Fine Arts Museum News

The Legacy of Currier & Ives: Shaping the American Spirit

Michele & Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts

January 27, 2011

Often found on calendars, cookie tins and Christmas cards, Currier & Ives images strike a nostalgic chord in many people. A selection of the firm’s hand-colored lithographs will be on view at the Michele & Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts from February 1 through May 1 in the special exhibition The Legacy of Currier & Ives: Shaping the American Spirit.

The exhibition features 64 prints from the museum’s extensive permanent collection of more than 900 Currier & Ives prints.

The Currier & Ives firm got its start in 1835, when Nathaniel Currier created a sensation with his lithograph illustrating the great fire that swept through New York City’s business district. In only four days, he printed thousands of copies, attempting to satisfy the public demand to see Ruins of the Merchants’ Exchange N.Y. after the Destructive Conflagration of Decbr. 16 & 17, 1835.  Realizing the American public’s thirst for images of the news, Currier created several more disaster prints and other inexpensive lithographs illustrating local and national happenings, and gained a reputation as an accomplished lithographer.

Currier’s business partner, James Merritt Ives, encouraged production of the prints that are now identified with the firm – idealized pictures of middle-class American life in the 19th century.  Inexpensive and popular, the prints hung on the walls of homes, stores, barbershops and firehouses.

The Legacy of Currier & Ives: Shaping the American Spirit showcases some of Currier & Ives’ most popular themes. The exhibition explores the artistry behind the prints as well as the important role the images played in forging an American self-image.

National pride is expressed through images of Civil War and Revolutionary War battles, patriotic symbols and famous founding fathers.

An idealized vision of home is depicted in pictures of bucolic farms, rural landscapes and happy, comfortable domestic scenes, often with a New England flavor.

The idea of progress is expressed in prints of railroads and steamboats, panoramic scenes of westward expansion, images of cities, impressive monuments and public works projects.

Scenes of leisure pastimes such as hunting, yachting and horse racing illustrate the rewards of material and social success and celebrate America’s newfound wealth and leisure time.

Another section of the exhibition describes the contributions of some of the well-known artists who designed prints for the firm, including Frances (Fanny) Flora Palmer, George Durrie, and Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait.

Currier & Ives became the longest running printing firm in the United States, producing more than 7,500 different images. From its inception, Currier & Ives produced prints that celebrated the American experience and created a visual history that has become part of the fabric of national consciousness.  

The Legacy of Currier & Ives: Shaping the American Spirit has been made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Creative Genius. The traveling exhibition was organized by the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield and premiered at the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey, in August 2010.

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