The Long Island Museum of American Art, History and Carriages

formerly The Museums at Stony Brook

Stony Brook, NY



Currier & Ives, Printmakers to the American People


A delightful new exhibition, "Currier & Ives, Printmakers to the American People," will be on view at The Long Island Museum of Art, History and Carriages from Oct. 28, 2000 through Jan. 21, 2001. Drawn primarily from the Harry T. Peters collection at The Museum of the City of New York, the 72 works in the exhibition offer viewers the opportunity to examine Currier & Ives not solely as quaint pictures, but as a way of understanding how the majority of 19th-century Americans perceived and idealized themselves. (left: Frances F. Palmer and John Cameron, 1868, Haying Time, The First Load, Published by Currier & Ives, Museum of the City of New York)

In 1834, Nathaniel Currier, a 21-year-old lithographer from Massachusetts, began his own printmaking business in New York City. He opened a shop on Nassau Street across from City Hall and a factory around the corner on Spruce Street, where the firm remained for the next 70 years. In 1857, Currier formed a partnership with James Merritt Ives, a self-trained artist who had been the firm's bookkeeper for five years and was related to the Currier family by marriage. The resulting firm of Currier & Ives was spectacularly prolific, producing an average of three or four new prints every week for 50 years. When the company closed in 1907, it had sold millions of prints in unlimited editions from an inventory that numbered over 7,000 titles.

The success of Currier & Ives was part of the larger story of widespread American upward mobility and the mechanization of publishing. From Andrew Jackson's 1828 presidential inauguration through the Civil War, Americans experienced an astonishing growth in material comfort, leisure time and literacy. At the same time, technological innovations cut costs and increased the output of printed words and pictures. Newspapers and magazines, many illustrated with wood engravings, reached thousands of Americans. (left: Louis Maurer, Hiawatha's Wedding, 1869, Published by Currier & Ives, Museum of the City of New York, Harry T. Peters Collection 56.300.76)

In the firm's factory, an assembly-line atmosphere prevailed. Artists prepared sketches, lithographers transferred sketches to Bavarian lithographic stones, letterers wrote inscriptions on stone, and colorists band-painted prints. With some exceptions, most of the Currier & Ives prints were not copies of paintings done by well-known artists. Instead, they were created by staff artists working collaboratively with specialists in a particular area of design. It was for this reason that many of the Currier & Ives prints are unsigned.

Currier & Ives competed successfully not only with other American lithography firms but with other media as well. Its images of news events and political cartoons appealed to readers of the inexpensive dailies of the "penny presses," its decorative pictures underpriced engravings and "chromes," and its celebrity portraits and historical scenes offered color and movement beyond the means of early photography. (left: Thomas Nast, The Attack on the "Home Guard," Published by Currier & Ives, 1864, Museum of the City of New York, Harry T. Peters Collection 57.300.20)

Although the firm continued to flourish financially in the 1880s, its output by then consisted primarily of horse-trotting prints and the popular but scurrilous "darktown comics" depicting the coarsest stereotypes of African Americans. The firm's decline was due, in part, to the waning energies of the founding partners. By the century's end, competing technologies, especially photography and chromolithography, overshadowed hand-colored lithography, and as middle-class tastes stratified, the more well-to-do shied away from the unsophisticated charm of Currier & Ives. In 1907, the firm's inventory was sold for little more than the cost of materials.

By the I920s, however, there was an upsurge of public interest in artifacts of the American past, and the modern collecting of Currier & Ives prints began in earnest. Foremost among these pioneering collectors was Harry T. Peters, who assembled a personal holding of over 2,800 Currier & Ives prints and, in 1929, published the firm's first history and catalogue. In 1956, The Museum of the City of New York organized a major exhibition of Peters' unique collection, which was subsequently donated to the Museum Harry T. Peters' gift has encouraged other collectors to donate works by Currier & Ives, enhancing the Museum's superlative holdings of the prints. (left: Charles R. Parsons, Central-Park, Winter: The Skating Pond, Published by Currier & Ives, 1862, Museum of the City of New York, Harry T. Peters Collection 58.300.91)

Guest curated by Dr. Bonnie Yochelson, "Currier & Ives, Printmakers to the American People" presents prints that illustrate the breadth of subjects depicted by the firm during its 70-year existence. Partial funding for the exhibition was provided by the John Ben Snow Memorial Trust and Citibank Corp. of Freeport.

rev. 10/01/00

Read more about the Long Island Museum of Art, History and Carriages in Resource Library Magazine

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/18/11

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