Revisiting Rights-Free: Popular Graphic Art Prints

This is one in a series of blog posts devoted to highlighting digitized content that has long been available on the Library’s web site and is worth revisiting.

The Prints & Photographs Division holds tens of thousands of popular graphic art prints showing every subject imaginable, from military battles to sentimental vignettes, from expansive city views to biblical scenes to historic events. While these prints date from the 17th century through the mid-20th century, most were made during the 19th century and early 20th century, when newer production methods made it possible to produce large amounts of prints at low cost, enabling large numbers of people to purchase these popular commodities.

The individual images from this large body of material offer a window into the tastes of their times. Because thousands of the Library’s prints were digitized years ago, you can immerse yourself in the visual culture of previous centuries by browsing images in our online catalog. Those interested in American political history may be interested in this print by popular publisher Currier & Ives of George Washington, showing the first American president kneeling in prayer.

Washington at prayer. Print by Currier & Ives, between 1840-1860. //

Sara W. Duke, Curator of Popular and Applied Graphic Art, offered this observation about the effort to digitize thousands of the Library’s popular graphic art prints: “The collection was a hit – people loved the historic scenes, images of famous men and women in history, and insight into how people in the past celebrated such historic events as the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. As a result, we worked our way through the entire collection, down to the smallest prints. And it turns out the collection is a lot of fun – from religious iconography to farm animals, from the American Revolution to the Spanish American War, there’s something for everyone in it.” Sara recently published a new Research Guide (linked in the Learn More section of this post) providing an in-depth overview of the collections containing popular graphic art prints, which highlights collection strengths and offers guidance for searching and viewing images from the collection.

This print celebrates the then newly enacted Fifteenth Amendment, with the center image showing a parade in Baltimore marking the legislation granting the vote to African American men.

The Fifteenth Amendment. Celebrated May 19th, 1870. Published by Thomas Kelly, New York, 1870 or 1871. //

The Fifteenth Amendment. Celebrated May 19th, 1870. Published by Thomas Kelly, New York, 1870 or 1871.

Some prints were used as educational aids, like the one below, which introduced the topic “Drawing: Elementary, Geometrical and Perspective” to budding artists.

School and family charts, accompanied by a manual of object lessons and elementary instruction, by Marcius Willson and N.A. Calkins. No. X. Drawing: Elementary, geometrical, and perspective. Wood engraving with letterpress, 1890. //

This view of Hampton Roads, Virginia shows a confluence of ships from many countries, including France, Chile and Russia, all coming together in this one body of water in the southern United States. Close up views show submarines, a “Trades Parade” highlighting the commercial role of the area and a yacht race.

<em>International naval rendezvous, Hampton Roads Va.</em> Published by Sam W. Bowman Lith., 1893. //

International naval rendezvous, Hampton Roads Va. Published by Sam W. Bowman Lith., 1893. //

The Prints & Photographs Division’s popular graphic art prints include some produced outside the United States, such as this one of an altar to the Virgen de Guadalupe, designed by printmaker José Guadalupe Posada. The Prints & Photographs Division has over a hundred prints by Posada.

Altar de la Virgen de Guadalupe. Designed by José Guadalupe Posada, 1910. //

Altar de la Virgen de Guadalupe. Designed by José Guadalupe Posada, 1910. //

We hope the small selection of prints in this blog post inspire you to explore the collection and see what stands out to you.

Learn More

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