Monday, June 15, 2020

Lowering the curtain on the Currier & Ives Darktown Prints

I own a business which sells images of the past. Many of them are decorative or interesting in their own right, but to me one of the most important things about the old prints we sell is that they are historic artifacts. That is, they are evidence from our past, bringing their stories to the present. They tell us not only about the things they show, but also about what was of interest to the public at the time—-or at least what their publishers thought would be of interest—-and they tell us how the public at the time saw its world.

Past public attitudes are not always ones we agree with, nor even condone, but I have long argued that it is a mistake to ignore or trash historic artifacts that reflect beliefs we do not agree with. As George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That is, it is crucial for us to learn about our past so that we can try to correct where we have gone wrong. For that reason, even abhorrent historic artifacts should be preserved and studied.

Our modus operandi has always been, that even if I did not agree with what a particular print depicted, we would offer it for sale so that someone interested in it—-hopefully for historic reasons—-could have access to it. On that basis, though I abhor the social implications of the Currier & Ives Darktown prints, I have felt it appropriate to have my shop offer them for sale. I no longer feel that to be the case.

So, what are the Currier & Ives Darktown prints? They are a series of prints which America’s most successful popular printmaker made from the late 1870s into the 1890s, showing supposedly humorous episodes in Darktown, a segregated community of black Americans. Darktown prints showcased a full array of negative stereotypes of the former slaves who moved north after the Civil War. Portrayed as mentally slow, physically grotesque, and morally oblivious, African Americans were shown as comically inept in their attempts to “play-act” at being white.

Horrifyingly, these prints were among the most popular of all Currier & Ives prints, with one image supposedly selling as many as 73,000 copies. Why that was so and what it means are things worth trying to understand, and there have been institutions and scholars who have approached the Darktown series in this way. I think that is important for our understanding of our past and also of our present to look at these issues.

This then raises the question of why I have decided we would no longer sell the Darktown prints. Certainly, to simply sell such a print is not to advocate for its racist message; we have sold them for many years despite the fact that I think what they show is terrible. As it happens, almost all of the Darktown prints we have sold have been to academic institutions or to African American collectors. Still, I now believe we should not be selling them at all.

The current national reexamination of our society’s racial inequities has made me rethink how we should treat these prints. I have come to believe that even if one does not present them as something one believes, racist images like these should not be presented to the public, except in a clearly restricted historic/educational venue. To have images like these out in public-—on display in a shop, at a show or on the internet—-creates a social environment which is detrimental to universal racial equality.

The point is that it is not what you mean by selling the prints, it is what they show and how that adds to the negative experience that African Americans have in our society. This is very similar to the issue of the display of Confederate statues in the South, and as I believe those statues should be taken out of public spaces, so too I believe the Darktown prints should be removed from public display. Every image that is out in public showing how in the past Blacks were thought of as inferior adds to the background noise insidiously whispering that they are not equal today. Their display, even if not meant this way, reminds both Blacks and Whites that in the not too distant past it was the social norm that the latter considered themselves to be superior to the former. This, in effect, becomes part of the systemic message of racial inequality that still permeates our country.

We need to effect many changes to bring about true racial equality in our country, both as a society and as individuals, and I think no longer selling or displaying the Darktown prints is something we can do to help, albeit in a small way. On that basis, we are donating all of our current inventory of Darktown prints to scholarly institutions, taking the images out of the general public environment and relegating them to the vaults of historic institutions. This is surely just a small step toward racial equality, but hopefully it is one of many such small steps our society will now be making.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Whirlpool at the North Pole

In 1569, the great Flemish cartographer, Gerard Mercator, issued this important world map—-the first to use the so-called Mercator projection—-and on that map he introduced a radical and strange notion of the geography around the North Pole. Along the very top of the map-—the width of which is exaggerated because of the projection used-—are four bodies of land with rivers running between them.

This geography was clarified by an inset in the lower left, in which you can see four islands surrounding the North Pole, upon which lies a large rock.

