Classic American Art and IllustrationI have been collecting lithographic art from the late 1800's and early 1900's. It is a fascinating way to look at American history. Before the existence of radio and television, people got their news from printed newspapers and periodicals. They also saw the world only through print. The craft of lithography, which literally means printing from stone plates had been perfected in Europe and came to this country in the 1800's. Full color printing was a thriving industry, and the quality of many of prints is surprising.
Above is a segment of a larger illustration showing the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Massive exhibition hall, bold electric lighting, bridges and gondolas in the style of Venice, Italy, there is a lot to see in this image that is quite surprising, not to mention the quality of the color lithography (printing with stone plates).
The 1874 litho above by Prang of Boston is a simplified view of a lithography shop. It is one of an educational series showing various occupations. Prang Lithography produced many of the finest works in the late 19th Century including extraordinary paintings of Civil War battles and generals. Lithography shops in all the major cities employed thousands of people in this labor-intensive process. In some cases we can see the name of the original artist, but in many cases the artists are the unnamed craftsmen who toiled in these shops.
I have spent a couple of years finding and restoring wonderful examples of 19th Century and early 20th Century lithography which I am making available in a special web site: Great American Posters .com. On that site, you can see many examples, and there are many more to come. Giclee prints on paper or canvas can be purchased for reasonable prices.
Currier & Ives may be the most famous litho company but they were far from the best. At right is a segment of a litho illustrating the siege of Vicksburg. Currier & Ives was pumping these illustrations out during the Civil War to satisfy a demand. The figures are cookie cutter, almost primitive folk art. It does not appear that the artist really knew what the war really looked like. Much better art and printing was produced 10 or 20 years after the war.
There was one artist, however, who really did know what the war looked like because he enrolled as an officer in the Union Army. Otto Boetticher emigrated from Prussia to pursue his art career in America. He became a major in the Union Army and was among the men captured by Southern forces and sent to Salisbury Prison in South Carolina. History books talk about overcrowding in that prison leading to poor conditions and the deaths of many Union soldiers. The painting above is absolutely my favorite from the Civil War era because the artist was not only there; he was there for long enough to really know the scene. There is tremendous detail in this view. Prisoners are playing a game of baseball while their comrades stand around watching. There are men in uniform with muskets also watching the game. These can only be Confederate guards in amongst the men. Clearly Boetticher was there fairly early in the war, before the prison became overcrowded. The atmosphere is relaxed and congenial. One point of this paragraph is that there is tremendous information in old lithographs that you won't find in most history books.
Another wonderful and unique aspect of this painting, demonstrating that the artist really knew his subject, is that it really looks like Boetticher painted each man in the scene portraying someone he knew.
You can see personality in each man and how he is dealing with the moment. The artist could have told you the name of each soldier.
A lot of how we think about the late 19th Century is the result of seeing black & white photos from the time. The people were rigid; most had really wooden personalities. Portrait photos at that time typically involved an exposure time of many seconds. The camera was on a tripod and didn't move. The portrait subjects didn't move either; they were holding still for as long as it took. Portrait photographers had a special brace for the back of your head to help you stay absolutely still. No wonder they looked wooden. The times were actually very lively, and we can see that in the better lithos of the day.
Look at the life and sense of action shown in the faces of these horses.
Giclee reproductions of these prints and many others are available at Great American Posters .com
There are so many things to see in these lithographs. Particularly interesting is how women were portrayed, and how that changed in subsequent decades. At right a segment of an 1887 lithograph by J. F. Hill & Co. of Augusta, Maine, entitled "Happy Autumn Hours'" is a typical representation for the times. Of course not all women dressed or styled their hair this way, but this was the accepted ideal for the social in-crowd. Aside from being portrayed as objects of beauty, women were most often not respected (in illustration) for their independence and intellect. This was going to change.
In 1918, when the U.S. government called upon the artists of the day to create posters to inspire the American people to support the war effort, Howard Chandler Christy answered the call. He had studied art in Paris with the Impressionists, and he introduced a new way to portray women. His models become famous as the "Christy Girls." Gone were the corsets, high collars, pinned up hair, and buttoned up dresses. Enter the 20th Century American woman. While Christy's war posters carried messages to join the Marines, or buy savings bonds, his artwork conveyed much different message. Yes, France was fighting for its survival and needed our assistance, but in that same historic moment, American women were fighting for the right to vote, which they finally won in 1920. I am convinced that this is what Christy's posters were really about.
Please visit GreatAmericanPosters.com so you can see all the wonderful lithographs I have restored and made available as giclee prints.