Tuesday, March 30, 2010

American Historical Print Collectors Society Annual Meeting

I was away on vacation last week, so am just beginning to catch up enough to make some new posts.... Upon my return I got the latest issue of the American Historical Print Collectors Society newsletter. It gives information on the forthcoming annual conference, the subject of today's blog.

I have talked about the AHPCS in previous blogs, what a great group of people are members and how terrific are its publications, such as Imprint. One of the really nice things about the AHPCS is its annual meetings. This year's meeting will be held in one of my favorite cities, Pittsburgh, from May 20 to 22. I got to know Pittsburgh while writing Panorama of Pittsburgh and I found that not only did the city have superb repositories of prints, but it was an exciting urban center well worth visiting for its history, architecture, restaurants, parks, and much else.

The meeting organizer, Marilyn Bruschi, has put together a varied program, with a series of interesting talks on different print topics, including a presentation I will make based on material from my book. The meeting will also include visits to some of Pittsburgh's great institutions. The meeting will start at the Heinz History Center, where we will see many of the Center's huge collection of prints and photos. This is followed by a stop at the Duquesne Club, a private club which houses a terrific collection of 19th century paintings and the only known copy of James T. Palmatary's 1859 view of Pittsburgh, the largest and most detailed view of the city from the nineteenth century.

On Friday we'll visit the Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History for more lectures and a private tour of their exhibit on caricature, led by its curator Amanda Zehnder. Then we'll move next door to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, to see their collections, including their wonderful watercolors by John Abbot, and then off to the Hunt Botanical Library for a lecture on and viewing of botanical illustrations.

The fun continues on Saturday where we'll visit the Frick Art & History Center, where I will speak as will George Nama, probably the most knowledgeable man on Pittsburgh prints, not to mention a fabulous artist in his own right and a terrific guy! Time will be set aside for a visit to Clayton, the Frick home on the grounds.

Besides all these lectures and visits to these great places, there will two dinners with the group (and a "show & tell" on Friday night) and an optional visit to Falling Water on Sunday. You do not have to be a member of the AHPCS to attend, but as I have said elsewhere, this is a wonderful organization well worth joining! For more information and a registration form, you can visit the AHPCS web site. I will post a blog about the conference at the end, but wouldn't it be better if you were there yourself?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

False Sea of Verrazzano

In 1523-4, Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed along the eastern coast of North America, from Florida to Newfoundland, in the service of Francis I of France, thus becoming the first person to show definitely that the land discovered in the south by the Spanish was connected with the land discovered in the north by the English. Verrazzano's voyage was undertaken in order to find a route west from Europe across the Atlantic to the riches of the Orient.

In the sixteenth century, the American continent was seen as an impediment on the way to the Far East and much of the early exploration was done in an attempt to find the shortest route from Europe to China. After it was proved that there was no passage to the Pacific through the Gulf of Mexico, it was hoped that there might be a passage to the north of the Spanish discoveries in Florida. It was such a route to the Pacific that Verrazzano was looking for.

The map above, courtesy of Wikipedia shows the basic course of Verrazzano's voyage. However, his trip was not nearly as smooth as it is pictured. Because of the limits of the sailing ships at the time, Verrazzano could not simply sail along the coast as it ran to the north and northeast. Instead he had to tack up the coast, sailing northeast into the Atlantic and then tacking to the northwest to get back to the coast. With his zigzag coarse, Verrazzano missed a number of features along the coast, including the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

Each time Verrazzano tacked back, he must have hoped that he would soon find himself sailing in the Pacific Ocean, on his way to the Orient. With this hope firmly in his mind, when Verrazzano saw a large body of water across a narrow bit of land on one of his approaches to the coast north of Florida, he jumped to the conclusion that this was the Pacific Ocean. What he in fact had seen was either Pamlico Sound across the Outer Banks of North Carolina or part of Chesapeake Bay. Despite finding more land as he went further north, Verrazzano believed he had spotted the long hoped-for Pacific Ocean within easy reach of the Atlantic, promising easy passage to China.