It is a little easier to see this geography on Mercator's separate map of the North Pole issued a number of years later. A legend on the earlier map states that Mercator got his geography of the Arctic from the report of a Friar and mathematician from Oxford, who supposedly in about 1360, and using “magic arts,” went to these polar islands and mapped them. Mercator’s source of this story was a since lost, fourteenth-century account called the Inventio Fortunatae.

Describing the geography of the polar region, Mercator wrote to John Dee, an English scholar and mystic, that “In the midst of the four countries [that is islands] is a Whirl-pool...into which there empty the four Indrawing Seas which divide the North. And the water rushes round and descends into the earth just as if one were pouring it through a filter funnel...Except that right under the Pole there lies a bare rock in the midst of the Sea. Its circumference is almost 33 French miles, and it is all of magnetic stone...”

Mercator shows this geography very clearly, with the four islands separated by the rivers and the large magnetic rock sitting on the pole itself, over the whirlpool where the waters descend into the interior of the globe. Other bits of information depicted by Mercator, also taken from the Inventio, include the legend that “pygmies, whose length is four feet” live on the island above Scandinavia, and another legend on the island to its left, stating it is “the best and most salubrious in all the north.”

Obviously, this is mythical geography, though the Inventio Fortunatae may have been based to some extent on first-hand reports by Ivar Bardarson, who was a priest from Greenland who traveled widely in the eastern Canadian Arctic in the early fourteenth century. Whether the story of the waters of the world passing through four rivers and then into the whirlpool was a confused misreading of Bardarson’s reports, or an illusionary creation of the Inventio’s author cannot be known.

The Mercator conception was followed by a number of other late sixteenth century cartographers, such as in the world map by Abraham Ortelius from 1570.

However, this misconception did not hang around for long. The latter half of the sixteenth century was a time of considerable exploration in the waters north of Europe, for instance by Hugh Willoughby in 1553 and Willem Barentz in the 1590s, and Mercator’s polar geography of the four islands and the whirlpool began to lose favor, as shown in Barentz’s own map of the polar region from 1598. This geographical myth subsequently did not last long, and it had disappeared from most maps by the fourth decade of the seventeenth century.

[Click here to see on-line lecture on this myth
and the myth of the great continent at the South Pole.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Thomas Doughty, Printmaker

While Lucien Bonaparte was finishing Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology, and John James Audubon was beginning his great projects, John and Thomas Doughty produced a book, Cabinet of Natural History and American Rural Sports with Illustrations, that is important both for its many anecdotes about the social impact of natural history and sport in America, but also as the first major book illustrated with color lithographs produced in America.

Though the joint publication of the Doughty brothers, the prints in the work were primarily the offspring of Thomas. Thomas was evidently a self-taught artist, listing himself as a “painter” in the second decade of the nineteenth century, one of the first Americans to list this as an occupation. In the next decade about 40 of his images were used for a variety of publications, but then Thomas, who was an avid outdoor sportsman, conceived of the notion of a color plate work illustrating the natural history of American rural sports. This led to the Cabinet of Natural History and American Rural Sports with Illustrations, where his output reached a new level of vision and quality.

The work, issued in monthly parts, began in 1830, but things changed as the production on the third volume began. At that time, Thomas Doughty left the project to pursue a painting career, gaining immortality as a founder of the Hudson Valley School of painters. His brother, John, took over as sole proprietor, but he soon warned his subscribers that unless he received more support he would have to end the project. This was proved true in 1834 when he discontinued publication with part IV of the third volume.

The first print is an engraving by John Sartain of the “Common Deer,” one of the works done in America by this noted engraver. The rest of the prints were done in the relatively new process of lithography. The artists who produced images for the work were some of the luminaries of the Philadelphia art scene, including M.E.D. Brown, George Lehman, J.G. Cloney, but the major contributor was Thomas Doughty himself. Of particular note are the prints by Titian Ramsay Peale, who upon his return from the Stephen Long expedition to the American West made pictures available of this new American frontier, including his famous image of hunting the American buffalo.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Fort Wicked

With the growing emigration of white Americans from “the States” to the Rocky Mountains and beyond in the 1860s, the Plains Indians found their traditional way of life fading. Not only did the emigrants eat up local resources, and kill many buffaloes, but the U.S. government began a systematic attempt to limit the Native Americans to limited reservations. Frustration led to sporadic Indian raids on emigrant trains and settlements, culminating in a number of “massacres” in the summer of 1864.

