America Pictured to the Life: Illustrated Works from the Paul Mellon Bequest
Since the era of early New World exploration by Europeans, the history of the Americas has been recorded by artists—painters, draftsmen, printmakers, etchers, lithographers, and cartographers who created images of its changing landscape, its historic events, its infrastructure, its industry, and its modes of entertainment. The exhibition America Pictured to the Life: Illustrated Works from the Paul Mellon Bequest, brings together some hundred books, albums, drawings, maps, atlases, and objects that reflect and interpret the American past, from sixteenth-century accounts to works of the late nineteenth century. The exhibition, prepared by George A. Miles and William S. Reese, opens on May 3 and continues until July 17 at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.
The exhibition and the catalog it records are broadly representative of Paul Mellon’s diverse interests in American history and culture. Among the earliest works are Theodor de Bry’s 1594 illustrated German translation of Girolamo Benzoni’s account of his travels in the New World and a rare 1622 edition of Giovanni Botero’s economic geography of the world, Le Relationi Universali, featuring woodcuts of fantastic creatures who reputedly lived beyond Europe’s borders. Four centuries removed from the reports of Europe’s first encounters with America are works that reflect both the nineteenth-century revolution in printing and the cultural transformations that accompanied European expansion. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Panorama for Children (ca. 1890) andThe Brownie Blocks (1891), for instance, employ chromolithography to create dramatic illustrations for children’s amusement and education. Between these chronological extremes appear works from Europe and the Americas representing virtually every major form of illustration and a wide variety of literary genres.These works function as visual texts with their own distinctive rhetoric and vocabulary, often serving as primary evidence of the social and cultural forces that created and consumed them.
The display has four sections:
Visual Directories includes topographical works that depict the landscape, cultural life, and built environments. Akin to city directories, visual directories offered a virtual tour of the scenes that readers might have expected to see during a visit. Nineteenth-century views of Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, New York City, and Honolulu are featured in the exhibition, as well as scenes from Mexico, Latin America, and the West Indies.
History includes works that depict events and personalities that shaped the world of the illustrator and his audience, their scale ranging from epic accounts of warfare to personal recollections, including maps and atlases as well as depictions of Native American peoples.
Utility gathers practical illustrations, from technical manuals, to scientific explanation, to various forms of advertisement. Whether depicting banister designs, geologic strata, California grapes, or the process of chromolithography itself, these works emphasize the fidelity of their reproductions.
Arts & Amusements, the final section of the exhibition, brings together works meant to edify and entertain or to teach the fine arts. From drawing manuals to satirical narratives of college life, from sheet music to religious and children’s literature, illustration contributed to the lesson and sharpened the moral.