During its life from 1834 to 1907, Currier & Ives, the New York-based firm that's still the best-known printmaking name in America, created more than 7,000 images. When we summon up an idea of the typical Currier & Ives print, we tend to think of going over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house. Of happy families passing sunny days on the farm. Of maple sugaring in Vermont. Of an unhurried, unharried, peaceful vision of life in rural America.
Yes, Currier & Ives did make prints of that kind. But that was by no means all or even the majority of what the firm turned out, as amply demonstrated by "Currier & Ives, Printmakers to the American People" at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Their subjects included war, politics, sports, urban life, the opening of the West, family life, transportation, morality and literature. All of the above are covered in the 59 prints of this show, which serves as a window on Currier & Ives' America. It was, many will be surprised to find, a decidedly narrow and more than slightly bigoted world.
The image Currier & Ives fostered and promulgated was probably accepted unquestioningly by most of those who bought their works. With the millions of hand-colored lithographs they sold in unlimited editions in that pre-television era, Currier & Ives' vision of America undoubtedly predominated in the popular mind.
Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives ran, in effect, an image-making factory in lower Manhattan, employing artists, lithographers, colorists and letterers and creating several new prints a week. One could buy an allegorical series on "The Four Seasons of Life" (1868); a vivid depiction of "The Assassination of President Lincoln" (1865); a morality tale on "The Ladder of Fortune" (1875) -- yes to temperance, punctuality and prudence, no to gambling, going on strike and playing the stock market; a view of "The Harbor of New York: From the Brooklyn Bridge Tower" (no date); an exciting "Midnight Race on the Mississippi" (1860); or a sobering lesson on "The Drunkard's Progress: From the First Glass to the Grave" (1846).
Some of the prints are intentionally funny, as when they satirize the bungling of city fellas trying to be fishermen, or the fashion fad for crinoline skirts. Some are unintentionally funny -- the people looking at New York from the top of the Brooklyn Bridge must have been deposited there by helicopter, since there's no visible opening from their perch to the tower they stand on.
And some are vicious. As the show's introductory text states, some of the prints "fostered ugly stereotypic images of people who did not conform to the Currier & Ives idealized vision of an idyllic and homogeneous white middle-class American way of life."
In the 1880s and 1890s, for instance, the firm created a series called "Darktown Comics," racist images of African-Americans as buffoons and fools. Two of these are included in the show. "The Darktown Fire Brigade -- Saved" (1884) shows a black fire brigade that can't find the fire in front of their faces. "De Cake Walk" (1884) shows a trio of ridiculously attired women dancing. These are so outrageous that they probably appealed primarily to the openly racist. More insidious and sinister is the portrayal of blacks in non-satirical prints as people contented with the condition of servitude.
The show's larger point is that Currier & Ives weren't just anti-black but practiced equal-opportunity bigotry against all who were "other" than white, middle-class, settled American citizens. Indians are portrayed in one print here as murderous savages who must be eliminated in the quest to conquer the West. Poor rural whites get theirs in a pair of images that portray them as ugly, ragged and suspicious of outsiders. A text states that immigrants were treated similarly, though there are no such works here.
Let us give Currier & Ives their due. Though not high art, the prints are well-crafted. They may have been turned out in a hurry, but they're full of detail and enhanced by rich coloring, especially the larger ones.
But after seeing this show, selected from the Harry T. Peters collection of the Museum of the City of New York, we will never think of Currier & Ives as benevolent portrayers of the American scene again. That's the exhibit's main point, effectively driven home in image and text.
Currier & Ives
What: "Currier & Ives, Printmakers to the American People"
Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through June 30. Beginning July 1, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Show runs through Oct. 12.
Admission: $5.50; $3.50 seniors and students; $1.50 ages 7 through 18, through June 30. Beginning July 1, $6; $4 seniors and students; free for ages 18 and under
Note: On July 3, there will be a gallery discussion of "Racist Caricatures in Currier & Ives' 'Darktown Comics,' " led by Karen C. C. Dalton, director and curator of The Image of the Black in Western Art Research Project and Photo Archive at Harvard University.
Pub Date: 6/26/97