Currier & Ives: Winter Wonderland

October 27, 2009 – January 10, 2010 —

Long before Currier & Ives became synonymous with cookie tins, greeting cards, Christmas ornaments, and collectors’ plates, the company was known as the self-proclaimed “Grand Central Depot for Cheap and Popular Prints.” The Museum of Nebraska Art is pleased to present Currier & Ives: Winter Wonderland, a sampling of seasonal lithographic prints from the fine collection of ConAgra Foods.

By 1840 a man in the lithography business had come to the conclusion that there was money to be made depicting images from current events. The clientele was the middle class, and Nathaniel Currier was the man with the vision. In 1857 he offered a partnership to his accountant, James Merritt Ives, the man who had streamlined the business end of artful lithography and who would help to make Currier & Ives a fashionable name in Victorian home décor.

Ives had a knack for knowing what images the public would purchase for their homes and which artists could do those scenes credit. The company produced lithographs of landscapes, portraits of famous people, images of historical events, pictures of still lifes and animals, and many other genres. The firm employed a number of talented artists who would first create a painting or drawing judged saleable, and the image would be transferred, in reverse, to a smooth limestone plate with a grease pencil. Next, the stone was moistened and inked. The oil-based ink would cling to the grease, but not to the wet stone. An image could be attained by pressing paper to the stone, and the stone and grease could be re-inked many times. The prints were then handcolored by an assembly-line of artisans. Until technology for mass production was implemented, each print was made in this laborious fashion.

Prints were available at first only through the lithographers’ storefront. In time, the public could purchase a variety of prints from street vendors, bookstores, and even by mail. Currier & Ives also had representatives throughout Europe. A small print could be had for as little as 25¢, and the large ones could be purchased for $3.

Seventy-two years of history led to the production of more than 7,500 collectible lithograph images still treasured today. From 1834 to 1895, artists on staff produced two to three images weekly. Nathaniel Currier died in 1888, J. M. Ives in 1895. Their sons carried on until the business was liquidated in 1907. By that time the processes of photoengraving and offset printing had radically improved and overtaken the market from Currier & Ives. The printing stones were sold by the pound.

One might note that the name of the original artist was often absent from these lithographs. Many of these prints are recognized simply as “Currier & Ives” and the prints of other production houses of the period are also encompassed by this misnomer. Of the twelve lithographs in this exhibition, several are signed or attributable to specific artists. The work of Francis (Frannie) Bond Palmer, one of the firm’s best and most prolific artists, is characterized by glorious winter scenes and imaginary landscapes. Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait’s may be recognized through their sense of pictorial storytelling or by their depictions of wildlife. George Henry Durrie is well-known for his rural landscapes, and Home to Thanksgiving, depicting just such a scene, is today’s tenth most popular image among Currier & Ives connoisseurs.