Published: October 29, 2012
The political cartoon came into its own in America in the Nineteenth Century. Thanks to new and inexpensive ways of reproduction and distribution, the ascension of political parties and increased involvement of the public in campaigns and elections, politically related caricatures drew the attention of the public.
Leading the way was the most famous lithography firm in America, Currier & Ives (C&I), founded in New York by Nathaniel Currier in 1834. James Merritt Ives became a partner in the 1850s. Over the course of its 75-year history, a few of the firm’s lithographs on a myriad of nonpolitical subjects were reproduced from original paintings by such leading artists as James E. Buttersworth, George Henry Durrie, Eastman Johnson and Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait.
In reality, C&I was a decidedly commercial firm, “Publishers of Cheap and Popular Pictures,” and little concerned about producing artworks of high aesthetic value. “They were not aiming for a market that would be impressed by the names of artists,” observed premier C&I collector Harry T. Peters. “Their products had to sell themselves by the innate salability of their subject matter and the quality of the workmanship, without benefit of the sales help of snob appeal.” As a result, most prints bore no artist’s name. Many were executed by staff artists †like Louis Maurer and Fanny Palmer †or artists solicited to depict specific subjects or artists who daily came into the office and offered pictures for sale. This accounts for the uneven quality of the 9,000 prints the firm produced.
C&I employed its lithographic skills and successful marketing network to overcome its reputation for stilted, wordy cartoons to become a player on the domestic political scene. Drawn on stone and issued in separate sheets, their political cartoons were highly sought after nationwide.
The graphic humor involved in C&I’s pictures grew out of the British tradition of comedic art that began with master caricaturist William Hogarth and continued with George Cruikshank. Such humor on both sides of the Atlantic emphasized exaggeration †often in the form of popular symbols and slogans geared to a wide audience †of social, moral or political issues. Today, those symbols and slogans offer insights into the popular prejudices and opinions of their time.
Given the sensitivity of Americans to criticism of their institutions, culture and values, C&I’s political works tended to be at once earnest, virtuous †and focused. As Peters once wrote, “While not comparable to the masterly drawings of Daumier, Rowlandson, Gillray and Tenniel, these broadsheet lithographic cartoons do have a sincerity and wholesomeness, a simplicity of composition and a Daguerrean sureness of detail.”
C&I’s view of America was highly subjective, generally positive and urban in outlook, but it overlooked many developments in American society. “During a century known for massive industrialization, immigration, social strife, brutal racism, heightened poverty&⁰olitical corruption on a grand scale and unbridled urbanization, these realities as ‘issues’ were rarely, if ever, touched upon,” Steven Miller, executive director of the Morris Museum in Morristown, N.J., has written. “Presumably,” he continues, “the buying public wanted Currier & Ives to give them a cleaned up, celebratory, enjoyable, happy picture of America as it was in their imagination. That dream lingers today.”
While it is true that the firm knew its clientele and catered to their interests, and certainly accentuated the positive whenever it could, it did not shy away from giving visibility to tackier aspects of American public life. Politics, in its view, could be a noble profession dedicated to the public good, or it could attract scoundrels out to benefit themselves at the expense of others. Both aspects appear in C&I’s political pictures.
James Merritt Ives himself drew several early political cartoons, notably during the presidential campaigns of 1856 and 1860, but many were purchased from freelance artists like Thomas Nast. Some of the most compelling political satires were created by a C&I staffer, John Cameron, an unknown name today. Absent was David Gilmour Blythe, whose extravagant satires of life in America were likely deemed too potent for C&I’s public.
C&I produced politically oriented pictures for four decades, especially during the height of American sectionalism, 1856‱872, when major partisan figures and events dominated the national stage. Both Currier and Ives were Republicans but †for marketing purposes †tended to be even-handed in their choice of political cartoons, creating pictures giving all sides in major elections and issues a chance to be seen.
Playing it safe on controversial political issues, the firm early on deleted its name from cartoons about sensitive subjects, often adding “For sale at 2 Spruce Street.” Such political cartoons were published under the pseudonym “Peter Smith.”
Nevertheless, as Brian F. Le Beau notes in Currier & Ives: America Imagined , 2001, “Currier and Ives’ political cartoons were not appropriate for the Victorian parlor.” Advertised for bulk sale in the North, they hung in political party headquarters, union league clubs, Democratic clubs and partisan newspaper offices.
