Ahead of her time: new exhibit features the work of Fanny Palmer, only woman artist ever to design artwork for 19th-century publisher Currier & Ives 

  • At right, “American Country Life. May Morning, 1855,” hand-colored lithograph published by Currier & Ives, based on original artwork by Fanny Palmer. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “The Four Seasons of Life: Youth. The Season of Love,” 1868, hand-colored lithograph published by Currier & Ives, based on original artwork by Fanny Palmer and John Cameron. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “American Forest Game,” 1866, hand-colored lithograph published by Currier & Ives, based on original artwork by Fanny Palmer. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “Lady in the Shade (Brooklyn Bridge, New York City),” 2008. Photo by Tad Malek/courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “Musicians on the Train (Corcovado Mountain, Rio de Janeiro),” 2011. Photo by Tad Malek/courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “The Social Network (Rome, Italy),” 2006. Photo by Tad Malek/courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “Gaspar’s Chickens #1 (Hadley, Massachusetts),” 2016. Photo by Tad Malek/courtesy Springfield Museums

  • “On Break (Prague, Czech Republic),” 2004.  Photo by Tad Malek/courtesy Springfield Museums

Staff Writer
Thursday, August 22, 2019

In 19th-century America, a woman’s place was expected to be in the home, raising children and tending to her husband. Working was only for those women unfortunate enough to have to work because of economic necessity.

And for a woman who had children and no husband, to work outside the home? Unheard of!

Yet that’s what Frances “Fanny” Flora Bond Palmer did, becoming in the process one of the most accomplished illustrators of her day. A native of England who moved to New York City in 1843, Palmer designed and produced over 200 lithographic prints for Currier & Ives, the 19th-century New York publisher whose prints dominated the marketplace for over half a century.

Palmer was the only woman ever to design prints for Currier & Ives, whose work some have called the Instagram of its day: colored snapshots of American life that graced the walls of many a home and business. Yet she remains largely unrecognized, art historians say.

A new exhibit at Springfield Museums hopes to make Palmer’s story better known. “Fanny Palmer: The Artist Behind Currier & Ives’ Greatest Prints,” in the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, showcases Palmer’s fine eye for detail and atmosphere in a range of color prints that encompass scenes of farming, country life, hunting and even Civil War naval battles.

Maggie North, acting curator of art for Springfield Museums, says the Palmer exhibit, running through Feb. 23, 2020, is also part of the museums’ participation in “Women@Work,” a collection of programs, exhibitions, and gatherings in Springfield that celebrate the power of women in various fields, including the arts.

“This is a great opportunity to talk about the work of an artist whose work would have appeared in thousands and thousands of homes, but who isn’t well known today,” said North. “You might well have seen some of these prints at some point but not know she created the artwork for them.”

Nor would it have been widely known in the 19th century that Palmer was a female artist, North pointed out: Her Currier & Ives prints were typically credited to “F. F. Palmer” or “F. Palmer.”

“People would have assumed this was a man’s name,” said North.

Palmer, born in 1812 in Leicester, in the English Midlands, later ran a lithography business in that city with her husband, Edward Palmer, before the couple and their two young children moved to New York City in 1843 to seek better economic opportunities.

North said Palmer taught painting and drawing when she first came to the United States and also did artwork on commission, which is likely how she came to the attention of Nathaniel Currier (a Boston native), who had founded his lithographic printing company in New York in the 1830s (he formed a partnership with James Ives in the late 1850s).

Palmer had a particular talent for rendering architectural details and for European landscapes, which would have appealed to Currier and Ives, North says. One of the 17 works in the D’Amour exhibit, for instance, is “Melrose Abbey,” a romantic, moonlit image of the ruins of a medieval Scottish building.

“And they were happy to send her out to [still-rural sections] of Long Island with her sketch pad to create images of the countryside,” North said.

Palmer also sketched many hunting scenes, as she would accompany her husband and his partners into the fields and forests. North says she would typically create initial drawings and watercolors that would then be turned into prints by other Currier & Ives employees, including people who colored in the prints.

But Palmer likely worked as well in other parts of the production process for Currier & Ives, North says: “She understood all the aspects of the business.”

One of the exhibit’s prints, “High Bridge at Harlem, N.Y.,” has been traced to an 1849 watercolor Palmer did of the same scene that today is in the New York Public Library. For additional research, North said she and other staff at Springfield Museums also made extensive use of a new book, “Fanny Palmer: The Life and Works of a Currier & Ives Artist,” by Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein and Diann Benti, the first-ever monograph of Palmer’s work.

That book, in fact, makes the argument that Palmer was an enterprising professional artist, not just an employee of famous male publishers, whose portraits of American life are now an indelible cultural record of the latter 19th century — even if the cherubic children and happy, glistening country scenes in many Currier & Ives prints paint an idealized picture of a rural America that even then was beginning to fade away.

Palmer’s husband died in 1859, but the artist (who died in 1876) continued to work and look after her children, even if people at that time might have pitied her and thought it terrible that she was forced to work, North said.

“But she was clearly happy to keep making art,” she said.

A Northampton photographer’s take

A grassy hillside in Scotland speckled with sheep, a weathered shepherd staring at the viewer. Elderly women — old friends and neighbors by the look of them — clustered on a pair of benches on a street in Rome. Musicians jamming on a train in Rio de Janeiro. A man standing by a trailer in a Hadley field, chickens spilling past him.

Next to the Fanny Palmer exhibit, the D’Amour Museum has also opened a photography show in its Community Gallery by Tad Malek of Northampton. In “People at Work and Other Environmental Portraits,” which features 22 black and white photographs and two color images, Malek has captured moments in time from western Massachusetts and a number of other places — California, New York City, Italy, Brazil, Argentina — in portraits of people in both candid and posed settings.

Malek, a former landscape photographer, has turned largely to portraiture in the last few decades, says North, but she notes that his eye for composition still informs all his images. “You can see how well he frames his photographs, and the tone he brings to them, the way he juxtaposes his subjects and the background.”

According to exhibit notes, Malek has drawn inspiration from documentary photographers like Dorothea Lange, the Depression-era artist famous for her portraits of struggling farmers and Dust Bowl refugees: “Like his photographic idols, Malek strives to preserve fleeting experiences and exchanges, an instance that might otherwise be lost to time.”

Malek’s photos can also impart an air of mystery, like “Lady in the Shade,” a shot of a woman, wearing an enormous sun hat, who stands on a section of the Brooklyn Bridge next to stone columns. Just a small part of the right side of her face can be seen; behind her, a nest of heavy cables rises into the air.

But the standout image might be that of the coast of Big Sur in California, where a huge wall of rock rises in the background. The only people seen are a man and boy — a father and son, probably — who wear wetsuits and are playing in shallow water at the edge of the beach. The man has lifted the boy into the air, and the look on both their faces is one of pure joy.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Tad Malek’s photo exhibit will be on view at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts through July 12, 2020. For more information on this and the Fammy Palmer exhibit, visit Springfieldmuseums.org.