This prompted Colorado territorial governor, John Evens, to demand that all “peaceful” Indians to report to a number of military posts. Despite this, a peaceable group of Cheyenne was turned away from Fort yon and told to camp near Sand Creek, just to the north, where they would supposedly be safe. Unfortunately, Colonel John M. Chivington, commander of the First Colorado Regimen, believed he needed to “teach the Indians a lesson they would not forget, and he attacked the peaceful Indian camp, killing every man, woman and child possible, with some 150 Native Americans losing their lives in the notorious “Sand Creek Massacre.”

This naturally spurred more Indian braves to seek reprisal, with a number of raids along the Platte River emigrant route, to the east and west of Julesburg. . Beginning in early 1865, bands of Arapahoe, Cheyenne and Lakota warriors attacked nearly every ranch and station along the route and destroyed the telegraph line connecting Denver with the East. The settlers along the way did why they could, but many died or were captured, and their ranches burned to the ground.

One ranch owner, Holon Godfrey, decided to defend his home, located between today’s Sterling and Fort Morgan, as best he could. His ranch included a tower with portholes and he dug a well inside his defenses. In January 1865, Godfrey was raided, supposedly by about 200 Indians, but with the help of a visitor, his wife and children, he was able to repel the attack. As a result, the Indians called Godfrey “Old Wicked,” a name he liked enough to christen his ranch “Fort Wicked.” This secure post, about the only remaining settlement along the Platte River route, became a regular stop for the stage lines.

The following year, Harper’s Weekly, the leading American illustrated newspaper of the day, sent a party of report on the on-going Pike’s Peak gold rush. James F. Goodkins was the artist with this party and on October 13, 1866, Harper’s published a multi-panel print showing scenes from his experiences. The print included two views of Denver, a few scenes from Goodkins’ trip across the plains, and two fanciful illustrations of Indian attacks.

Also included was a small view of “Fort Wicked,” showing its fortified walls, the protected well, and a sign reading: “Fort Wicked. Kept by H. Godfrey. Groceries.” This print is a wonderful example of how the prints from the illustrated newspapers of the nineteenth century can provide us with first-hand images of aspect of our past not documented in any other way.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Thomas Nast Christmas Illustrations

Thomas Nast is among the most famous American illustrators of all time, often called the “father of American political cartooning.” Nast was born in Bavaria in 1840 and at six years immigrated with his family to the United States. His father, a musician, had enrolled the artistically precocious child in an art school by age 12. Three years later, Nast was forced to leave his training to help support the family, fortunately gaining work as an illustrator for Frank Leslie’s Weekly. Five years later Nast traveled abroad to cover the Heenan-Sayers fight for the New York Illustrated News, later joining Garibaldi’s forces in Italy as a war correspondent. In 1862, Nast again became a war correspondent, this time for Harper’s Weekly Civil War reporting. His patriotic themes created such attention that President Lincoln cited Nast as his ‘best recruiting sergeant,’ and General Ulysses Grant remarked that Nast “did as much as any one man to preserve the Union and bring the war to an end.”

In the years after the War Between the States, Nast became the most significant illustrator of American political and social issues. His pointed cartoons exerted a great impact on public opinion. Every presidential candidate to gain his support won and his stature increased with the successful campaign in 1870-71 to bring down “Boss” Tweed of New York’s corrupt Tammany Hall and his political machine. More than a mere cartoonist, Nast was an innovator of images, popularizing or instituting many now familiar subjects such as the Republican elephant, the Democratic donkey, John Bull, Uncle Same, and Columbia.

Perhaps his most lasting creation was the image of Santa Claus he developed in a series of cartoons in Harper’s Weekly from 1863 to 1886. Inspired by the description of St. Nicholas in Clement Moore’s 1823 poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, Nast developed his image by using his own beard and rotund belly to eventually create the “jolly old elf” which is our present day image of Santa Claus.

