Monday, October 18, 2010

Representations of Economy at Library Company

I spent last Friday at a terrific print conference at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Entitled "Representations of Economy. Lithography in America from 1820 to 1860," this conference was sponsored in part by "Philadelphia on Stone," which I have discussed in an earlier blog. Philadelphia on Stone is a project under the auspices of the Visual Culture Program at the Library Company (VCP@LCP), which joined up with the Program in Early American Economy and Society (PEAES) to put on the conference.

A lot of confusing names of programs, I know, but this conference is a great example of the exciting results of new programs and collaborations which have been appearing at the Library Company and elsewhere. VCP@LCP is a program which promotes the study of historical images as primary source material (note that the images in this blog are all from the image data base they have put up on the Philadelphia on Stone web site). If you have read this blog regularly you will realize is a thing I am very keen on. As Cathy Matson, director of PEAES said, historic images are not just supplements to textural history, but they are primary sources which can provide unique information and insights.

PEAES is a project from LCP which is dedicated to the promoting of the study of early American economy, broadly understood. The two programs obviously overlap considerably and it was in that area of overlap that this conference was conceived.

The period between 1820 and 1860 was one of tremendous change in the American economy, with the country moving from a primarily agrarian/rural society to an industrial/urban one. In this period, lithography made its appearance and grew to be the dominant printmaking medium. Lithography was not only a product of the changing American economy but it also graphically reflected that metamorphosis. Even more, in a period when many were illiterate or did not speak or read English, pictures provided them with much of their understanding of their world. Thus, these historic images helped to both form and disseminate the culture of the period. Last week's conference examined these and more of the fascinating aspects of American lithography in this period.

As an introduction, we were treated to viewing a film posted on YouTube which explains and demonstrates the process of lithography. It is worth viewing for anyone interested in how lithographs are made and can be seen here.

All of the talks were stimulating. I learned a lot and ended the day with a load of questions I'd like to pursue, including:

  • How were the large "trade cards" (really advertising broadsides) of Philadelphia businesses used? We they posted in public spaces, sent out to resellers, put in shop windows, or used to adorn the boxes or packages the goods were sold or shipped in? No one really knows how they were used and there are few, if any, images showing them being used, so there are lots of possibilities to consider.
  • I'd love to learn more about on how popular prints were sold. Gigi Barnhill and Nancy Finlay both discussed the business of print selling by popular print makers, but there is much more to learn.

Without spending far more time than I can spend on this blog, I can only skim over some of the topics and questions generated by the conference. The conference was a great example of how current scholars are using historic prints to not only increase our knowledge of our past, but also to open up new avenues to explore.

In finishing I have to mention another conference which is coming up in just a couple weeks that I know will prove to be just as stimulating and educational as last week's.This is the annual conference of the Center for Historic American Visual Culture at the American Antiquarian Society.

Last year I was able to attend this conference (and wrote a blog about it), and I wish I could go again this year, for it is on a topic which I think is great fun: "History Prints. Fact and Fiction." The conference will take place in Worcester, MA, on November 12 and 13th and it will be well worth attending for anyone interested in historic prints. Registration is open until October 29th. More information can be found here.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

Finally I have a little time to put up a post about prints... Today I'll look at the “Buffon” prints, which are some of the most ubiquitous and delightful natural history prints there are.

Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-88), was an amazingly talented man, whose studies ranged from natural history through mathematics, astronomy, and all the sciences. His name was legendary in the eighteenth century, a vital period for natural history: he was to France what Linnaeus was to Sweden.

Buffon, as he is commonly called, was the keeper of the Jardin du Roi, the precursor of the Paris Zoo. He decided to undertake a prodigious task, that is to describe the entire animal kingdom. The result was his Histoire Naturelle, which was first issued in 35 quarto volumes between 1749 and 1788. This became the most influential natural history of the 18th century. It contained Buffon's text and illustrations of numerous natural history objects by different artists. The latter are engravings, many hand colored, which have made Buffon famous among print collectors today.

The Histoire Naturelle was issued in many different editions and his words and the illustrations were copied by other publishers over the years. Among the most famous of the “Buffon” prints that appeared are the bird prints engraved by Francois Nicolas Martinent , but there are many other subjects by many other engravers which appeared in the many editions of Buffon. These are delightful graphically, but of particular interest is that they provided the main visual knowledge for most educated Europeans about what the world's animals and birds looked like.

Buffon’s natural history theories were very influential in his own day, though some were controversial. In particular, his argument that New World species were inferior to those of the Old World caused much umbrage among Americans. Buffon argued that because of the marsh odors and dense forests in America, the New World species (including humans) were degenerate forms of Old World species.

Thomas Jefferson, who was the American ambassador to France, was so peeved by Buffon’s stance that he determined to show Buffon the true “stature and majesty of American quadrupeds.” Jefferson therefore had the complete skeleton, skin and horns of a Moose shipped to him in Paris and mounted in his hotel!