Designating themselves “Printmakers to the People,” Nathaniel Currier (1813–1888) and James Merritt Ives (1824–1895) offered their audience affordable color prints that remain as a vivid picture of nineteenth-century America. In their endeavor to provide the general public with “the best and the cheapest, and the most popular pictures in the world,” Currier and Ives advertised themselves as visual journalists of the nineteenth century, helping to construct many of the most prominent artistic themes of the post-Civil War republic. Although the company initially illustrated news events, its output grew to encompass a broad range of subjects, including images of farmers, frontier pioneers, Native Americans, and industry, in the process creating an enthusiastic endorsement of American progress.
Currier and Ives landscapes portrayed the changing face of the American economy, representing both scenes of industrial development and bucolic celebrations of Eastern farmland. Steamboats carried the products of emerging national commerce down the Mississippi while railroads raced across the prairie. Embracing Manifest Destiny and the nation’s expansion to the Pacific, the firm published scenes of the West as an inviting Edenic garden. Wagon trains rolled across the wide expanses of the Great Plains and over the majestic Rocky Mountains while pioneer families gathered outside picturesque woodland cabins. When prairie fires and violent natural forces were depicted, they emphasized a monumental struggle of civilization against untamed wilderness. Currier and Ives’ images heroicized the pioneer and farmer as citizens fulfilling a democratic ideal as the nation forged its way westward.
(Above) Currier & Ives, The Rocky Mountains: Emigrants Crossing the Plains,
1866, hand-colored lithograph, Corporate Collection of ConAgra Foods, Inc.