Friday, March 25, 2011

Visions West, a reprise

Back in January I went to the opening of the exhibition Visions West: 19th Century Expedition Arts at the Arvada Center for the Arts and was so impressed that I had to write a enthusiastic review in this blog. Well, the exhibit is going to be closing in just over a week, so now is the time to visit if you haven't yet!

The exhibition uses prints from the Graham and Barbara Curtis Collection. Mrs. Curtis and her daughter Kay Hunsaker were at the opening and I had the pleasure of meeting them. I asked Kay if she would answer a few questions about her parents and their collection and she kindly agreed.

Tell me a bit more about the collection.

It was my father's passion but my mother was very supportive and in the beginning, she learned to matte so that she could help him frame. The theme of his collection was the artistic documentation of the exploration, discoveries, and development of the American West. The original title he used for the collection was "Manifest Destiny, Exploration and Creation of the Nation."

How and when did your father start collecting?

Dad, a Geologist and hard rock miner at heart, always had a love of the Rocky Mountains, the mineral belt, and the exploration of them. Early on, he read about the West, and as he got older he started collecting antique geology and exploration books.

He then got the idea to share his love of America by giving "educational and enlightening" Bi-Centennial gifts in the form of western exploration lithography. While looking for suitable prints, he realized the extent of the availability, and the real treasures to be had. He found smaller, lesser known pieces of interest but when he found the "Rocky Mountains" by Bierstadt, he realized that famous prints could be obtained and that started his quest.

Were there types of prints or artists which he particularly liked?

Chromolithography is his favorite type, for he liked the bright, clear colors, but hand-tinting will always have a special place in his heart. Audubon's prints were his particular favorites as he always mentions them first, then adds Catlin, Bodmer, Bierstadt, and Moran. In truth, he has always loved birds and became a real "birder" after he acquired these prints.

What are his favorite prints?

Audubon’s Virginia Partridge and the Male Wild Turkey, George Catlin’s Buffalo, William Ranney’s Trapper's last Shot, Thomas Moran's Grand Canyon, and Albert Bierstadt’s Rocky Mountains.

Was there any print he was looking for a long time and finally got?

The Currier print “The Last War Whoop.” He acquired it just this past August. He had first seen it at the Buckhorn Exchange in Denver, but didn't get it. He quit looking for the print in the last few years but I located it and helped him purchase it.

There is still one he wishes he had gotten and that is the Jolly Flatboat Men by George Caleb Bingham. I found one but it is just too expensive at $15K!

When was the collection first put on display and where else has it been shown?

It was first displayed by the Arvada Art Museum for six weeks in 1986. The museum was pretty new and their staff was small. Dad helped them paint the walls in preparation, Mom and Dad both helped them hang pictures, and assisted in the cost of advertising.

Parts of the collection were also displayed at the Golden, CO Heritage Museum about 1987 & 1988, in the lobby of a bank in Downtown Denver during Denver's Western Heritage awareness, in 1993 or 1996, and in the Littleton Museum twice, in 2006 and 2008.

I wish I had had the opportunity to meet Mr. Curtis, but seeing this super collection in this excellent exhibit did give me a sense of his love and knowledge of the material. Anyone interested in Western prints should make it a point to head over to Arvada to see the collection before it closes on April 3. More information can be found on the Arvada Center's web site.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The American West in illustrated newspapers

By 1848, the United States had expanded to encompass the entire central part of the North American continent between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the attention of Americans began to turn to the vast trans-Mississippi West. The emigrants to Oregon and the California gold rush from the 1840s were joined at the end of the next decade by those heading to the Pike’s Peak gold fields or the Comstock Lode. The end of the Civil War saw the building of railroads across and around the West, a region which attracted new emigrants who were at loose ends after the war or simply looking for new opportunities.

The trans-Mississippi West was essentially unknown to Americans when Thomas Jefferson purchased the French Louisiana territory in 1803, and it slowly revealed its secrets beginning with the Lewis & Clark expedition, followed over the years by other government and private explorations. The economic and political need to build a trans-continental railroad generated a spate of exploring parties across the plains and Rocky Mountains in the years before the Civil War, which resulted in a number of publications containing some of the first views of the West available to Americans east of the Mississippi.

As the reports of explorers, emigrants and travelers to the West trickled back east, Americans developed a fascination with this “wild” and far-away U.S. territory. However, first-hand images were hard to come by. There were the illustrations in the government railroad survey reports and in a few view portfolios produced for the elite by artists such as Karl Bodmer and George Catlin. These sources for images of the West, however, were limited in number and scope. Most of the general public did not have access to many, if any, of these views and there were many aspects of life in the region not pictured at all in these sources, which thus did not really meet the demand of Americans to have images of the West.