The following account appeared in the margin of a letter written Verrazzano in 1524:
"We called it Annunciato from the day of arrival, where was found an isthmus a mile in width and about 200 long, in which from the ship, was seen the oriental sea between the west and north. Which is the one, without doubt, which goes about the extremity of India, China and Cathay. We navigated along the said isthmus with the continual hope of finding some strait or true promontory at which the land would end toward the north in order to be able to penetrate to those blessed shores of Cathay."

When Verrazzano returned to Europe, this belief was shown in two manuscript maps based on Verrazzano's expedition. One of these, from 1527, was by Visconte Maggilo and it was located in the Ambrosian Library in Milan until destroyed in the Second World War. A copy of this map is illustrated in Justin Winsor's History of America, Vol. 4, p. 39 (and is copied above). This shows the eastern seaboard of North America from "Terra Florida" To "Lavoradore," oriented to the south so that Florida is in the upper right. Just to the north of Florida is shown a narrow isthmus bordered to the east by "Mare Oceanum" (Atlantic) and to the west by the "Mare Indicum (Pacific). The other manuscript map, now in the Vatican Library, was by Verrazzano's brother, Girolamo, made in 1529. Girolamo's map clearly shows the isthmus and includes the legend "from this eastern sea you may behold the western sea and there are six miles of land between them."

Once it appeared "on the map," this narrow isthmus between the oceans became widely accepted, for hadn't Verrazzano actually been there and seen the Pacific! The 'false sea of Verrazzano,' taking up most of what is really the North American continent, thus began to appear on printed maps of the New World. The most famous example of this is in Sebastian Munster's map of the American continents first issued in 1540, which graphically depicts Verrazzano's false sea.

The belief in the close proximity of the Pacific to the Atlantic somewhere in the southeastern part of North America had considerable impact on the history of exploration in North America, for subsequent expeditions went looking for a passage to the Pacific in the middle latitudes of the continent. One of the goals of Henry Hudson's explorations was to sail through such a passage to the Pacific, and when the original charter for Virginia was given, it included rights to "land throughout from sea to sea west and north-west," and the colonists were instructed to seek a river by which "you shall soonest find the other sea."

As late as 1651, John Farrer's map of Virginia indicated that it was only a ten day march from the Atlantic to the Pacific in that region, and it also shows a very short land bridge to the Pacific at the head of the Hudson River. The failure of the English to find the Pacific Ocean anywhere near Virginia soon led to the demise of this cartographic myth.

Go to video about this cartographic myth

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Dead Bird Award

As I mentioned in my last blog, Mark Catesby included two prints of birds which were pictured as dead. One, the robin, lies on its back, its feet stuck in the air, and the other, the "yellow rump," dangles from a spider thread. These prints are nice compositionally and of equal historic import to all the other Catesby prints, but--not surprisingly--they are much less valuable and even when priced considerably lower, are much harder to sell than almost any other Catesby print.
Some clients have tried to convince themselves that if they hung the robin print upside down it wouldn't look dead, but there is always that inconvenient tree truck growing out its back. These birds are clearly dead and that makes them very difficult to sell.
Over the years we have eventually sold these prints when we got them, for some people aren't bothered by the fact the birds are dead and with these two images they can get an historically important Catesby print at a great price. When we first went into business, though, and we had a number of Catesby prints, including this pair, we were convinced they would never sell. Thus when we did sell them, we had a little celebration and created what we call the "Dead Bird Award."

The criteria for the Dead Bird Award, which we still hand out today for appropriate sales, are two-fold. The print must be hard to sell, but it must also still be a "good" print. That is, it cannot be hard to sell simply because it is a bad print. For instance, the print might have historical significance or be well made or even be very attractive, but its subject matter will be such that it is surprising that anyone would want to own it. It is not that the print is hard to sell because it is badly made, ugly, or in bad shape, but because the subject is such that most people would not want to hang such a print on their wall.

The Catesby dead bird prints are the prototypes, but there are many other classic examples. The Alexander Wilson print of the Black Vultures has two of these birds standing over the carcass of a sheep. This is as significant a print as any other by Wilson, but we have sold maybe two of these prints in 27 years.

