Mr. Currier & Mr. Ives & Mr. Tait
If you were alive before Joe DiMaggio first laid eyes on Marilyn Monroe, chances are your grandparents grew up with a Currier & Ives’s lithograph in the house. For 50 years (1857 to 1907) the “Publishers of Cheap and Popular Pictures”—a firm built by the tall, politically liberal, and melancholy Nathaniel Currier and the short, plump, and jovial James Merritt Ives—churned out an average of three new titles every week, totaling some 7,500 titles and perhaps a million prints.
In that age of few printed images, Currier & Ives provided an unpretentious pictorial history of the events and spirit of mid-19 th century America—its gold rush, bloody Civil War, and newsworthy disasters; its Victorian view of the industrial revolution and family life. In addition to 500 portraits of important people and 600 famous horses, Currier & Ives also produced several hundred sporting prints, including about 30 on angling, from still lifes of pickerel to fly fishing for salmon.
The print process called lithography was invented in Germany around 1795 by Bavarian author Alois Senefelder. It reached the States in 1820 when Bostonian John Pendleton brought the first lithographic pressman to America, a Frenchman named Dubois. In 1828, 15-year-old Nathaniel Currier (1813-1888) went to work for Pendleton to support his widowed mother and numerous siblings, and eventually struck out on his own.
Currier followed Senefelder’s method of making a printing block from a soft calcareous stone (lithos is Greek for stone) imported from Bavaria by the pound. The stone was cut into flat rectangular blocks several inches thick, and the surface burnished by circularly grinding with a thin layer of sand. Then, using hydrophobic (water-repelling) oil-based crayons of varying widths or brushes dipped in tusche (a greasy black fluid), the lithographer meticulously copied the original onto the stone.
The stones of successful prints were kept or occasionally redrawn, which accounts for some variations between prints of the same name. The stones from unsuccessful prints were simply reground for new ones.
Currier was a “job printer” when on January 13, 1840 the steamboat Lexington burned in the frigid waters of Long Island Sound claiming more than 100 lives. Overnight he became an “independent print publisher” when his dramatic lithograph of the conflagration turned in to a streetside bestseller and ran as a special one-page edition of the New York Sun, making it the first illustrated newspaper ever printed.
In 1852 James Merritt Ives (1824-1895), an art-loving 28-year-old New Yorker and brother-in-law of “Nat’s” brother, Charles, joined him as bookkeeper. Five years later the two became partners, with Ives streamlining production and managing the inventory and finances. They hired gifted lithographers like Otto Knirsch, Napoleon Sarony, and Charles Parsons, and staff artists like Thomas Worth, Louis Maurer, and Mrs. Fanny Palmer, a frail and educated Brit known for her detailed atmospheric Hudson River backgrounds in many of the sporting prints. Her ne’er-do-well husband and son are pictured in TheTrout Stream.
They also commissioned outside artists like British-born Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819-1905), who in a dozen years produced 42 works for C&I, most famously of hunting, camping, wingshooting, and fishing. In fact, it was Tait’s still life of a brook trout that first attracted Ives’s attention; he then commissioned a more elaborate version, the American Speckled Brook Trout, whose colorful marvels, alas, one never sees reprinted in books.
Most artists were paid $1 to $10 for their original works and received no royalties. The well-known Tait probably received more, and may have sold only reproduction rights and not the canvas itself. C&I never pretended it was producing “art,” and thus artists’ names never appeared on small prints and only rarely on large folios. Also, many works came from several hands. For example, Trolling for Blue Fish is signed both Palmer and Worth; and Charles Parsons may have done some of the boats in the “boat-fishing” prints like Black Bass Spearing on the Restigouche or Bass Fishing. Palmer and Tait each did fish still lifes, like her American Game Fish, but she also did the backgrounds in some of Tait’s works, and many others. In collaboration with renowned sharpshooter Louis Maurer, Tait produced a number of Western works without ever traveling farther west than Chicago.
After meeting American frontier artist George Catlin while his Indian Gallery toured Paris and London, Tait was inspired to move to America, and he arrived in New York City in 1850 with his wife, Marian. Tait’s style and anecdotal treatment of sport suited mid-Victorian America, and he was quickly accepted by the National Academy of Design, where he eventually exhibited over 200 paintings and was elected a full member after only eight years.
In those days, the smallest C&I prints (2.8 x 4.8 inches) sold for five to 25 cents, and the largest (18 x 27 inches) colored folios for $1.50 to $3.00. Today, Tait’s Brook Trout Fishing, An Anxious Moment, of a Victorian gentleman complete with gold watch and bow tie fly fishing on the Raquette River, lists for up to $24,500.