The Pay Off for a Curator’s Perseverance

Last week, curator of children’s literature Laura Wasowicz posted about finding a unique find in a dusty house. This week, curator of graphic arts Lauren Hewes talks about another tack curators more often have to take: “hard work and diligence.”

Recently, the Society’s curatorial staff was asked to blog about significant acquisitions and the process by which historic material comes into the collection. I think perhaps the blog editors were hoping for high adventure, with hidden treasures discovered at flea markets, or exciting visits to exclusive dealers. Alas, the reality is that most of the great pieces and memorable objects come to AAS through plain old hard work and diligence.

Take for example the rare watercolor by American artist Thomas Worth (1834-1917) illustrated below. This watercolor, The Darktown Fire Brigade – A Prize Squirt, is the original study that Worth made for a lithograph published by Currier & Ives of New York. After the Civil War, Currier & Ives hired Worth (along with other cartoonists) to create several different series of comic prints. The Darktown prints are difficult for today’s viewers. They are racist and insulting and they use gross caricatures to mock and make fun of free African Americans in a variety of situations. The figures are made to look foolish and outlandish and reflect the anxiety of white Americans as freed slaves integrated into what was becoming a mixed race society. Eventually numbering over seventy-five titles, Darktown prints were sold individually for 20 cents each or six for a dollar. The caricatures of African Americans as firemen, clergy, sportsmen, and cowboys, were quite popular in their time. Over 73,000 sheets were sold from the series and when Currier & Ives folded, the lithographic stones for the series were purchased by a competitor and reissued into the twentieth century. The Darktown series is just now beginning to be evaluated by scholars trying to understand racial conflict and perception in the United States during the pre-Civil Rights era.

501065_0001All well and good, but how did AAS end up with the watercolor? It is a long story and it started back in 2005 with my predecessor Georgia B. Barnhill, curator emerita of graphic arts. She paid a visit to AAS member Philip C. Beals. Beals (like his father before him) was a collector of American prints, with a special focus on sporting prints by Currier & Ives. There, in Mr. Beals’s print cabinet, lay the watercolor by Thomas Worth, tucked in among lithographs of sulky drivers and snipe hunters. Mr. Beals eventually gave over 160 prints from his collection to the Society, greatly increasing the institution’s holdings of Currier & Ives lithographs. In 2009, after Mr. Beals passed away, Gigi and I returned for a visit with his widow, Elaine W. Beals, who had called about possible future donations. We had a lovely visit, and were asked to make a list of prints from the Beals collection that the Society would like. It was my first time seeing the Worth, and I was impressed with its condition and the way it illustrated the creative steps behind the lithographic process at the end of the century. The Worth, of course, was placed on the list of sixty or so prints that we created for Mrs. Beals.

I thought no more about the watercolor until 2012, when AAS Drawn to Art fellow Melanie Hernandez arrived from the University of Washington, Seattle, to work on her dissertation project: “Currier & Ives’s ‘Darktown’ Series: Recovering White Capital through Violent Satire.” I communicated with Mrs. Beals about four Darktown lithographs in her collection and, knowing she intended to donate them anyway, asked about having them in Worcester in time for Hernandez’s month-long fellowship. She and her family graciously agreed to donate the four lithographs and, most generously, to loan the Worth watercolor to AAS for one month. This was an outstanding opportunity for one of our fellows to see a work of art that helped explain the entire process behind the prints she was studying, and so we jumped at the chance.

The lithograph based off of Worth's watercolor.
The lithograph based off of Worth’s watercolor.

The watercolor was loaned to AAS for four weeks. Both Melanie Hernandez and I spent a lot of time with the drawing, comparing it to the published lithograph, noting the changes that the printers had made to Worth’s original design and the changes Worth himself had made to the title and other elements of his drawing. We were given permission to photograph the watercolor and it is included in Hernandez’s dissertation. We returned the watercolor to Mrs. Beals after the fellowship was over with many thanks.

Then in the summer of 2013, one of Mrs. Beals’s daughters contacted me about coming to pick up yet another group of prints from our 2009 list. There had been a family gathering and many of the prints were distributed to children and grandchildren, but there was a small group of a dozen or so pieces for AAS. The group of material, to my great surprise and delight, included the Worth watercolor. Bringing the watercolor to Worcester took just over eight years, with multiple people on the curatorial staff and acquisitions team all working together to build a good relationship with a donor. As curators, part of our job is to explain the strengths of the Society and why AAS would make a good home for an object. Donors can then decide how they wish to distribute their collection. We are very pleased to add the Worth watercolor to our holdings and can now help future scholars bring relevance to this difficult work of art.

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Lauren Hewes

Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts, American Antiquarian Society

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