Friday, January 20, 2017

Presidential Prints

January 20th, 2017 is a somber day, when the United States inaugurates its 58th president, Donald J. Trump. Whatever your political outlook, this is an important event, placing a new occupant in to what is often called the most powerful office in the world. Mr. Trump will enter into a small brotherhood (still) of individuals, the membership of which has ranged from those who rose to the occasion to reach greatness, and those whose tenure has blessedly passed. It is helpful to look at this mixed cast of characters to put Trump’s inauguration into perspective.

One of the great things about antique historical prints is that they give us a unique view of how people in the past viewed their own time. Prints reflected the opinions of their makers, but as they were usually produced with the intent of either influencing public opinion or at least making money by fitting the public’s opinions enough to sell well, they also often reflect popular attitudes towards their subjects. This is, naturally, very true of prints of American presidents.

Historic prints of American presidents are quite interesting. They started, of course, with prints of George Washington. Washington was almost universally respected as a moral and military figure right from the beginning, so most contemporary portraits show him in a noble pose.

Sacred to the Memory of Washington

When Washington died, the nation mourned deeply and contemporary prints were issued showing the sorrow of the country,

Apotheosis of Washington

and others showed Washington rising to heaven to his place of immortality.

Middleton portrait of Lincoln

After his assassination, Abraham Lincoln achieved a similar heroic place in the nation’s heart, which led to the production of many, many noble portraits of Lincoln which hung in thousands of homes around the country. A good example of this are the portraits of Lincoln issued by E.C. Middleton, about which I wrote in an earlier blog.

Currier & Ives of Washington & Lincoln

One way that printmakers showed Lincoln’s character as one of the “great” presidents was to associate him with the clearly “great” George Washington. Currier & Ives issued this fun print showing the two presidents shaking hands,

while other prints depicted Washington welcoming Lincoln to heaven.

Family Monument of Our Country

By being inaugurated into the nation’s top office, each president achieves at least the status of membership in this august body and this is shown in the many prints which show all the presidents together. The importance of these men (still) was often emphasized by a prominent depiction of the noble Washington, standing, as it were, at the head of this fellowship.

It will be interesting to see how our newest president will be treated by contemporary prints and those in the future...

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