If you remember my post on Currier & Ives and the Nostalgic Past, you’ll remember that I wrote about the sharp divide between the world depicted by Currier & Ives prints and reality. I also wrote about how these images created a nostalgic vision of the world that didn’t reflect reality accurately, kind of like a funhouse mirror (historian Roland Marchand uses the term ‘Zerrspiegel’ to describe this phenomenon among advertisers and commercial artists).
This was what comfortable country life looked like in 1868, according to Currier and Ives. Image credit: Library of Congress.
If you recall (or even read) my other post, then you might remember that I quoted a passage from historian Jackson Lears about what nostalgia meant to Americans in the 19th century. I thought it was especially useful in understanding how longings for the past shaped how Americans looked at their lives in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Tom Watson, Populist Leader and opponent of false agrarian nostalgia. Image credit: C. Vann Woodward’s “Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel” (1938).
Turns out that Dr. Lears has written another interesting book, “Rebirth of a Nation.” Its a history of the United States from 1877 (end of Reconstruction) to 1922 (not sure yet what he is using as a bookend here). I’m only a few chapters in, and I came across this interesting passage that made me think about nostalgia, Currier & Ives artwork, and how Americans thought about themselves and their history at the turn of the 20th century. In his chapter on the struggles between city and country Americans, he quotes Tom Watson, a Populist farmer from Georgia who championed poor farmers and agrarian causes. In 1888, Watson was a member of the state legislature and found himself speaking out against “prosy people” who had never worked the tough farm life and were trying to make money by investing in agriculture from their distant city offices:
“It takes these city fellows to draw ideal pictures of Farm life- pictures which are no more true to real life than a Fashion plate is to an actual man or woman…In Grady’s farm life there are no poor cows. They are all fat! Their bells tinkle musically in clover scented meadows & all you’ve got to do is hold a pan under the udder & you catch it full of golden butter. In real life we find the poor old Brindle cow with wolves in her back & “hollow horn” on her head & she always wants to back up where the wind won’t play a tune on her ribs & when you milk her you get the genuine ‘blue milk’…”
Take a good look at this picture. Does it look like a photograph? Well look again, its a painting! And its 130 years old! I was at the National Gallery of Art in D.C. the other day walking through a room of still life paintings when I came across one called Imitation by artist John Haberle. I thought it was so detailed and real-looking that I had to stop and admire it for a good long while. Usually when I’m walking around the National Gallery I stop and look at the paintings that have funny hats or interesting facial expressions. When I’m being serious I’m usually more drawn to landscapes, especially from Hudson River School artists. But this time it was Haberle’s painting of what looks like the contents of someone’s pockets tossed onto a board and framed.
Upon further research, I learned that Haberle was not just a still life painter, he was particularly gifted at a special kind of still life painting called “trompe l’oeil” (French for “fool the eye”). Though the art-style had been around since at least the Renaissance, it was particularly popular in the late 19th century in Europe and the United States. Perhaps artists felt like they had to compete with photography which seemed like the most “real” depiction of real life. Other popular American artists who specialized in trompe l’oeil were John Peto and William Harnett. According to one writer, “Trompe l’oeil images share an affective intention of double wonderment: first, to make their viewers wonder “Is this real? and What is real?” and, second, to make us wonder (in the sense of “marvel”) at the artist’s virtuosity in provoking such questions in the first place.” Where photographs offer a way for viewers to look through a “window” at reality, trompe l’oeil paintings subvert this kind of realism in a way, by appearing “real” for a moment before the viewer realizes that it is not. Continue reading
There’s a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy…It’ll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives. These wonderful things are the things. We remember all through our lives…
“Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson, 1948
Currier and Ives has a special place in American society and our memory of the past. The prints made by the 19th century lithography company usually invoke fond memories today, which is exactly what they were designed to do. “Mention Currier and Ives and most people think of images of 19th-century home life — of lovers whispering in each other’s ear; elegant children holding fluffy kittens; idyllic farmhouses set in a snowy landscape,” a 1998 New York Times article wrote when describing a new museum exhibit of their prints. Back in the day Currier and Ives was called “the Grand Central Depot for Cheap and Popular Prints,” though its rare to see original prints in homes today. But, they had an impact on home decoration and our ideas about what a “good home” looked like that I think are still relevant today. There is one print called “The Four Seasons of Life: Middle Age” that I really like, and I think is a good example for understanding the wider world of Currier and Ives. Continue reading