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Currier & Ives: An American Panorama
November 18, 2005 - June 4, 2006
(above: Nathaniel Currier, The
Independent Gold Hunter on His Way to California, 1850, hand-colored
lithograph. Gift of Lenore B. and Sidney A. Alpert, supplemented with Museum
of Fine Arts Collections Funds)
One of the largest public collections of Currier & Ives prints in the country will be unveiled for the first time in the special exhibition Currier & Ives: An American Panorama, on view from November 18, 2005 through June 4, 2006, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, Massachusetts.
The exhibition will also inaugurate the Lenore B. and Sidney A. Alpert Currier & Ives Gallery, the country's only permanent museum gallery devoted to the work of these well-known "printmakers to the people."
Currier & Ives: An American Panorama will feature 175 selections from the museum's collection of 787 hand-colored lithographs acquired last year from Silver Spring, Maryland, collectors Lenore B. and Sidney A. Alpert.
The exhibition is the first of its kind to explore the artistry behind the prints as well as the important role that they played in expressing an American self-image. Currier & Ives: An American Panorama will showcase some of Currier & Ives' most popular subjects, including American scenic wonders; leisure pastimes such as hunting, yachting and horse racing; portraits of famous personalities; heroic activities such as firefighting; westward expansion; and important moments in history. (left: Nathanial Currier and James Ives, Light Artillery, 1863, hand-colored lithograph. Gift of Lenore B. and Sidney A. Alpert, supplemented with Museum of Fine Arts Collections Funds)
Currier & Ives got its start in 1835, when Nathaniel Currier created a sensation with his lithograph illustrating the great fire that swept through New York City's business district. In only four days, he printed thousands of copies, attempting to satisfy the public demand to see Ruins of the Merchants' Exchange N.Y. after the Destructive Conflagration of December 16 & 17, 1835. Realizing the American public's thirst for images of the news, Currier created several more disaster prints and other inexpensive lithographs illustrating local and national happenings, and gained a reputation as an accomplished lithographer.
Currier had several business partners over the years, but it was James Merritt Ives who encouraged production of the prints that are now identified with the firm -- idealized pictures of the daily experiences of middle class American life in the 19th century. The company employed many of the most noted artists of the day, including Eastman Johnson and Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, and became the longest running printing firm in the United States, producing more than 7,500 different images.
Currier & Ives: An American Panorama will be organized to address a variety of themes. The introductory section will describe the history of the firm, the lithographic process, and Currier & Ives' "Best 50," a designation given by a group of Currier & Ives collectors in 1932 to describe what they considered to be the best large-folio images. Fifteen of these will be included in the exhibition.
"Creating an American Identity" will show how Currier & Ives images provided citizens of the young nation with a sense of shared history and purpose. It will include images of colonial settlement, portraits of founding fathers and the American Revolution, and idealized portrayals of the country during a time of great growth and change. (right: Nathaniel Currier, Life on the Prairie "The Pursuit", 1856, hand-colored lithograph. Gift of Lenore B. and Sidney A. Alpert, supplemented with Museum of Fine Arts Collections Funds)
"The American Home" will include pictures of bucolic farms and happy homes, especially those set in New England. The idea of "home" was central to Victorian American culture, providing a safe haven from the rapid societal changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Currier & Ives prints were among the household decorations considered appropriate for a proper home by Catharine Esther Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, authors of American Woman's Home (1869): "The great value of pictures for the home would be, after all, in their sentiment. They should express the sincere ideas and tastes of the household and not the tyrannical dicta of some art critic or neighbor."
America's growing prosperity and its emergence as a world power is depicted in the section on "American Progress." These images depict urbanization (and its pitfalls), technological achievements, westward expansion, and immigration.
Prints of sporting events such as horse racing, yachting, hunting, fishing and group activities express America's enjoyment of its newfound wealth and leisure time in the section on "American Success."
(above: Nathaniel Currier, The Cares of A Family, 1856, hand-colored lithograph. Gift of Lenore B. and Sidney A. Alpert, supplemented with Museum of Fine Arts Collections Funds)
(above: Nathaniel Currier, Preparing for Market, 1856, hand-colored lithograph. Gift of Lenore B. and Sidney A. Alpert, supplemented with Museum of Fine Arts Collections Funds)
(above: Nathaniel Currier, Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, VA, 1852, hand-colored lithograph. Gift of Lenore B. and Sidney A. Alpert, supplemented with Museum of Fine Arts Collections Funds)
Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy the following:
and this book by Walton Rawls:
The Great Book of Currier and Ives' America, By Walton Rawls, Published 1991, ISBN: 978-1-55859-229-2. (online book excerpt available from Abbeville Press) (right: catalogue front cover courtesy Abbeville Press)
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