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History of American Prints

Colonial Americans imported English prints, and early Yankee travelers acquired European engravings while abroad. During the 1800s, as a greater number of Americans became interested in art, more images became available on the American market. Exhibitions in major East Coast cities provided opportunities to view--and occasionally to purchase--antique and modern paintings, prints and drawings, sculpture, and decorative arts. Publishers produced popular prints as premiums for periodical and newspaper subscriptions, and a wide range of pictures entered American homes.

Americans purchased prints for collection and display as part of an increasingly commercial culture characterized by conspicuous consumption. One of the most popular publishers was the lithographic firm of Currier & Ives, begun by Nathaniel Currier in 1835. Their "cheap, popular pictures" of animals, children, and idealized scenes of everyday life were said to be represented on more American walls than those of any other publisher.

The popularity of etchings increased dramatically during the 1880s and again in the 1920s, and original prints came into many homes through collectors' club exchanges and exhibitions. Literature for collectors appeared, including periodicals designed to educate wider audiences. Organizations like the Associated American Artists, founded in 1934, aggressively marketed current prints through department stores, exhibitions, and gallery sales, and by mail order. These changes in production and marketing methods indicate the 20th-century growth of art as an industry.



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