The Butler Institute of American Art presents the postcard-perfect world of Currier & Ives.
“American Homestead Winter” is iconic, the very picture of what so many of us believe a holiday should be. The hand-colored lithograph, published in 1868 by Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives, depicts a couple embarking on a horse-drawn sleigh ride outside a beautiful country home blanketed in fluffy snow. It’s a scene that’s postcard-perfect enough to inspire the most hardened of Scrooges to hum a few bars of “Over the River and Through the Woods.”
And that’s just one of the heartwarming images included in “The Legacy of Currier & Ives: Shaping the American Spirit,” an exhibit of 64 lithographs at The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown through Jan. 20. The most casual of art aficionados will recognize “Central Park Winter: The Skating Carnival,” a humorous illustration of 19th-century skaters on a pond in New York City’s most famous green space, and “Home to Thanksgiving,” a rendering of parents eagerly welcoming their city-dwelling son to a well-tended farm. But the display, on loan from the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, Mass. (home of one of the world’s largest Currier & Ives collections), also includes a range of other subjects: historical figures and events, symbols of progress such as trains and grand civic structures, leisure activities like horse-racing and hunting.
Together, the prints provide a view of the United States during a period when it endured the Civil War, doubled in geographic size, increased in population from 13 million to 62 million, and became a world power. Lou Zona, director of the Butler Institute, calls them “an important part of our heritage,” prints by professional artists that the average American could afford. As a result, they helped shape an ideal of American life that endures to this day, according to Julia Courtney, curator of art at the Springfield Museums, a collection of five institutions that includes the D’Amour.
“Currier & Ives influenced America as much as America influenced Currier & Ives,” she says.
Ironically, the success of a duo known for their images of the idyllic was built on mass misfortune. In 1835, Nathaniel Currier, an artist and printing-company owner, made a name for himself by publishing one of the exhibit’s earliest lithographs, that of a fire destroying New York City’s business district. “Ruins of the Merchant’s Exchange N.Y.” appeared in the local newspaper alongside a story on the inferno. The image proved to be a real attention-getter at a time when illustrations of the news were uncommon. A huge demand for copies resulted.
“In four days, he printed thousands of copies,” Courtney says. “And they all sold.”
Another disaster — a fire that ravaged a passenger steamboat as it traveled through Long Island Sound in January 1840 — provided the subject for Currier’s first financial triumph. Public interest in “Awful Conflagration of the Steam Boat Lexington” was so great after it appeared in The Sun that his presses ran day and night for months to satisfy it. Courtney likens the fascination that drove sales of these and subsequent renderings of disaster and death to the curiosity that compels a Web-surfer to check out video of the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.
“People wanted to see what that looked like,” she says. “Some of the newsworthy images would end up in barbershops or in taverns” — places where patrons discussed the day’s events.
By 1840, Currier was also producing decorative scenes suitable for hanging in the parlor. Although he was indeed practiced in the art of lithography, his company hired a stable of unknown artists and commissioned well-known counterparts — George Henry Durrie (credited for “Home to Thanksgiving”), Eastman Johnson, Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait — just to keep up with demand. The Currier & Ives Foundation website describes 19th-century lithography as a painstaking process: grinding a piece of limestone flat and smooth, drawing an image on it with a special grease pencil, etching the stone with an acid solution that left the greased areas in slight relief, wetting the resulting printing block, rolling it with greased ink, and placing it in a press. An association with Ives, a self-trained artist Currier hired for his bookkeeping skills and ended up making a full partner in 1857, streamlined the labor-intensive production. In some cases, the printed result passed through many hands in the coloring process.
“Somebody might do all the blue, somebody might do all the red,” Courtney says. “The fun of collecting Currier & Ives lithographs is that there are variations. In a winter scene, you might see a red sleigh or a yellow sleigh, depending on who the hand-colorist was.”
The Butler exhibit’s sampling of these more pleasing works include celebrations of engineering feats such as “The New Suspension Bridge – Niagara Falls” and “Through to the Pacific,” which depicts a train bound to the West Coast.
There are also several tributes to patriots who contributed to the establishment and growth of a fledgling United States. “Washington Crossing the Delaware” may well have been inspired by the 1851 Emanuel Leutze painting of the same name.
“A lot of the work that they did was propaganda,” Courtney asserts. She singles out “The Star Spangled Banner,” which features a woman bearing a remarkable resemblance to Disney’s Snow White carrying an American flag, as an example. “Anything that really promotes patriotism or American ideals, the white picket fence, all of that stuff — when you saturate the market with that, you’re making a statement.”
The most recognizable lithographs, however, are bucolic rural images such as “Home in the Wilderness” and “American Homestead Summer,” one of four prints that, like “American Homestead Winter,” illustrates traditional New England homes through the seasons. Although the show also includes urban scenes such as “City Hall, New York” and “The City of San Francisco,” Courtney says Currier & Ives generally looked to the country for inspiration — an effort to cash in on the public’s longing for the good ol’ days in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.
“The default was to go back to the way things were,” she says, “so these images became very appealing.”
And of all the rustic lithographs, Courtney says it’s the winter prints that have remained most popular since Currier & Ives closed their doors in 1907. Zona notes that even children are captivated by them. The images continue to appear on holiday greeting cards and cookie tins, nostalgic reminders of what once was.
“They’re pieces of American history,” Courtney says.
WHEN YOU GO
The Butler Institute of American Art
524 Wick Ave., Youngstown 44502; 330/743-1107, butlerart.com
Hours: Tues.–Sat. 11 a.m.–4 p.m., Sun. noon–4 p.m.; admission is free