Currier & Ives

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Lithographic firm that dominated the market for inexpensive prints from the mid-nineteenth century into the early years of the twentieth. Its unpretentious products decorated households throughout the country. Although the range of subjects was large, attractive landscapes and cheerful genre scenes predominated. Sporting and hunting scenes, portraits, historical and religious narratives, political cartoons, railroad views, clipper ships, and children's subjects numbered among other well-received types. Today the name Currier & Ives evokes a rosy view of American life in a supposedly less complicated time. But to the original buyers, the prints offered numerous forms of access to knowledge and vicarious experience. Individual scenes variously stimulated excitement, nostalgia, contemplation, imaginative flight, and new understandings of the nation's expansion, industrialization, and social development. Importantly, the images also expanded the nation's taste for visual art. Born in Roxbury (now part of Boston), Nathaniel Currier (1813–88) worked for lithographers in Boston and Philadelphia before moving permanently to New York in 1834. He founded his own company the following year. His earliest successes pictured newsworthy events of the day, particularly disasters. In one such scene, which appeared only days after the incident, numerous passengers flounder in the water as a passenger steamer goes up in flames. The print bears the caption “Awful Conflagration of the Steamboat ‘Lexington’ in Long Island Sound on Monday Evening, January 13, 1840, by which Melancholy Occurrence over 100 Persons Perished.” James Merritt Ives (1824–95) joined the firm in 1852. When he became a partner five years later, the firm was renamed Currier & Ives. Born in New York and trained as a lithographer, he initially worked for Currier as a bookkeeper. His business acumen probably underpinned the company's subsequent prominence. He died in suburban Rye, New York, where he had made his home for some time.

Currier & Ives flourished through effective marketing within a national distribution system and through shrewd intuition for what would attract the public. During the half century between formation of the partnership and its demise, the firm issued more than seven thousand images, many of which had print runs in the thousands. Both house artists and freelancers furnished designs, which were customarily printed in black and white, and then usually hand colored. This work normally was performed in the shop by about a dozen young women, who applied a single watercolor hue each as a print was passed along. However, by the 1860s the firm had begun to experiment with chromolithography, using colored inks in the printing process. Most often these images were only partly printed in color and finished by hand. With few exceptions, Currier & Ives did not produce true chromolithographs until after Currier retired in 1880. Fanny Palmer was the most important staff artist, while Arthur Tait, George Durrie, and Eastman Johnson numbered among painters who also contributed designs. After the deaths of the partners, the business continued in the hands of their sons until 1907.

Subjects: Art.

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