Monday, June 15, 2020

Lowering the curtain on the Currier & Ives Darktown Prints

I own a business which sells images of the past. Many of them are decorative or interesting in their own right, but to me one of the most important things about the old prints we sell is that they are historic artifacts. That is, they are evidence from our past, bringing their stories to the present. They tell us not only about the things they show, but also about what was of interest to the public at the time—-or at least what their publishers thought would be of interest—-and they tell us how the public at the time saw its world.

Past public attitudes are not always ones we agree with, nor even condone, but I have long argued that it is a mistake to ignore or trash historic artifacts that reflect beliefs we do not agree with. As George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That is, it is crucial for us to learn about our past so that we can try to correct where we have gone wrong. For that reason, even abhorrent historic artifacts should be preserved and studied.

Our modus operandi has always been, that even if I did not agree with what a particular print depicted, we would offer it for sale so that someone interested in it—-hopefully for historic reasons—-could have access to it. On that basis, though I abhor the social implications of the Currier & Ives Darktown prints, I have felt it appropriate to have my shop offer them for sale. I no longer feel that to be the case.

So, what are the Currier & Ives Darktown prints? They are a series of prints which America’s most successful popular printmaker made from the late 1870s into the 1890s, showing supposedly humorous episodes in Darktown, a segregated community of black Americans. Darktown prints showcased a full array of negative stereotypes of the former slaves who moved north after the Civil War. Portrayed as mentally slow, physically grotesque, and morally oblivious, African Americans were shown as comically inept in their attempts to “play-act” at being white.

Horrifyingly, these prints were among the most popular of all Currier & Ives prints, with one image supposedly selling as many as 73,000 copies. Why that was so and what it means are things worth trying to understand, and there have been institutions and scholars who have approached the Darktown series in this way. I think that is important for our understanding of our past and also of our present to look at these issues.

This then raises the question of why I have decided we would no longer sell the Darktown prints. Certainly, to simply sell such a print is not to advocate for its racist message; we have sold them for many years despite the fact that I think what they show is terrible. As it happens, almost all of the Darktown prints we have sold have been to academic institutions or to African American collectors. Still, I now believe we should not be selling them at all.

The current national reexamination of our society’s racial inequities has made me rethink how we should treat these prints. I have come to believe that even if one does not present them as something one believes, racist images like these should not be presented to the public, except in a clearly restricted historic/educational venue. To have images like these out in public-—on display in a shop, at a show or on the internet—-creates a social environment which is detrimental to universal racial equality.

The point is that it is not what you mean by selling the prints, it is what they show and how that adds to the negative experience that African Americans have in our society. This is very similar to the issue of the display of Confederate statues in the South, and as I believe those statues should be taken out of public spaces, so too I believe the Darktown prints should be removed from public display. Every image that is out in public showing how in the past Blacks were thought of as inferior adds to the background noise insidiously whispering that they are not equal today. Their display, even if not meant this way, reminds both Blacks and Whites that in the not too distant past it was the social norm that the latter considered themselves to be superior to the former. This, in effect, becomes part of the systemic message of racial inequality that still permeates our country.

We need to effect many changes to bring about true racial equality in our country, both as a society and as individuals, and I think no longer selling or displaying the Darktown prints is something we can do to help, albeit in a small way. On that basis, we are donating all of our current inventory of Darktown prints to scholarly institutions, taking the images out of the general public environment and relegating them to the vaults of historic institutions. This is surely just a small step toward racial equality, but hopefully it is one of many such small steps our society will now be making.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Whirlpool at the North Pole

In 1569, the great Flemish cartographer, Gerard Mercator, issued this important world map—-the first to use the so-called Mercator projection—-and on that map he introduced a radical and strange notion of the geography around the North Pole. Along the very top of the map-—the width of which is exaggerated because of the projection used-—are four bodies of land with rivers running between them.

This geography was clarified by an inset in the lower left, in which you can see four islands surrounding the North Pole, upon which lies a large rock.

