Around 1882, a miner visited little Annie Ellis (1875-1938) and her very poor family in Bonanza, Colorado. The miner had just struck it rich, and he gave Annie’s mother a gift of twenty-five dollars. In her memoir, Life of an Ordinary Woman (1929), Annie remembered:
There must have been many things Mama longed for (we never had any carpets or curtains), but after talking it over with [her husband] Henry, she decided to get something we could all enjoy! Their choice fell on a picture. The next question was, what picture? I am quite sure Henry made the final decision, ‘The Battle of Waterloo!’ The twenty-five is turned over and the picture sent for. After what seems a long time it comes taking three men to unload it. We children all gather around; the crate is removed, and it stands forth in all its glory. I was disappointed, and think Mama was, too, but neither of us ever admitted it. It is about five feet long and two and a half wide, in a heavy gold frame.
Given the price and size, the Ellis family probably purchased a painting—not a print. But there in the closing decades of the 1800s, the Ellises took part in an American consumer tradition that had been molded by a generation of moral and cultural leaders. Art was seen as a vital furnishing in a wholesome, pleasant American home.
From its earliest days, the influential American Art-Union (1838-1853) identified one of its core goals as cultivating “good taste in the Fine Arts” in the United States. In its 1844 annual report, the AAU promoted the benefits of a landscape painting for city dwellers: “Those who cannot afford a seat in the country to refresh their wearied spirits, may at least have a country seat in their parlors.” The AAU sent prints directly to subscribers to help fulfill its mission. Each year, subscribers received an engraving that reproduced a painting by an American artist “as may appear worthy of the distinction.”
Being able to hang and enjoy art emerged in the 19th century as an important component of American home decoration. The ability to reproduce artwork on a mass-level, first through engravings and then with less inexpensive lithographs and chromolithographs, allowed authors of homemaking manuals to recommend prints as an integral home furnishing.
The American Woman’s Home: or, Principles of Domestic Science (1869) by Catharine Beecher and her sister the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe emphasized that a well-decorated house went beyond aesthetics: “it contributes much to the education of the entire household in refinement, intellectual development, and moral sensibility.”
The Beecher sisters calculated that if a household had $80 to decorate a parlor, nearly a quarter of the budget should be reserved for pictures. Chromolithographs were recommended: “The educating influence of these works of art can hardly be over-estimated. Surrounded by such suggestions of the beautiful, and such reminders of history and art, children are constantly trained to correctness of taste and refinement of thought.”
What is particularly fun for print collectors is that the Beechers went beyond broad dictates and actually suggested four chromolithographs:
These specific recommendations allow us to see just what sort of prints the Beecher sisters had in mind.
Why these four prints? Stowe provided a broad rationale for such choices in her contemporaneous article “What Pictures Shall I Hang on My Walls?” in The Atlantic Almanac for 1869.
Stowe began by acknowledging that most people could remember a time when “with some rare exceptions, no houses had pictures.” Now, pictures were affordable even to those of “the humblest means.” The question was no longer whether to purchase but what to purchase. It was an important decision, after all, because these images would “look you in the face at all hours of day or night.”
She provided some basic rules:
- Don’t be pressured into buying art you don’t like or “high art” (i.e. works that “professed artists and instructed people” considered important): “[Pictures for the home] should express sincere ideas and tastes of the household, and not the tyrannical dicta of some art-critic or neighbor.”
- Let personal sentiment and taste be your guides: “A respectable engraving that truly is felt by a family as an artistic pleasure is a better thing for them than a much higher one that they do not understand or care for.”
- Be careful of traumatizing your family: “All pictures of shocking, painful, and brutal subjects are unfit for family pictures.”
- Don’t overlook honest, good depictions of nature: “A bunch of apple-blossoms, a blue gentian, so represented as to excel average painting, forms a charming domestic ornament, unpretending, unambitious, and always beautiful.”
Just as we could enjoy the specific prints recommended in The American Woman’s Home, Stowe’s article also provided examples of the “high art” images she would not recommend for the family parlor.
The Beggar Belisarius and his Son
“Who wishes at all hours to be confronted by the image of a blind father with a son bitten by a serpent in his arms, however well represented?” Stowe cautioned that if displayed in a bedroom, the print might give nightmares—better to keep it safely buried in a portfolio.
Michelangelo’s Sculpture of Moses
“Neither should we recommend a photograph of Michael Angelo’s Moses,” Stowe wrote. “With two well-developed horns on his forehead and a supernatural beard, as being, because a standard work of art, a proper thing to frame for household daily contemplation.”
Frans Snyder’s The Boar Hunt
“A splendid copy of Snyder’s boar-hunt, for example, with its tangle of bleeding dogs and its hellish fury of animal struggle is a very barbarous ornament of a dining-room.”
Ary Scheffer’s Francesca di Rimini
“As we should not think it amusing to have Satan’s Speech to the Sun recited at our breakfast-table, notwithstanding it is the highest style of poetry, so neither should we think Sheffer’s [sic] picture of Francisca di Rimini [sic] a proper thing to be forever talking to us from the walls of our parlors or bedrooms.”
Stowe’s argument wasn’t against these pieces of art in general; she just didn’t think they were well suited to “family life.”
Stowe closed her article urging families to invest in a good picture by a living artist: “We would recommend to every family to aim to have at least one good picture somewhere by some living artist.” Not only did it help support the artist, but it set a “standard” for other pictures. It may not be a coincidence that the chromolithographs selected in The American Woman’s Home reproduced paintings created by four living American artists: Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Eastman Johnson (1824-1906), Henry Roderick Newman (1843-1917), and Juliana Oakley (1835-1909).
Top image credit: Untitled (Victorian Collage), 1880-1890. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Art Museum.