Friday, December 16, 2016

Getting Cozy with Currier & Ives

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“...It'll nearly be like a picture print
By Currier and Ives.
These wonderful things are the things
We remember all through our lives!”

~ excerpt from “Sleigh Ride”

Look at me. It’s almost Christmas and I’m getting all nostalgic.

Leroy Anderson’s lyrics have been sung by countless vocalists. The words echo off our smiling brains even when “Sleigh Ride” is performed by an orchestra, sans vocals. With sleigh bells jingling in the background and the clip-clop of hooves keeping cadence, we can vividly see the quintessentially-quaint image of a cannon exploding aboard the U.S.S. Princeton. Wait! What? That’s not the image!
“Explosion Aboard the USS Princeton”
N. Currier Lith & Pub. 1844.

Let’s try this again. Surely, among the ‘things we remember all through our lives’ is an image of the New York Merchant Exchange burning to the ground. That‘s loaded with holly and tinsel, isn’t it?

You’re right. Those lithographs were produced by the ballooning “picture print” company when Nathaniel Currier was alone at the helm; that was before James Merritt Ives joined the firm, and before Ives became a full partner in 1857.

During the company’s strong run, artists were cranking out two to three new images per week – for 64 years. Nostalgic winter scenes were but a small part of what they produced. Everything from political satire to newsworthy disasters to fluffy kittens with balls of yarn to embarrassingly-racist trash was fair game. While keeping close tabs on public demand and keeping cost at a minimum, the affordable prints ended up on everyone’s walls. Women’s magazines fanned the flames, encouraging housewives to decorate with the lithographs.
“Ruins of the Merchant’s Exchange N.Y.”
N. Currier Lith & Pub. 1835.
After John H. Bufford

The enterprise would have been the envy of the late Thomas Kinkade. Operations taking up three floors of a New York building were streamlined by late-comer Ives, causing it to churn out pedestrian art by the boatload. That artwork often originated from well-known contemporary artists including George Inness, Thomas Nast, and Eastman Johnson. The firm also employed artists who specialized in particular genres – Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, who specialized in sports; George H. Durrie, who supplied winter scenes; and Frances Flora Bond Palmer, who created panoramic American landscapes.

Ives was keen to put the burgeoning company on a pace with the rest of the industrial revolution. Preparation of lithography stones was conducted on one floor. Hand-operated printing was done on another floor. Hand coloring was executed on yet a different floor.

Even the hand coloring was handled in assembly line fashion. A group of talented women applied the color after the black image was printed. Each woman was tasked with a single color, and passed on the print to the next colorist along a line until the image was completely colored.
“The Road Winter”
N. Currier Lith & Pub. 1853.

Those images produced by the long-defunct firm have endured, and are still collected. But it‘s the Christmas-y images that pull at our nostalgic strings.

The passing of time has helped us forget Currier and Ives’ penchant for sensational disasters. It lets us ignore the outdated visual drivel that bloated the company‘s inventory. It urges us to forgive the firm’s politically-incorrect images. The cream of their efforts, its seems, has slowly risen in the form of fluffy nostalgia, to be regaled in song and yearned for in a bass-ackwards sort of way. The epitome of Currier and Ives work is “The Road Winter,” an image of a one-horse open sleigh pulling a young couple through a pristine landscape. It was responsible in part – if not in whole – for “Sleigh Ride’s” lyrics.

The lithograph’s popularity is somewhat remarkable, given the original art was possibly not intended for the general public. The image was probably a portrait of Nathaniel Currier and his wife, created as a wedding gift by his staff.

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