Visitors to the Suffolk County Historical Society will gain a unique perspective on the artistry of Currier & Ives with the opening of an exhibit paying tribute to the self-proclaimed “publishers of cheap and popular pictures” who captured the wonder of 19th century America in finely detailed, hand-colored lithographed prints. “Currier & Ives: Printmakers to the American People” showcases over 275 prints from a private collection.
From 1834 through 1907, the wildly prolific firm produced about 7,500 images which each sold for 20 cents to four dollars. According to Roy King and Burke Davis, authors of The World of Currier & Ives, the “handsome prints that mirrored the image of our nation” were once omnipresent decorative accoutrements in homes and businesses. Although an estimated one million prints were produced, they are now rarely seen en mass outside of museums or private collections, making the exhibit a real coup for the Society.
Director Kathy Curran expects the “visually stunning show” to create a big splash for the summer. Her goal was to incorporate as many images as possible into the main gallery as well as exhibition spaces, including the “transportation” area where horse-drawn sleds are already on display.
The prints “transform the museum into a salon,” and bring new life to existing collections, Curran said.
Currier & Ives had an intuitive understanding of the public’s desires. Our country on the cusp of industrialization and undergoing tremendous change; the topics for illustration were endless.
These were the glory days of Westward expansion, stately steamboats and clipper ships. The railroad reigned supreme as a means of transportation. Hunting, fishing and horseracing were beloved pastimes. The public was also hungry for images of the Civil War and sensational disasters.
“The collection covers every aspect of American cultural, political and historical life. The images are arresting and the stories that they tell are remarkable,” Curran said, adding that viewers will lose themselves in the resplendent details of the prints, which were colored assembly-line fashion.
Talented artists who worked for Currier & Ives included Lewis Maurer, George Durrie, Fanny Palmer, A.F. Tate, John Cameron, and Thomas Worth; each had a different specialty.
Durrie was known for New England winter scenes. Maurer made his mark picturing horses and fires. Tate specialized in Western frontier life, the Adirondacks and hunting. According to King and Davis, Fanny Palmer depicted steamboat races on the Mississippi, drew inspiration from jaunts to the Long Island countryside, and often included likenesses of her family in her work.
Of particular interest is the print, “Awful Conflagration of the Steamboat Lexington in Long Island Sound.” In 1840, Currier, who had not yet teamed up with Ives, created a sensation by depicting a raging inferno aboard a steamboat, which had just entered Eaton’s Neck. The engraving appeared in The New York Sun with a description of the disaster and the horrific loss of life. According to King and Davis, it was one of the first illustrated news stories and the immense demand for this image paved the way for Currier & Ives’ monumental success.
Curran proudly pointed out the exhibit’s important Suffolk County connection. Harry T. Peters, a major collector who authored the book, Currier & Ives: Printmakers to the People, had a mansion in Islip. Peters ushered in a revival of interest in the printmakers’ work at a time when America needed a comforting dose of nostalgia and a reminder of brighter days – during the Depression.
“Harry Peters worked with the Old Print Shop in Manhattan and made Currier & Ives prints into the collectible, iconic images that they are today,” Curran said.
“It’s a wonderful visual history to share with Suffolk County,” Curran concluded. During the show’s run, there will be a lecture by John Zak on Currier & Ives history, and Robert Neuman of the Old Print Shop will appraise prints.
The exhibit was mounted in collaboration with the Railroad Museum in Riverhead, which supplied related memorabilia.
The Suffolk County Historical Society, 300 West Main Street, Riverhead, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. “Currier & Ives: Printmakers to the American People” runs through October 20. suffolkcountyhistoricalsociety.org. 631-727-2881