Visualize History by Picturing the Past
In August 2009, Professor of American Studies Greg Pfitzer, in collaboration with the not-for-profit educational organization CLIO Visualizing History and the web-design firm Ecopixel, launched a new interactive web exhibit: “Picturing the Past: Illustrated Histories and the American Imagination, 1840-1900.” Founded by Lola Van Wagenen of New York University, CLIO is dedicated to developing innovative American history projects that are designed to engage students, to assist educators and researchers, and to appeal to a wide public audience through documentary films, the World Wide Web, and other new media.
Focusing on the production histories of major illustrated works from the mid-19th century, “Picturing the Past” tells how visual images (viewed in the anti-pictorial 18th century with suspicion) came to assume more and more responsibility for conveying historical meaning in popular texts, becoming first acceptable, then desirable, and finally indispensable to historical thinking. Pfitzer elucidates these transitions by documenting the complex collaborations among historians, artists and publishers in the production of two best-selling works of popular illustrated history: John Frost’s Pictorial History of the United States (1844) and Jesse Spencer’s History of the United States (1858).
The online exhibit features interactive graphics, and magnified images and texts, including a large number of finely reproduced engravings, paintings, and chromolithographs. Pfitzer invites visitors to consider three interpretive questions as they navigate the site:
- In what ways is the past understood differently when it is presented in pictures and words rather than in traditional literary form merely?
- How do illustrations interact with the narrative discourses in these volumes and how do various word/image combinations condition, alter, and even distort the past?
- What does the popularity of pictorial history tell us about the visual literacy and reading habits of nineteenth century Americans?
The images selected here from the exhibit highlight comparatively the different visual strategies Frost and Spencer used in their works. They depict a developing system of word/image relationships that gave illustration more than a supporting, reportorial role in history texts, revealing pictorial idioms that provided maximum visual effect. They also suggest how the new visual calculus emerging at the end of the 19th century (the so-called “golden age” of book illustration) encouraged pictorial excesses that once again raised concerns about the “tyranny of the pictorial” among those concerned with how the overuse of lavish steel-engravings and ornate, highly stylized color images might corrupt the written word.
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