It is a little easier to see this geography on Mercator's separate map of the North Pole issued a number of years later. A legend on the earlier map states that Mercator got his geography of the Arctic from the report of a Friar and mathematician from Oxford, who supposedly in about 1360, and using “magic arts,” went to these polar islands and mapped them. Mercator’s source of this story was a since lost, fourteenth-century account called the Inventio Fortunatae.

Describing the geography of the polar region, Mercator wrote to John Dee, an English scholar and mystic, that “In the midst of the four countries [that is islands] is a Whirl-pool...into which there empty the four Indrawing Seas which divide the North. And the water rushes round and descends into the earth just as if one were pouring it through a filter funnel...Except that right under the Pole there lies a bare rock in the midst of the Sea. Its circumference is almost 33 French miles, and it is all of magnetic stone...”

Mercator shows this geography very clearly, with the four islands separated by the rivers and the large magnetic rock sitting on the pole itself, over the whirlpool where the waters descend into the interior of the globe. Other bits of information depicted by Mercator, also taken from the Inventio, include the legend that “pygmies, whose length is four feet” live on the island above Scandinavia, and another legend on the island to its left, stating it is “the best and most salubrious in all the north.”

Obviously, this is mythical geography, though the Inventio Fortunatae may have been based to some extent on first-hand reports by Ivar Bardarson, who was a priest from Greenland who traveled widely in the eastern Canadian Arctic in the early fourteenth century. Whether the story of the waters of the world passing through four rivers and then into the whirlpool was a confused misreading of Bardarson’s reports, or an illusionary creation of the Inventio’s author cannot be known.

The Mercator conception was followed by a number of other late sixteenth century cartographers, such as in the world map by Abraham Ortelius from 1570.

However, this misconception did not hang around for long. The latter half of the sixteenth century was a time of considerable exploration in the waters north of Europe, for instance by Hugh Willoughby in 1553 and Willem Barentz in the 1590s, and Mercator’s polar geography of the four islands and the whirlpool began to lose favor, as shown in Barentz’s own map of the polar region from 1598. This geographical myth subsequently did not last long, and it had disappeared from most maps by the fourth decade of the seventeenth century.

[Click here to see on-line lecture on this myth
and the myth of the great continent at the South Pole.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Thomas Doughty, Printmaker

While Lucien Bonaparte was finishing Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology, and John James Audubon was beginning his great projects, John and Thomas Doughty produced a book, Cabinet of Natural History and American Rural Sports with Illustrations, that is important both for its many anecdotes about the social impact of natural history and sport in America, but also as the first major book illustrated with color lithographs produced in America.

Though the joint publication of the Doughty brothers, the prints in the work were primarily the offspring of Thomas. Thomas was evidently a self-taught artist, listing himself as a “painter” in the second decade of the nineteenth century, one of the first Americans to list this as an occupation. In the next decade about 40 of his images were used for a variety of publications, but then Thomas, who was an avid outdoor sportsman, conceived of the notion of a color plate work illustrating the natural history of American rural sports. This led to the Cabinet of Natural History and American Rural Sports with Illustrations, where his output reached a new level of vision and quality.

The work, issued in monthly parts, began in 1830, but things changed as the production on the third volume began. At that time, Thomas Doughty left the project to pursue a painting career, gaining immortality as a founder of the Hudson Valley School of painters. His brother, John, took over as sole proprietor, but he soon warned his subscribers that unless he received more support he would have to end the project. This was proved true in 1834 when he discontinued publication with part IV of the third volume.

The first print is an engraving by John Sartain of the “Common Deer,” one of the works done in America by this noted engraver. The rest of the prints were done in the relatively new process of lithography. The artists who produced images for the work were some of the luminaries of the Philadelphia art scene, including M.E.D. Brown, George Lehman, J.G. Cloney, but the major contributor was Thomas Doughty himself. Of particular note are the prints by Titian Ramsay Peale, who upon his return from the Stephen Long expedition to the American West made pictures available of this new American frontier, including his famous image of hunting the American buffalo.