There are also a number of John James Audubon prints the sale of which wins this award: there is Audubon's print of the Black Vultures (this time eating a deer head) and the print of the Texas Lynx which is blatantly giving itself personal hygiene.

Not surprisingly, there are quite a number of historical prints that fit the "dead bird" criteria because of unpleasant subject matter. Good examples are the the historically fascinating, but morbid prints of Andersonville prison.
Theodor de Bry prints of the early exploration of North America are important and desirable prints, but the engraving of a torture scene is not one that sells very well.

Other typical dead bird prints include gruesome hunting scenes (for instance when the fox is caught) and even some of the Indians from the McKenney & Hall History of the North American Indian. As the portraits were based on life portraits and not all the subjects were rich and well decked out, some of the images are rather sad looking and, of course, much harder to sell then most of the others.

I have often suggested to clients that they collect "dead bird" prints, as they can get some great prints at very good prices. So far, though, no takers. As it is, whenever we sell a "dead bird" print, we have a small celebration and we find that the clients who buy them (who we always tell about the award) enjoy the story. I have thought about one day doing a "dead bird" window for the shop, but so far have resisted the temptation...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mark Catesby's Natural History Prints

Today's blog is about my all-time favorite natural history artist, Mark Catesby. His work is not only less famous that that of John James Audubon, but the prints are less impressive in their appearance. However, to my mind there are no better American natural history prints. The very first print my wife and I bought was the Catesby print of the blue heron and we featured a Catesby print on the cover of the first catalogue for The Philadelphia Print Shop back in 1982.

Known as the “Founder of American Ornithology,” Mark Catesby was the author of Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, which was the first natural history of American flora and fauna. This monumental work was issued complete with 220 engraved illustrations between 1731 and 1743, and it was the first systematic description of American birds, animals and plants.

On two trips to America, in 1712 and 1722, Mark Catesby traveled throughout the backwoods of the southeast, collecting botanical samples for his sponsors in England and in his self-taught style making sketches of the wildlife that he saw. Upon his return from his second trip, his friends and sponsors encouraged him to publish a book of his drawings and notes, which he did beginning in 1731.

His Natural History was almost completely a one man show. Not only did Catesby do his own field research and sketches, but since he could not afford a professional engraver, he took etching lessons and did his own etching of all but two of the plates. His intense involvement in the work did not stop there, for Catesby even colored the plates of the first edition (the second edition plates were colored by Catesby’s friend George Edwards, a naturalist in his own right).

Besides being the first to produce an American natural history, Catesby was the first in a number of other items, viz. as the first to show the birds and animals in the natural habitats, and as the first to abandon the Indian names for his subjects, trying to establish scientific names based on generic relationships. For all these and many other reasons, Elsa Allen says, “the quality of the work was so superior to foregoing accounts that Mark Catesby ranks as the first real naturalist in America.” (American Ornithology Before Audubon, p. 465)

Catesby's publication had a significant impact on scientific circles on both sides of the Atlantic and the demand was sufficient so that there were two official later editions, published in 1754 and 1771. Though the text was not reprinted after the third edition, plates were run off in the early nineteenth century, proving the long standing appeal and importance of Catesby’s work.

Catesby's prints appeal to me partly because of the story of how they were made; here was real pioneering scientific work done in the backwoods of colonial America. If you look at Catesby's prints, they seem to express a sense of humor--the birds look to me like they are smiling or ready to wink at the viewer. What makes this interesting is that Catesby could not have taken the production of his Natural History anything but very seriously. He invested all his money and time and this work would establish him in London if successful. Still, it must be that his underlying sense of humor snuck into the images unintentionally.

There are prints of birds, fish, animals and snakes. They range in value, with the birds being the most desirable and expensive, to the snakes which are very moderately valued for prints of such historic impornt. There are two birds, however, which sell for less than all the others, not because of what birds they are (one is the Robin), but because they are shown as dead. That is the subject of my next blog....

