More on Cartoons and our visit with Louis Masur

Our day began with a seminar from political cartoonist expert Richard West explaining lithography and other 19th century cartoon work.  West is the owner of Periodyssey, a western Massachusetts-based business dealing in older American periodicals.

Lithographic cartoons appeared in the 1820s, eventually replacing the more expensive copper plate engravings.  The cost and time of production was so much cheaper that talented artists in larger numbers began to come to the career.  The field was dominated by H. R. Robinson, John Childs, O. H. Bailey, and of course Currier and Ives.  The Civil War period saw about 200 lithographs produced, with about half coming from the workshops of Currier and Ives.  West discussed several additional sources of political cartoons, including Punch and Fun.  Vanity Fair was the only comic weekly published at the beginning of the war and political cartoons were generally published on the backs of illustrated news editions.  Additional sources included six New York based humor magazines with an additional two starting up printing during the war years.

West gave us a chronological overview of the cartoons, starting with the election of 1860.  These cartoons run the gambit of portraying the candidate in ways that modern political junkies are no doubt familiar to fairly blatant racist cartoons like “Heir to the Throne.”  This cartoon, highlighting what West called “the pizza and beer” of the day, was a humorous look at Abe Lincoln devouring opponents.  The timidity of James Buchanan’s leadership is clearly on display in “South Carolina’s Ultimatum,” but so too is the foolish nature of South Carolina’s decision to secede!  When Abe Lincoln came into Washington, DC there were concerns about assassination attempts – this image poked fun at Lincoln’s caution.  Once Lincoln was in office, his main commander was initially seen as strong enough to hold Jefferson Davis at bay.  Finally, there was some sympathy towards the South as they are viewed in this piece as foolhardy – there’s nothing angry in the cartoon, but rather a note that indicates leadership must be a bit stronger to keep the southern states in the union.

In discussing ribald imagery, West used several examples that were of varying degrees of “offensiveness” to both the nineteenth century and modern day viewer.  This piece from the 1852 presidential election is both visually funny and pushes the bounds of good taste with a double entendre.  Another example, also featuring Winfield Scott poked fun at Scott’s age, strategy for defeating the south, and held a clear double meaning about opinions on Jefferson Davis and the respect with which he should be regarded.

The idea of using images of the devil appealed to cartoonists as well as we can see in several instances.  “The Southern Confederacy, a fact acknowledged by a mighty prince and faithful ally” uses a frightening figure of the devil and demons alongside known imagery of southern leaders, supporters, and markers of warfare.  In “The latest from America or the New York eye duster to be taken every day” which appeared in Punch, the portrayal of Lincoln holds a vaguely demonic look as his unruly hair is brought up to resemble horns.  Adelbart Volck, a rare known artist who was sympathetic to the South, drew this piece critiquing Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  In it, he suggests that Lincoln was in league with the devil – in the background pictures of John Brown and the slave rebellion in Santa Domingo hang on the walls.  West explained to us that in reality, Volck’s work was not seen by more than a couple hundred people during the war years.  When his work was reprinted in the 1880s it became much more widely known.  In “Masks and Faces,”  Abraham Lincoln stands accused of being the devil in reality – again the cartoon was a response to the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Emancipation Proclamation -itself could be found to be treated in both a serious manner and a humorous way.   All in all, as West pointed out, there were, no doubt, mixed feelings about the fate of slaves and African Americans in general.

There were a core number of artists who worked on these pieces.  Most of these men worked within a block or two of each other and knew each other, drank together, etc.  The entire publishing industry was running here in New York City, and that is hard on some levels for us to conceive.  William Newman is often asserted as the most important because he was before the public eye the most, though his story was not well known in the aftermath of the war until West did some research.  Frank Bellew was the second most famous and was a great character.  He tended to sign his works with a triangle and apparently he did not feel a lot of passion for his subjects.  Frank Beard , perhaps more famous to us after the war, was a young guy at the beginning of the conflict.

Louis Masur
Pr. Masur reminded us that of course images matter but that the historians in the room need to remember that we cannot become obsessed with using images to only illustrate rather than interpret.  In his talk with us, Masur focused on on images of the runaway in print as well as portrayals of the negro population in the Reconstruction era.

He began with three examples of the runaway taking us from the colonial era with the convention of the profile view and running figure to the early nineteenth century.  A third example played off of these original designs and was the cover to sheet music for “The Fugitve’s Song.”  This choice showed more than just a human profile, but rather a specific person, in this case Frederick Douglass.  All images discussed had these similar ideas of movement, running, carrying clothing, and a somewhat rural scene.  This remained true after using more human features.

While some images of fugitive slaves have these similar ideas even after using more human features, they may contain deeper levels of meaning as well.  In some cases, the impact of the fugitive slave law on multiple classes brought home the point that slaves were not only human beings of varying backgrounds, but that in some instances they were wrongly pursued in relation to prosecution of the law.  When examining the image of emancipation too, historians find that there are both humanistic images and stereotypes of the supplicants, the minstrel type, etc.

The Eastman Johnson painting “Ride to Liberty” is marked on canvas that he was witness to the event near Centreville, 1862.  Masur speculated as to whether we were still nervous about images narrating reality?  Were the figures in Johnson’s piece truly becoming free?  In Kaufman’s “On to Liberty,” the figures are coming out of darkness into the light – the label at the Met describes it as a “rocky road” to freedom.  There remains a question as to who these people are and that to which they are headed?  The artist was supportive of black rights but were the figures, as speculated re: Johnson, actually going to be free and what would freedom look like?  A different type of runaway narrative offered by Thomas Moran gives the viewer a deeper, darker, more uncertain portrayal of what it meant to flee slavery.

Masur spent time on the famous Gordon photos – we looked at two different exposures of Gordon’s scarred back, clarifying along with Masur that the third image was a ‘doctored’ version of one of the first two.  Gordon’s story not only is part of a longer history of ‘before and after images’ but highlights such severe suffering that his plight and the pictures tell a story both didactic and reflective in nature.  William Carlton’s “Watch Meeting” was briefly discussed as another image of freedom as well as Susan Schulten on maps and visualizing slavery.

We closed with several images that focused on the emancipation theme – the mystery and hope of it all perhaps captured by H. W. Herrick and Thomas Nast.   Finally, we noted images of emancipation that evoked some degree of controversy such as Pezzicar’s sculpture at the Centennial in 1876 or “Freedom to the Slaves”.  Both images evoked controversy for different reasons (style, the message, in the case of the latter, authorship) and yet both purported to celebrate this massive transition in American history.  What remained unspoken in much of the art examined and in our conversation is what will happen next for the freed slaves.


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