Showcasing its large collection of Currier & Ives prints, the gift of Lenore B. and Sidney A. Alpert, and timed for the presidential election season, the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts has organized the exhibition “Hail to the Chief: Power, Politics and Presidents Portrayed by Currier & Ives,” on view through January 20. It offers fascinating glimpses into the firm’s approach to public issues and insights into the drama of elections and political leaders of the past. Citing C&I’s “pivotal role in shaping the identity of the young nation,” Springfield museums director Heather Haskell notes that the firm “produced prints that celebrated the unique American experience and created a visual history that has become part of the fabric of national consciousness.”
While the firm was in business, the country experienced divisive clashes over slavery, four major wars, a changing political structure and a growing, urbanized and industrialized society. Astutely keeping up with the changing American political and social scene, the firm branded itself “printmakers to the people.” That moniker encouraged patriotism and positioned C&I as a major source of imagery documenting American political ideas, and challenges to and triumphs of the American way of life. “The main idea appears to have been to inform the people of the political crises and to make that report visually,” said Peters.
The exhibition underscores the fact that among the American heroes C&I glorified, the most frequently depicted were George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, they appeared together in such images as “Washington and Lincoln,” 1865, in which they stand before the eternal flame of liberty, with Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation †demonstrating how he saved the union and abolished slavery †and Washington gesturing in approval.
In addition to numerous pictures showing Washington as the gallant leader of the American Revolution, C&I produced prints of Washington’s inauguration as America’s first president and dreaming of attaining the nation’s freedom through battle. In “Spirit of the Union,” of 1860 †the eve of the Civil War †the first commander-in-chief stands surrounded by symbols encouraging harmony between North and South. In these and other cartoons around the outbreak of the Civil War, C&I invoked Washington’s status as Father of the Country to remind people of shared national beliefs.
Lincoln, who appeared in more than 70 prints, was introduced to the nation as president-elect in a somber, clean-shaven portrait in 1860 that suggested the newcomer to the national scene was prepared to confront the secession of the South. Other images on view include the president and his cabinet and Lincoln sitting informally with his wife and two sons. A high point of his administration, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 is recalled in a stiff but poignant print of an African American man kissing Lincoln’s hand as he stands on the broken shackles of slavery.
C&I published many political prints, rarely taking sides and often producing promotional lithographs for both sides in partisan races. On view is an 1848 lithograph for Whig presidential and vice presidential candidates Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, respectively, encouraging the nation to “Press Onward,” and a hand colored 1864 lithograph touting General George B. McClellan’s campaign of Peace! Union! and Victory! against President Abraham Lincoln.
In some political cartoons C&I left little doubt about its owners’ preferences. Conversational balloons, static figures and subtle caricatures characterized such images. “The Man of Words, The Man of Deeds. Which Do You Think the Country Needs?,” 1868, clearly supports General Ulysses S. Grant, hero of the Civil War, over his presidential opponent, former New York Governor Horatio Seymour, who had stirred bloody draft riots during the conflict. Four years later, Grant, the incumbent president beset with financial and ethical crises, was shown holding a large cake and exhorting an unruly group around him, “Let us have peace,” while they reach for the cake, demanding, “Let us have a piece.”
C&I immortalized the Founding Fathers and other American heroes in more than 600 portraits. Among likenesses in the Springfield exhibition are those of a benign Benjamin Franklin; a uniformed Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans, astride a prancing horse and doffing his cockaded hat; a stalwart James A. Garfield and a somewhat anxious looking President and Mrs Rutherford B. Hayes. An 1845 hand colored lithograph depicts Washington encircled by the ten men who succeeded him as president.
Peters was on the mark when he wrote, “Never in the world’s history has there been a creative art firm that even closely rivaled the record of accomplishments established by Currier & Ives.” As Currier and Ives put it, they created about “three works of art” each week for a half century “to meet all tastes” at the lowest possible prices. Combining their personalities and business acumen, they assembled accomplished artists, lithographers and lithographic pressmen to record graphically the America of their era.
Their prints may not be high art, but there is no doubt that C&I made lasting contributions to the visual history of America. As collector Peters put it, “Judged purely as art, little of the work of Currier & Ives would have lived; as a well-rounded, comprehensive and truly representative picture of an age, all of it has lived and will live.”
As this fascinating exhibition makes clear, the relevance of C&I’s output on political and election subjects remains pertinent to this day. As 2012’s long election season comes to a climax, Americans can be grateful for the legacy of C&I’s pictures that help tell the story of some of the most contentious, exciting and important elections in the nation’s history.
The D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts is on the Quadrangle at 21 Edwards Street. For information, www.springfieldmuseums.org or 413-263-6800.
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