appreciate its artistic qualities? How clear is the divide between “fine” and “commercial” art? When museums first began exhibiting contemporary fashion designers, there was an outcry. Now less than twenty years later, such exhibitions have been embraced by even the most conservative of institutions.Thomas Kinkade’s paintings, which are said to be owned by millions of people, are not exhibited today. Will they be in 100 years? What other commercial work should be considered or collected today?
Do not miss the exhibition Currier & Ives: Impressions of America currently on view in the Low Illustration Gallery until April 8, 2012. The selection of 21 prints, on loan to the Museum from Dr. Dorrance Kelly of West Redding, CT, represents the best of Currier & Ives’ oeuvre. A reception is planned for Sunday, January 8, 2012 from 1-2:30 p.m. with remarks at 1:30 p.m. by Robert K. Newman, Director of The Old Print Shop in New York, one of America’ oldest galleries.