Rare American Illustrated Books Highlighting the History of Color Printing Featured in Amon Carter Museum Special Exhibition

Release date: 
November 19, 2004

FORT WORTH, Texas --- One of the country’s finest private collections of rare illustrated books is the subject of a special exhibition opening at the Amon Carter Museum January 29, 2005. Stamped with a National Character: Nineteenth-Century American Color Plate Books will feature more than 120 items that trace the development of color illustration in 19th-century America, from its tentative beginnings when hand-colored engraving was most prevalent to the invention of photomechanical reproduction processes.

Assembled by noted New Haven-based historian and antiquarian William S. Reese, the books represent rare examples on such varied subjects as natural history, Native Americans, travel, medicine, architecture, landscaping and fashion. The exhibition is a journey into the nearly forgotten world of color-printing practices, a time when producing beautiful books was a point of national pride.

Each publication is a work of extraordinary artistry, and together, the books offer viewers insight into the tastes and interests of the 19th century, reflecting Americans’ eagerness for knowledge and accurate information. Color reproductions are commonplace now, but in the early 19th century, producing a color plate was an elaborate process executed entirely by hand. Color in books represented luxury, and most publishers used it judiciously until late in the century, when photomechanical printing made color much less expensive.

"Few people realize that the Amon Carter Museum’s library possesses a very fine collection of rare illustrated books on a variety of topics," said Director Rick Stewart. "This wonderful opportunity to showcase the Reese collection---one of the most important of its type in the country---also allows us to show some of the museum’s finest volumes in a broader context for all to enjoy."

The exhibition will explore both the evolution of printing processes and the uses of color-plate books in cultural and scientific contexts. It begins with the earliest color-plate book produced in the United States, William R. Birch’s The City of Philadelphia... As It Appeared in the Year 1800, a spectacular 28-page book with hand-colored copperplate engravings. Also included in the exhibition is a series of John James Audubon’s remarkable publications, the most notable of which is the 1861 chromolithographed edition of The Birds of America, the largest American color-plate book of the century. The exhibition concludes with the 1890s and the rise of the three-color half-tone, a more economical process that soon became the primary means of color reproduction in the 20th century.

The exhibition, on view through May 8, 2005, will also provide an opportunity for visitors to see a number of the Amon Carter Museum library’s rare volumes of illustrated Americana. The Carter library has a long history of collecting 19th- and 20th-century rare and illustrated books. The library’s dual function of providing research support and collecting rare imprints places it in a unique position among American art museum libraries. Several of the Carter’s most important 19th-century color-plate books are already well-known to the museum’s visitors and will be on view in this exhibition: the Victoria Regia folio with chromolithographs produced by William Sharp in Boston in 1854; William P.C. Barton’s A Flora of North America, with its printed and hand-colored botanical illustrations produced in Philadelphia by Carey & Lea during the early 1820s; and François André Michaux’s and Thomas Nutall’s The North American Sylva, acquired by the museum in 2003.

A 120-page catalogue authored by Reese will accompany the exhibition. In the book’s introduction, Reese cites "10 notable works" of 19th-century bookmaking; the Carter library owns versions of seven of these.

This exhibition is organized by the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.

Public Programs

Sunday, February 6, 3 p.m.
Family Funday
Color Your World
Create your own illustrated book based on examples on view in the special exhibition Stamped with a National Character: Nineteenth-Century American Color-Plate Books.

Thursday, February 24, 6 p.m.
Gallery Talk
What They Saw: Illustrating Nineteenth-Century America
Allen Townsend, Librarian

Thursday, March 10, 6 p.m.
Gallery Talk
Nineteenth-Century Women and the Public Sphere
Sharon Romero, Doctoral Candidate in Early U.S. Women’s History, TCU, and History Instructor, North Central Texas College

Saturday, April 9, 9:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m. (check-in begins at 9 a.m.)
George Catlin’s Mysterious Publications
Anne Burnett Tandy Distinguished Lectures on American Art

Mr. Catlin, Mr. Colt, and the Business of Art
Nancy Anderson, Curator of American and British Paintings, National Gallery of Art
Plains Geometry, as Seen by George Catlin and William Fuller, William H. Truettner, Senior Curator, Painting and Sculpture, Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Making of "Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio", William S. Reese, William Reese Company

Presented in celebration of the Amon Carter Museum’s acquisition of Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio, 1871, Chatto & Windus edition, and in conjunction with the exhibition Stamped with a National Character: Nineteenth-Century American Color-Plate Books.

Admission is free. Seating is limited, and reservations are required. Please call 817.989.5030 to make a reservation.

Museum Hours Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday: noon to 5 p.m. Closed Monday and major holidays. Admission to this exhibition is free.