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Princeton University Graphic Arts

As part my on-going series of blogs highlighting important print collections, today we'll look briefly at the graphic arts collection at Princeton University. To quote from their web site, the collection "includes artists' and private press books, as well as materials for the study of paper and papermaking, printing, calligraphy, printmaking, fine binding, typography, and book design. Of special interest are the Sinclair Hamilton Collection of American Illustrated Books; 18th- and 19th-century British artists and illustrators (particularly George and Robert Cruikshank, Thomas Rowlandson, and William Hogarth), and the Charles Rahn Fry Pochoir Collection."

The collection includes a large number of prints (not to mention drawings, paintings and photographs), and an extensive reference collection related to the history of the book and printing. Also a significant collection of printed ephemra such as trade cards, bookplates, etc. The collection is one of the best in the country and though geared for use of students and faculty at the University, Julie Mellby, the Graphic Arts Librarian, is very active in reaching out to scholars and the public in presenting exhibitions both on-line (check out the Cruikshank on-line exhibit) and in the Leonard L. Milberg Gallery on campus.

What prompted this blog, though, is Julie's terrific blog, Graphic Arts which I just discovered last month. I have enjoyed going through past blogs and am now a dedicated follower. Lots of great stuff here and I highly recommend that anyone interested in this blog should visit Julie's blog. Take a look, for instance, at the blog about Edward Orme's transparent prints. I hope that in the future I'll be able to do an interview with Julie, but in the meantime, check out the blog and the graphic arts collection web site.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Symbol of America

In the course of researching a wonderful allegory we just acquired, I reread an interesting article by E. McClung Fleming, “From Indian Princess to Greek Goddess. The American Image, 1783-1815,” which appeared in Winterthur Portfolio III in 1967. Fleming wrote:
“In the national pride and aspiration of this era [after the Treaty of Paris], there was continuous need to refer to the new nation as a living entity with a palpable spirit. Following an ancient impulse, American s personified their country for a hundred purposes and occasions—[including] a nation interested in the arts and sciences on frontispieces of national magazines, a noble, attractive nation in prints to be placed on the walls of homes… The United States was actively and continuously represented by symbolic figures giving it a needed public image during the years from 1783 to 1815.” (p. 37)

He identifies four prototype ways in which America was symbolized in the first few decades of the nation's history: as an Indian princess, a plumed Greek goddess, as Liberty, and as Columbia.

Indian Princess:
In the earliest images, America (both the North American continent and the nascent United States), was usually depicted as an Indian princess. This derived from the tradition of using an Indian for America when the four continents of the world were personified as Queens. This figure was used in medals, fabric and prints, often with the Indian princess having the attributes of the liberty cap, a rattlesnake, and the American shield and/or flag.

Plumed Greek goddess
The next version of America that appeared in prints was a goddess-like figure in Grecian robes and with a headdress plumed with ostrich plumes (instead of eagle feathers as for the Indian figure). This change was the result of the popularity of the Classical style which influenced American architecture, poetry, dress and the graphic arts beginning near the end of the eighteenth century. This Greek figure would often be accompanied by other classical figures and symbols like a pyramid, altar, or urn. A nice example of this is the print of "American Guided by Wisdom," which I discussed in an earlier blog.

The third style for America in prints was that of the Goddess of Liberty. Symbols of Liberty (the pole and cap of Liberty) were often associated with other figures representing America, but the American Revolution and the founding principles of the new nation were so closely identified with the cause of Liberty, that the figure of this goddess soon became, in effect, Americanized. She would often be shown with the American flag, shield, or eagle, or associated with stars representing the states. The Statue of Liberty is a prime example of this, as is the print showing Liberty holding a portrait of Thomas Jefferson while looking at another of George Washington hanging on a pyramid nearby. Liberty is crushing the symbols of monarchy under her foot and the American eagle is by her side.

The final form which Fleming discusses is America as Columbia, a figure whose name derives from Christopher Columbus. The use of Columbia as a personification of America began as early as the late seventeenth century, but became particularly popular at the time of the Revolution. As Fleming said, “The name recalled not only the fact of the discovery of America, but also the symbolic notion that America, through the voyage of Columbus, linked the Occident to the Orient in the great westward flow of civilization.” (p.59) Columbia did not have either the feathered or plumed headdress, but often either went bareheaded or had the helmet associated with Minerva. She tended to be dressed in classical white robes or sometimes the national banner. She also was usually accompanied by other symbols of America, such as the shield, flag, and eagle.

