Winterthur presents Lasting Impressions: The Artists of Currier & Ives

Looking at a young nation

In recent years, the beautiful Winterthur Estate and Gardens has presented some exceptional and exceptionally large exhibitions. They’ve mounted a groundbreaking retrospective of Southeastern Pennsylvania furniture, the current bling-filled Made in the Americas, and the grandest of them all for attendance and public interest, The Costumes of Downton Abbey. There’s also the 100-room DuPont house itself, packed with treasures of American furniture and decorative arts that’s now decked out for their annual Yuletide extravaganza. But amid the blockbusters are often nestled more intimate exhibitions, and one of the most charming and informative is a current gem of iconic American printmaking, Lasting Impressions: The Artists of Currier & Ives.

The Life of a Hunter/A Tight Fix, Currier & Ives, Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, 1861-1872, New York, NY, watercolor on paper. (Image courtesy of Winterthur)

Curated by Winterthur’s associate curator of fine art, Dr. Marie-Stephanie Delamaire, this is an intriguing and intimate show of limited edition large and medium folio 18th-century U.S. lithographs drawn from the museum’s collection. It showcases the work of Frances Flora Bond Palmer (1812-1876) and Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819-1905), two artists not well known by the general public today but stars in their time. 

Two artists, many perspectives

Tait and Palmer worked extensively for Currier & Ives, an iconic New York lithographic studio founded in 1834 by the redoubtable Nathaniel Currier. Currier located his firm near the growing hub of both newspapers and the more sensational publications in Manhattan, cementing it as a provider of visual images to the press and ensuring his overwhelming success. The firm published more than 7500 titles and hundreds of thousands of prints in its 73 years of business.

Lasting Impressions is a fascinating look at two Currier & Ives artists of differing styles and temperaments but equals in success. Born and trained in London, “Fanny” Palmer became the major U.S. female printmaker of the 19th century, producing 200 lithographs and making improvements in the printing process itself. Some of her images echo Dutch “genre” painting: Depictions of daily life, with people and animals so detailed that they are almost sociological documents.  But another group of her images in the exhibition is strikingly different — muscular depictions of the power and romance of steam power and train travel, a burgeoning phenomenon iconized by Americans, many of whom would never be able to ride the rails.  

Arthur Tait, who also immigrated to America from Britain, was a self-taught painter of great reputation. He was also a skilled woodsman and marksman lauded for his images of wildlife and wilderness, though he never went west of Chicago. The country’s first important sporting artist, Tait created some of the most popular images in the Currier & Ives portfolio. He became an assistant to American painter George Catlin and established an Adirondack “painting camp” to further the study of wildlife painting. Lasting Impressions features his vivid depictions of bear hunting, along with oils that were the basis of his most famous prints.

More than period pieces

The small exhibition is also packed with details that provide a look into the rivalries, feuds and successes of 19th-century U.S. printmaking and the collaborative process of making “studio art.” But one of the big surprises is the force of these images. Currier & Ives prints are reproduced everywhere in small scale, for cards, calendars, books, and such. But displayed here, these large prints, beautifully framed and dramatically displayed, are revelatory for their artistry, scope, depth of content and stunning detail.

Living as we do now in a world where visual communication is omnipresent and overpowering, it’s easy to dismiss these images as quaint period pieces. But in the expanding world of the 19th-century United States, Currier & Ives, and its gifted artists, communicated with people in an entirely new way and with unprecedented scope, creating, in the words of the exhibition, “images of the past that anchor the present.”

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