This demand, however, was well met by a wonderful series of images published in popular illustrated newspapers. This type of newspaper first appeared with The Illustrated London News, founded in 1842, and in the 1850s, a number of American papers followed, becoming hugely popular by the 1860s and 70s. The success of these newspapers lay in their wood-engraved illustrations. These prints were wide-ranging in their coverage of events, places, things and persons of interest to the readers, and they were extremely timely in their appearance, often being issued within two weeks of when the images were first drawn. Readers found it new and exciting to be able to have, within days and at an affordable price, a first-hand view of a disaster from across the country, to gaze on an image of a just constructed bridge, or to see contemporary pictures of far-away places…such as the American West.

The fact that these prints were “merely” illustrations in a newspaper and were issued in huge numbers has led some to dismiss them as unworthy of study or ownership. However, most of the pictures of the American West from this source were drawn by skilled artists, they are based on first-hand observation, and they provide some of the only contemporary images of these scenes available to readers at the time, and of course, to us today.

American and British newspapers sent a number of expert artists to the West to document this frontier for their readers. These artists included Frederic Remington, Charles Graham, R.F. Zogbaum, Thomas Moran, Paul Frenzeny and Jules Tavernier. Not only were events and places depicted, but the quotidian events of emigrants and settlers were also pictured, providing a rich, contemporary, generally accurate, and unique collage of nineteenth century life in the American West.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Promoting Knowledge

I love prints of most types, but I have a particular fondness for prints that are fun but not too expensive. Such prints provide a way for people to have original art on their walls, items that are real antiques with historic interest, without spending the a huge amount to get them. I have just put together a window for the Denver shop with one group of such prints, those issued by the “Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.”

Quite a mouthful isn’t it? I will discuss this society, and another similar group below, but first I want to explain a bit about these cool prints. These are from series called “Plates Illustrative of Natural History.” They are small folio (about 10 x 12) wood engravings with original hand color. They were issued by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge between 1845 and 1847 and they illustrate fauna from around the world. These prints were sold individually, either “plain” or “coloured,” and also in bound volumes.

Each print shows a bird, animal, reptile or fish portrayed in an unthreatening, even anthropomorphic manner. The images are fairly accurate, though somewhat crude and certainly humanized to some extent, and the fauna are generally placed into a natural setting. Each print has text below the image about the animal depicted, text that has a mildly religious bent.

This is not surprising for a society designed to promote Christian knowledge. The society was founded in 1698 as an arm of the Church of England. It produced theological books as well as popular works on science, travel, biography, fiction and natural science. All their works were aimed at the literate middle and working class. It is clear that these prints were likewise aimed at the children of this audience, to help spread general knowledge (with a Christian bent). I think they are fun in appearance and their history makes them particularly interesting.

These prints represent an interesting aspect of the British upper class, viz., their concern to spread knowledge to those less advantaged. The British upper class certainly believed that there was a natural difference between themselves and those of the working and middle classes, but the nineteenth century was a period both when some of the lower classes were able to raise themselves up, but also when the wealthy businessmen of the Industrial Revolution needed a relatively educated working class to help run their businesses and the country. Thus the elite had moral and business reasons to help promote knowledge to the middle and working classes.

Another group of similar intent was the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (another mouthful), often referred to as the SDUK. This wonderful English enterprise, which had close ties to University College, London, was, similarly to the society just discussed, devoted to the spreading of up-to-date information and the enhancing of understanding for the working and middle classes.

Many of its publications were sold in only small numbers, though its Penny Magazine was quite popular, with a circulation of about 200,000 at its peak. The middle class did respond to some extent to its scientific publications, but the working class remained mostly uninterested. The society started in 1829, but went bankrupt in 1837, though some of its publications were picked up and continued to be published by others.

Interestingly, a similar organization, the Boston Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, modeled on the SDUK, was established in 1829 “to promote and direct popular education by lectures and other means. Besides its lectures, the Boston SDUK published a series of scholarly works as part of the American Library of Useful Knowledge, but the society was no longer active by mid-century.

Perhaps the most famous of the publications of the SDUK were its maps, which were issued from 1829 until 1844, separately and in a two volume atlas. These maps were very precise, based on the “latest” information and regularly updated.

Included in the series were 51 city maps, providing some of the best images of the cities of the work in the early 19th century. The maps/atlases were among the most successful of the SDUK publications, being issued in as many as 13,500 copies at the peak. The SDUK maps continued to appear as late as 1885, but by other publishers and in the later versions printed by lithographic transfers from the original steel plates.