The print pictured above is a wonderful example of this form for America. It is an engraving by Samuel Harris issued in 1804. In it Columbia is illustrated as a proud and independent member of the family of nations of the world. The subtitle of the print promises "Peace with all nations, Partiality to none." This refers to the American attempt at the time to remain neutral between France and Great Britain. France, of course, had been America's great ally against the British in the Revolution, and despite the hiccup of the "Quasi-War" of 1798-1800, France and the United States had remained on friendly terms. There was always a strong pro-British faction in the United States and the government did try to keep a neutral stance even when in 1803 Britain declared war against France and Napoleon. The British were none too happy with this American stance and began to stop American ships in order to impress British-born, but naturalized U.S. citizens into the British navy. The tensions between the United States and Britain eventually led to the War of 1812, but in 1804, when this print was issued, Americans still hoped to be able to remain neutral, a sentiment nicely illustrated in this allegory.

In the print, Columbia sits as a strong independent nation, holding an American flag and a laurel branch, while the proud American eagle is emblazoned on the nation's shield. This theme is further emphasized by ships on the horizon exemplifying American commerce and various symbols in the foreground representing America's arts. A ring of seventeen chain links, each filled by a star, symbolizes the states of the Union (Ohio had become the seventeenth state in 1803).

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Durfee & Bushnell premium print

Last weekend I came across a delightful chromolithograph which I had never seen before. The image is a classic American winter scene and it probably dates from 1873, during the heyday of American chromolithographs. It is not of the very top quality, like Prang's best work; instead it is rather more of the "decorative" quality typical of less expensive publications. What makes this print particularly interesting, however, is that there is a wonderful label pasted to the back of the print by the firm of Durfee & Bushnell.

Durfee & Bushnell published this print as a premium for their monthly magazine entitled The Leisure Hour, which was described on the label as "An Illustrated monthly of Fashion, Floriculture, Music, and Entertaining and Instructive Reading." Durfee & Bushnell is not listed anywhere as a print publisher and I think they only published this one print as a premium for their magazine. I doubt they had the ability to actually produce the chromolithograph, so they probably had it printed by another New England firm.

What I was able to find out about Durfee & Bushnell is that they formed a partnership about 1873 to publish The Leisure Hour in Brattleboro. Edward Bushnell had previously worked in Brattleboro as a printer and he partnered with Charles A Durfee in this short-lived venture. The magazine did not last long, as described in Mary Rogers Cabot's Annals of Brattleboron,
“The magazine might have prospered but for the fact that Mr. Durfee suddenly left town, leaving the financial and editorial responsibility entirely upon Mr. Bushnell. Mr. Bushnell immediately suspended publication of the magazine.”

The label on the back of the print [click on picture at left to see larger image] is quite interesting in a number of ways. First, it indicates that Durfee & Bushnell went beyond simply publishing the magazine, for they advertised that they sold "Picture Frame, in any size or style, at the lowest prices," and that they also would mount chromolithographs for people (and indeed stated that this print was mounted onto canvas by the firm).
"Have Your Chromos Mounted!
We have facilities for mounting Chromos in the very best and most approved styles.
Canvas and Stretcher.
All work sized, varnished, and finsihed in the best manner."
Indeed, they insisted that one should only mount chromos on canvas and not put glass over them. I mentioned in my earlier blog that one often finds 19th century chromolithographs without glass, attributing this to the desire to imitate oil paintings, but Durfee & Bushnell offer another reason not to use glass,
"Don't Put Glass Over Chromos!
Glass should never be put over chromos, as there is a greenish cast to the glass that spoils the effect the artists intended it should have, while the varnish brings out the colors and preserves the picture.
As I have mentioned in other blogs, one of my main interests with antique prints is the business of printmaking and selling and this wonderful label gives us an insight into the way that one firm tried to make a go of it.