Most of the prints in the exhibit "Beauty, Virtue and Vice: Images of Women in Nineteenth-Century American Prints" were designed simply to please the eye, but they are also useful to historians who would like to understand how nineteenth-century Americans thought about the world in which they lived. Although prints are often works of imagination (even when they are grounded in fact), they still have much to tell us about the time and place in which they were created.

Artists were seldom concerned with representing people and scenes accurately, as we expect photographs to do, but took broad artistic license in creating scenes that would please the viewer’s eye. Even when artists depicted notable people, places, and events, artistic convention generally was more important than accuracy. Of course, these prints also tell us something of their creators’ point of view. Prints can be extremely useful for understanding the history of popular ideas, understandings, and beliefs. When read carefully and conscientiously, prints can be very useful documentary sources for understanding the past.

The images of women included in the present exhibit are especially useful for helping us understand the audiences for whom these prints were created. The repetition of certain kinds of representations of women reveals how mainstream society thought about women and suggests their place in the world. In some, for example, the presence of women is a code for hotly debated political issues—the abolition of slavery being perhaps the most notable. And like portraits and other images of great American men, images depicting accomplished women also evoked the changes that those women strove to enact.

This is not to say that the proliferation of womanly beauty in prints was a marker of a progressive social change, however. In the prints that make up this exhibit, we find some of the limits of the American imagination. For instance, only a small number of women could imagine woman suffrage in the early nineteenth century. That this was a radical idea is reflected in a number of prints within the AAS collection that satirized the women who called for suffrage in this era, rather than presenting them as worthy of achieving those goals. Likewise, the presence of women in prints that exemplify American reform movements—for instance, moral reform societies and the antislavery movement—can enrich our understanding of the central role that women played in those movements, whether as participants or as emblems of social ills that needed to be overcome.

Stereograph and detail of three women in a parlor with numerous framed prints on the wall, 8.5 x 17 cm. [Stereoviews, Interiors, Box 318]
Printing technology improved at a dramatic pace throughout the nineteenth century, making visual images cheaper to produce in large numbers than ever before. Pictorial prints achieved an increasingly detailed and sophisticated quality as the century progressed, and everyday Americans could afford to purchase mass-produced artwork to enjoy at home. Collecting prints became a popular pursuit. Pictorial prints were designed to be displayed on walls or gathered in portfolios to be enjoyed at leisure in the family parlor. Lavish lithographed images also adorned sheet music covers, which might be displayed on the family piano—likewise a popular middle-class consumer item.

American popular prints were, first and foremost, commodities, and artists and publishers created works that they thought—and hoped—would appeal to a wide array of consumers. With potential buyers in mind, artists and publishers created images that echoed popular ideologies and points of view, and they often built on various aspects of popular culture that would have been familiar to American audiences.

Works of art such as the prints in this exhibit give us an idea of the array of visual messages that nineteenth-century Americans might encounter. More than enjoying the pleasures of looking, Americans also learned something about a larger world of ideas: cultural values, social mores, and a sense of self in relationship to others.


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