The first image of Santa by Nast was a cover illustration of “Santa Claus in Camp” on January 3, 1863, as well as cameo appearance in the corner of a double page “Christmas Eve” image. At this time Santa was fairly roly-poly and had a long beard, but the theme was more related to Santa’s support of the Union cause-—note the stars and stripes on his costume and he holds a puppet of Jefferson Davis with a noose around his neck.

As time went on, further developed his image, turning Santa into the figure we recognize today. He showed Santa with a workshop at the North Pole, and keeping track of children and their hopes for toys at Christmas. Overall, Nast created 33 cartoons of Santa, the last as a cover image for the December 25, 1886 issue of Harper’s Weekly. After that Nast severed his relationship with Harper’s, but fell into considerable debt through bad investments. In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt was elected President, and wanting to help out the man who had done so much for the country, he appointed Nast as Consul General in Ecuador. Nast died a year later of yellow fever.

Click here to see a selection of Nast Christmas iamges

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Abraham Ortelius

Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) is often called the ‘father of modern cartography,’ particularly because in 1570, he issued the first edition of his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, which is considered the ‘first modern atlas.’ The publication of this atlas marked an epoch in the history of cartography, for it is the first uniform and systematic collection of maps of the whole world based only on contemporary knowledge since the days of Ptolemy.

Ortelius began his career as an engraver and “peintre des cartes,” (map colorist), eventually becoming a dealer in maps and books. As such he met and befriended the great Gerard Mercator and began to produce as well as sell maps in Antwerp in 1561, starting with an eight sheet world map. In the sixteenth century there was a great increase in interest in maps and charts, and Ortelius, as a businessman with a passion for history and cartography, was at the forefront in meeting this demand. Through his collecting and his antiques business, Ortelius became acquainted with a large network of the preeminent cartographers in Europe and thus was able to research the best contemporary maps, becoming the greatest expert of his day in the bibliography of maps.

He decided to produce an atlas of the entire world, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, or 'Theater of the World,' done on a systematic basis in a uniform style, beginning with a map of the world, then maps of the continents, followed by regional maps. Ortelius based his work on the best maps available, drawing all the maps himself with the celebrated Frans Hogenberg cutting most of the plates. Unlike other atlas-makers, Ortelius cited the authors of the original maps from which he compiled his work. The result was that his maps were some of the most attractive and accurate of the late sixteenth century.

The Theatrum was hugely popular and influential, and Ortelius was made the royal geographer to Phillip II, expanding his atlas with new maps, and in 1579 to include the Parergon, a historic atlas intended to supplement the Theatrum. When he died in 1598, the Theatrum had been published in 25 editions in five editions, with two other languages added after his death. Thus it is not only for his unprecedented achievement in issuing the first modern atlas, but also for his thoughtful and rigorous methodology, that Ortelius belongs amongst the first rank of cartographers.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Winslow Homer's illustrations

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was one of the foremost American artists of the middle of the nineteenth century and we are fortunate that many of his images were produced as prints even a century and a half later are still accessible and affordable.

Homer came from an old New England Family where his mother, an amateur watercolorist, encouraged his artistic inclinations. At age 19, Homer apprenticed in the John Bufford firm in Boston, where he mostly copied the designs of other artists onto sheet music covers and other commercial lithographs.

Soon, however, he began to submit his own work to various illustrated newspapers, in 1859 moving to New York where he established himself as a freelance illustrator working for such illustrated newspapers as Ballou’s Pictorial, Harper’s Weekly, and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News.
Homer produced a wonderful series of illustrations for Harper’s during the Civil War, though he focused more on the daily life of the soldiers, rather than battle scenes.

After the war, Homer continued to produce images for various publications, with his eye turning to genre subjects which illustrated daily life in America of the middle classes who were the primary readers of those newspapers and magazines. By the 1870s, Homer had built a successful career as a painter and watercolorist, but he continued working as an illustrator to 1875. His images capture America at the time as few others, with a kindness and honesty that provide a privileged look at our past. Click here to see a selection of his prints.