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Behind the Scenes: The Artists Who Worked for Currier & Ives

June 10, 2008 - January 18, 2009


Behind the Scenes: The Artists Who Worked for Currier & Ives is on view through January 18, 2009,at the Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, Massachusetts. The exhibition is on view in the museum's Lenore B. and Sidney A. Alpert Currier & Ives Gallery, the country's only permanent museum gallery devoted to the work of these well-known "printmakers to the people." (right: "The Old Homestead," Undated. Currier & Ives lithograph designed by Fanny Palmer)

When Nathaniel Currier opened a printing business in New York City in 1834, little did he know that his images and those created later with James Merritt Ives were going to play an important role in shaping the identity of a nation.  In 1835, Currier created a sensation with his lithograph illustrating the great fire that swept through New York City's business district.  In only four days, the young lithographer printed thousands of copies attempting to satisfy the public demand to see Ruins of the Merchants' Exchange N.Y. after the Destructive Conflagration of Decbr. 16 & 17, 1835.  Realizing the American public's thirst for images and the news, Currier created several more disaster prints and other inexpensive lithographs illustrating local and national happenings.  His reputation as an accomplished lithographer soon followed.  Currier had several business partners over the years, but it was James Merritt Ives who encouraged the production of prints that are now primarily identified with the firm -- pictures of the daily experiences and pleasures of everyday American life.

Currier & Ives produced "cheap and popular prints" that were hung on the walls of America's homes, stores, barbershops, firehouses, barrooms and barns. The prints depicted bucolic scenes, objects, portraits, symbols and events and permeated American culture by mirroring the anxieties and aspirations of the time. Because of Currier & Ives, mid-nineteenth-century America was better pictured than any other time and place in history before the widespread use of photography.

The company was the leading source of popular art that was inspired both by well-known artists and lesser-known artists who worked for Currier & Ives. Currier & Ives employed a stable of staff artists called "delineators" who received fifteen to eighteen dollars a week in 1840, as compensation. These artists drew images or copied the drawings of freelance artists who worked independently. Often the factory artists would revise the work of freelancers and the images would be printed in the modified state. Copies of prints at various stages of production have been found, with notes penciled in the margins calling for changes to the original sketch. Often prints were made up of composite images fashioned by different artists. For example, an artist might complete a rural landscape and then Currier & Ives would enlist the talents of another artist to add human figures and livestock to the scene. John Cameron, the chief lithographer for the firm, frequently altered the composition in order to fit it to the lithograph stone. (right: "Pigeon Shooting. Playing the Decoy," 1862. Currier & Ives lithograph after a work by A.F. Tait)

Among the many artists who worked for Currier & Ives, Frances (Fanny) Flora Palmer was one of the most well-known. She used her extensive talent not only to create designs but also to transfer then directly onto the lithographic stone for printing. Palmer designed many of the landscapes published by the firm. She often went out into the country and pencil sketched her observations so that she could incorporate what she saw into her works. Though many of her designs were unsigned, especially those on the small prints, she is known to have produced hundreds if not thousands of images during the thirty years she worked for Currier & Ives.

Most of the lettering on Currier & Ives prints was completed by artist J. Schultz. Hundreds of other craftspeople worked for the firm grinding stones, printing, hand-coloring, selling, and supplying images. Two additional artists of importance who submitted paintings or drawings to be made into lithographs were George Henry Durrie, the New England winter scene painter, and Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, the sporting and Western artist. Tait was an avid outdoorsman and hunter and often created wilderness scenes for Currier & Ives. He was especially intrigued with birds and created detailed studies of different species.

Occasionally Currier & Ives was inspired by the work of well-known artists. Among the best known were George Inness and Eastman Johnson, although they created a few prints for the firm. Additional artists associated with Currier & Ives, including J. E. Butterworth, John Cameron, Scott Leighton, Louis Maurer, Thomas Nast, Napoleon Sarony, John Trumbull, Thomas Worth and others and are on display in this exhibition.

Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy the following:

and this book by Walton Rawls:

The Great Book of Currier and Ives' America, By Walton Rawls, Published 1991, ISBN: 978-1-55859-229-2. (online book excerpt available from Abbeville Press) (right: catalogue front cover courtesy Abbeville Press)


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