Image 22

Figure 3: Washington

By and large, the pictorial representations in Frost’s work were embellishments rather than interpretations of text. This is nowhere better evidenced than in the portraits found in the Pictorial History of the United States. At a time before photographs and carte de visites, portraits were valued as the only accurate means for preserving visually the physical and spiritual characteristics of a subject. The popularity of Carlyle’s concept of the “Great Man in History” gave the study and depiction of “great character” an exaggerated significance. For illustrators faces were presumed to be the most crucial area of mastery, and it was here that the greatest potential for “bungling” existed, as the “slightest hairline deviation of the graver’s stroke” could alter a subject’s expression and compromise its physiognomic codes. Many book illustrators failed to convey the “inner essence” of their subjects, even in pictorial portrait galleries devoted to rendering the likenesses of “illustrious Americans.”[33] 

In terms of illustrative and narrative content, the Pictorial History of the United States is dominated by prosaic portraits and conventional depictions of historical episodes in the American past. “In order to give his delineations as much authenticity of history as it is competent for the pictorial art to attain,” Frost wrote in his preface, Croome was asked to choose purposefully among competing images of subjects. He did not always succeed in the task.[34] For example, H. B. Brown and Croome relied on the most popular and conventionalized images of George Washington, those of Gilbert Stuart, to evoke a positive response in readers. Despite its obvious deficiencies of execution and its potential for clichéd reductionism, they expected the engraving would awaken strong nationalistic sentiments in American viewers. [Image 22]

[33] Susan S. Williams, Confounding Images: Photography and Portraiture in Antebellum American Fiction (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 42.
[34] Frost, Pictorial History of the United States, 1:vi.