Hofstra Museum

Hofstra University

Hempstead, NY




Fine Art and Paper Money in Jacksonian America, 1820-1860

September 5 - December 22, 2000


Until the early 19th century, artists and engravers served an elite aristocracy usually providing their patrons with flattering portraiture. Art, much like everything else, was limited to and for a very few. During the Jacksonian period, a democratic fervor swept the country, due in part by limiting frustrations of the past and a recognized need for the nation to become part of a rapidly changing world. Past leadership and values were wanting. New leadership would come from the "common man." Democracy, nationalism, industrialism and an urban-agrarian revolution created new vistas, new visions and new questions.

In the center of this burgeoning, free enterprise capitalism were the rapidly expanding state banks. When the United States Bank charter, first mandated in 1791 and again in 1816, lapsed in 1836, a limiting fiscal agency disappeared. State banks chartered by state legislatures grew from 330 in that year to 788 by the time of the Civil War. Paper notes during that period increased in value from $49 million to $149 million. It is examples of these notes that are shown here. (left: O. Paddock and Company Bank, Watertown, New York, Fifty Dollars, 1864)

With the development of modern printing machines such as Robert Hoe's rotary or circular press and new methods of transferring images to steel cylinders, art could now be supplied inexpensively and in large quantity. Currier & Ives are classic examples, providing "colored engravings for the people," while firms like Rawdon, Hatch and Wright, American Bank Note Company and Bowne and Co. produced images not quite as large or colorful as Currier and Ives, but often more detailed, more real and less romantic. They also produced paper money.

Bank notes, however, would not normally be framed, not usually placed on a wall as an admired object - the business of money was still basically business. Still, for those who were more inquisitive and more observant, many of these bills contained messages not only of financial value, but they were, indeed, works of fine art by some of America's best artists such as Asher Durand, Henry Inman and Peter Maverick. Their early work in this medium prepared them for future careers as recognized painters. While most of the notes were not attributed, they were, nevertheless, done by highly professional, highly skilled engravers. In fact, these notes were among the best this nation has produced and were widely admired abroad. They promoted America, paper money and banking to an often hostile public who questioned the value of paper as currency. (left: Albany Exchange Bank, New York, Twenty Dollars, 1847, 3 x 7 1/8 inches)

In this exhibition are views that are original and unique. Depicted scenes of early railroads or steamboats, for example, are to be found only on these notes. Details of steam engines, passenger cars, tenders and ships deserve to be in any history of transportation, but, in fact, are seldom, if ever, included. Enlarging specific areas helps reveal the careful, painstaking effort, as well as a myriad of detail. (left: Clinton Bank, Westernport, New York, Five Dollars, c. 1860, 3 1/8 x 7 1/8 inches)

Jacksonian America, with its newfound energy and passion, almost springs to life in these notes. It is America at work. Here are iron producers, cobblers, mill-rights, all busily engaged at their tasks. Work produces bounty from the fields - an ex-soldier now the farmer, toiling at his plow, helping to feed a hungry nation. There are morals in these images - labor, sobriety and thrift - Puritan values to build a nation.

In their own way, these notes are romantic, perhaps just as romantic as the works of such transcendental artists as William S. Mount or Thomas Cole or Frederic Church, because there is little hint of the costs of progress - pollution, disease, poverty. Here, images sing of the glory of capitalism. Critics are left to wonder. Pictures of an advancing America presented ideals of solidity, value and esteem. Social criticism is absent. This was paper money backed by railroads, factories, fertile fields. There was merit in each bill, art to publicize America and American production and sound paper currency.

These bank notes, often known as "shinplasterers," were the center of a bitter political debate. Jacksonians saw them as a form of theft with as many counterfeits in circulation as sound money. They often depreciated in value or became worthless as state banks defaulted "cheating" an honest workman of his wages. Debtors, farmers and bankers generally opposed Jackson's bullionist policy, desiring a more fluid, available currency. In the end, sound money advocates won the battle with the help of the engraver and succeeded in having the federal government become the sole issuing authority. By 1861 Congress authorized printing of interest-bearing national Treasury notes. In 1865 a 10 percent tax was placed on outstanding state bank notes, and this was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1868 and led to a national banking system and permanent national bank notes. The halcyon days of free enterprise currency were over, but so too was the widespread depiction on bills of the drama and beauty of advancing America. (left: Chemical Bank, New York, Three Dollars, 1830, 2 3/4 x 6 3/4 inches)

Each bill is a story in itself, and it is hoped that this exhibition will provide the viewer a special insight and a further appreciation of the meaning of fine art and paper money.

From the exhibition catalogue, by Leo Hershkowitz and Theodore Cohen

Read more about the Hofstra Museum in Resource Library Magazine

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/4/11

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