Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Curious Case of Currier & Ives’ Buffalo

Currier & Ives has always been a printmaking firm of great interest to me, so when I moved to Denver about three years ago, I naturally began to focus on their western prints. One of my favorites is “The Rocky Mountains,” published in 1872-74, which shows an purported scene of a valley in the Rockies with a lake and a herd of buffalo. From the appearance of the mountains and the animals, it is clear the artist who made this print had never seen either!

It is a well-documented that Nathaniel Currier’s and Currier & Ives’ western prints were not based on first-hand drawings. The firm was issuing these prints for an audience most of the members of which had never seen the American West and it was easier and less expensive to make up views than to try to procure first-hand renderings. The number of such Currier/Currier & Ives western prints, issued over many years, is a strong indication that this lack of genuineness was not an issue with the print buying public.

Now that is not to say that there wasn’t an effort made to make the prints at least somewhat accurate. It is recorded that Nathaniel Currier took A.F. Tait and Louis Maurer, both of whom made western scenes for Currier, to the Astor Library in New York City to look at the prints of Karl Bodmer, prints which were based on first-hand renderings.

Still, it is particularly striking that none of the four main artists who produced Currier/Currier & Ives western prints—A.F. Tait, Louis Maurer, John Cameron, and Fanny Palmer—had travelled west of the Mississippi before making their western prints, and I think of these artists only Maurer ever got there at all.

The Currier/Currier & Ives prints were based either on other images, on western artifacts, or on the accounts of travelers. This did cause some disapproval at the time, with the artists criticized for their “curious mixture of truth and fantasy,” and for trying “to visualize the plains grasslands from the security of their New York studios.” Still, the large folio prints were, on the whole, relatively accurate in terms of landscape and the appearance of the actors in the scenes depicted.

Not so much with the small folio prints, however, as “The Rocky Mountains” nicely illustrates. I always found the buffalo in this print to be particularly wonderful, looking something like a cross between African lions and poodles. It was a lot of fun, then, when I recently realized that a print which we had in our shop was the original source for these buffalo.

The print in question is “The American Bison,” from Sir William Jardine’s The Natural History of the Ruminating Animals, which is volume XII in Jardine’s famous Naturalist’s Library (Edinburgh, 1836.) About his report on the American bison, Jardine wrote “Our information regarding this important animal is, thanks to the intrepid travelers in the artic regions, and particularly to Dr. Richardson, much more authentic than most of that we have been able to collect regarding one or two others.” (p. 252)
The textual information, perhaps, but the image is rather odd looking. The print was drawn by James Hope Stewart (1789-1856), a Scottish farmer who produced the images on at least 545 of Jardine’s Naturalist Library prints. Stewart was an amateur artist from Gillenbie, Scotland, and he obviously never saw a buffalo.

His picture of the buffalo was clearly the source of the images in Currier & Ives “The Rocky Moutains.” The buffalo at the front and center is simply a reversed image of the Jardine print and the other buffalo are variations of that central image. This is not, certainly, an earth-shattering discovery, but it made my day to discover finally the source of the curious Currier & Ives buffalo.

1 comment:

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