Part II: Gift-Books and the Golden Age of Pictorial History

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By the mid-nineteenth century, changes in the technology of bookmaking and the intellectual climate of the nation altered the conditions of receptivity for pictorial histories. From the Civil War until the turn of the twentieth century, increasingly sophisticated illustrated works were produced in numbers that suggested the degree to which the genre had become a permanent part of the literary landscape. Various combinations of publishers, historians and artists developed new ways to integrate images and words on the printed page, and they introduced innovative arguments as to why and how pictures should become a more important part of the urgent efforts to preserve a national past in the face of disunifying elements at work in the culture.

Technology and the Pictorial Turn

On the technical side, gradual improvements in the old “craft-based” forms of wood engraving, especially the development of intaglio processes such as mezzotint, aquatint, etching, and copper engraving, reduced the costs of production and encouraged a wider use of illustrations [Image 32]. Alterations in the durability of the block were made by creating metal molds from an original engraving and then pouring metal into the molds to produce replicas. This process (known as stereotyping) allowed for superior precision in duplication, more copies, and an increased ease of transference of images from one illustrated source to another. [41]

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Click once to view this video on the printmaking process of Intaglio. Video by the Minneapolis Institute of Art. View and comment at YouTube.

The rise of lithographic technologies allowed artists to draw with a grease crayon directly on polished stones, which, when treated with a solution of gum Arabic containing traces of nitric acid and wetted and inked, produced an image everywhere the grease repelled the water. Alternatively, a stone prepared with gum and acid before drawing and then whetted thoroughly and scratched with a graver produced lines that accepted ink that was otherwise rejected by the stone’s surface. Lithographic images manufactured in this “incised” manner printed black on white paper and “had the appearance of lines created by metal engraving.” [Image 33] [42]

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Click once to view this video on the printmaking process of Lithography. Video by the Minneapolis Institute of Art. View and comment at YouTube.

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These technological innovations in the mechanics of engraving led to major advancements in the “autographic control” artists experienced in the replication of their images. As technologies of duplication improved and the costs of reproduction were reduced, artists assumed a larger role in the planning and formatting of pictorial histories. This privileging implied a new pedagogical purpose for visual images–one that went beyond the mere embellishing of texts to a celebration of images as texts. It also provided opportunities for the multiple uses of an image in both illustrations and prints, and it cleared the way for the “development of the book as a major vehicle of artistic expression.”  This changed the way artists conceived of their graphic work, many choosing to produce pieces for the print market that could be adapted secondarily for the purposes of book illustration. [43] Illustrators began to work first for themselves as artists and only secondarily for the publishers of “picture books.”

What emerged was a new visual calculus, a system of word/image relationships that gave illustration more than a supporting, reportorial role in history texts by allowing pictures to assume a larger responsibility for the conveying of historical meaning. Such changes also paved the way for new approaches to the marketing of historical works, especially deluxe gift-books—eye-catching volumes distinguished by their ornate title pages, their lavish steel engravings printed on high quality paper, and their superior Moroccan leather-bound covers and bindings. Every aspect of the packaging of these gift-books, from their flamboyant covers to their mawkish illustrations to their pictorial idioms, was designed to provide maximum visual effect. [Image 34] Even their typography was often high-minded, dominated by modern face types embellished with decorative encasements and beautifully cast. [Image 35] Flourishing in Europe in the 1840s, gift-books were a great improvement over their predecessors in the illustrated book market because they were highly crafted works whose serious artistic intentions seemed to dignify the written materials included in their pages. These volumes were built to last, and their durable physical appearance signified the aspirations many of their authors had for the permanence of their intellectual ideas.

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More expensive than most mass produced books but also more highly valued, such publications were part of a broad revolution in American literary culture in which middle-class readers “learned to look at a book in a way only the elite had done before,–that is, as something to treasure, like a work of art.” [44]  Gift-books became collectibles and keepsakes, circulating among members of a slowly emerging genteel culture and serving (in the words of Samuel Goodrich) as “messengers of love, tokens of friendship, signs and symbols of affection, luxury, and refinement.” [45]  Gift-books also contributed to the elevation and gentrification of the pictorial industry, as “beautiful books” became objects of respect and desire in a growing culture of commodification. They were, in fact, an important part of the intellectual bric-a-brac of their day and were significant for the manner in which they increased the role and importance of illustrations as conveyors of meaning within texts. [Image 36]

History Made Visible

Gift-books were also part of an intellectual revolution that took place in America at mid-century, a paradigmatic change that reversed many of the conditions that had obviated against illustrated histories earlier in the century. The pattern of anti-historical thinking that characterized some of the nation’s early life was gone by the 1850s as Americans were becoming gradually convinced of their own historical legitimacy and staying power. After nearly seventy-five years of nationhood, it seemed more permissible to discuss distinctive American traditions, especially as the first generations of American heroes gave way to a post-heroic age of sons and daughters determined to keep the memory of the founders alive. A new cast of champions emerging from the Mexican War also provided opportunities for documenting and memorializing American achievements. In addition, the success of writers associated with the golden age of the American Renaissance in literature—Irving, Cooper, Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, among others—made Americans less defensive about their presumed lack of literary output.

Americans also felt new confidence in the important role they would play in the development of what Donald Ringe has called the “pictorial mode” of knowing, a manner of writing and thinking rooted in the romantic tradition of visual communication. Convinced that the real benefit of the American past rested less with its human history than with its natural history, proponents of the pictorial mode such as Ralph Waldo Emerson advocated “close and accurate observation of the physical world” as a way of understanding “the truths of the moral world.” [Image 37] In this illustration called “Trancendental Eyeball,” Emerson's friend Christopher Cranch poked fun at Emerson's pictorial preferences.

Under the compelling logic of this new pictorial way of thinking, concerns about the distorting power of images gradually gave way to an appreciation for the eye as the primary instrument of insight. Art was no longer presumed subordinate to narrative; indeed, in some senses it was expected to lead the way in helping to achieve a newly defined epistemology of historical learning. The implications of the pictorial mode for history were especially significant because they altered not only the methodologies by which historians sought to obtain “perceptive insights” into the past but also transformed the relationships among publishers, historians, and artists and the patterns of presentation used to elucidate them, primarily illustration.  [46]

[41] Introduction to American Book and Magazine Illustrators to 1920, xiv-v, and Tatham, Winslow Homer, 8.
[42] John Harthan, The History of the Illustrated Book: The Western Tradition (London: Thames and Hudson, 1981), 8; Jussim, Visual Communication and the Graphic Arts, 40-41.
[43] For more on lithographic technology and its effect on book illustration, see Jussim, Visual Communications and the Graphic Arts, 39-42.
[44] Harthan, The History of the Illustrated Book, 8; Jussim, Visual Communication and the Graphic Arts, 40-41.
[45] Katherine Martinez, “Messengers of Love, Tokens of Friendship’: Gift-Book Illustrations by John Sartain,” in Gerald W. R. Ward, ed., The American Illustrated Book in the Nineteenth Century (Winterthur, Del.: Henry Frances DuPont Winterthur Museum, 1987), 90-91.
[46] Donald Ringe, The Pictorial Mode: Space and Time in the Age of Bryant, Irving, and Cooper (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1971), 57, 13.