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A magical machine transforms imperfect husbands into ideal spouses. A natural disaster competes with miraculous apparitions and serial murders to astonish the eye. A two-and-a-half-foot-tall souvenir poster produced in the year of the Eiffel Tower’s construction serves as both a game board and a celebration of the world-famous landmark. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has joined these memorable images with dozens of other prints culled from its vast collection for Curious and Commonplace: European Popular Prints of the 1800s (May 31-August 24, 2008). Spanning the 19th century, many of the 88 prints on view include narrative texts or folk ballads in French, Dutch, German and, in one case, fractured English. Among these often-humorous, always-intriguing images are the precursors to the tabloids, board games and Sunday comic strips of today. In the 19th century, such prints were sold in shops and on street corners, or distributed at large public events. While they were once ubiquitous in households, taverns and schoolrooms across Europe, the inexpensive, mass-produced images were rarely preserved, and are now difficult to find undamaged. Several of the prints included in Curious and Commonplace are the only remaining examples of these valuable pieces of European history, and the majority of works have never before been on display at the Museum.
The range of prints mirrors the variety of subjects and styles that publishers included on their stock lists — from crudely cut black-and-white woodblock prints to colorful hand-colored stencils and chromolithography. The exhibition is arranged in 12 mini-sections devoted to various topics, including children’s activities, optical illusions, playing cards, and the age-old themes of love and marriage. One set of prints offers a lurid account of a mass murder, while another group chronicles the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte.
“We wanted to offer visitors a sampling of prints that reflects the astounding variety available at the time they were produced,” says exhibition curator Kevin Kriebel, the Dorothy J. del Bueno Curatorial Fellow in the Prints, Drawings and Photographs department. “It’s unusual for a museum to have as many of these prints as we do, especially in such wonderful condition, and they are so intriguing that it was hard not to feature them all.”
Several prints reveal much about the lives of 19th-century children. Younger visitors to the exhibition will be drawn to The New Goose Game, which dates to the turn of the 20th century, and The Big Eiffel Tower Game — a souvenir poster distributed at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair. With their snake-like design and illustrated squares, these board games resemble modern ones, such as “The Game of Life” or “Trouble.” And, just as in these present-day incarnations, 19th-century players relied on a roll of the dice or luck of the draw rather than on skill or strategy.
Other popular children’s pastimes are also on display, including cut paper “Jumping Jacks” and elaborate theater sets and costumed actors ready to be cut out and assembled for staging miniature at-home productions. A few prints have a more serious, didactic bent, with the 19th-century equivalent of “Goofus and Gallant” from today’s Highlights for Children illustrating the devastating consequences for children who misbehave. One especially horrifying tale depicts a child who is warned about the dangers of fireworks, then left blind after playing with one.
The exhibition’s “Notable and Newsworthy” section offers a sampling of the stories that captivated audiences of the time. In one image, a crowd of townspeople gathered outside a church are astounded to witness the miraculous apparition of a giant cross hovering in the sky. A series of four prints recounts the story of Jean-Baptiste Troppmann, a vicious murderer who is tracked down and executed for his crimes; another illustrates the disastrous flooding of France’s Loire River in 1866 with an image of three men in a rowboat rescuing a family whose house is up to its roof in water.
Romantic relationships are held up for satirical examination in the exhibition’s “Love and Marriage” section. Eager women try desperately to reach eligible bachelors perched on high branches in The Tree of Love (c. 1852-58). In The Miraculous Distillery for Ridding Husbands of Their Bad Habits (1839), women face the opposite dilemma: they are married to woefully imperfect men plagued by various vices, including flirting, gambling and drinking. After their concerned wives feed them into the vat of a large and imposing distillery, these new and improved men emerge to rejoin their spouses for a second honeymoon in an enchanted country inn for happy households.
A handful of prints illustrate France’s enduring admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte. Published more than a decade after his death in 1821, The Battle of Waterloo (c. 1835-40) depicts Bonaparte as a valiant leader appearing to win the clash that in reality marked his final defeat. Saint Napoleon, The Patron Saint of Soldiers — produced and distributed in the 1860s — depicts an obscure early Christian martyr who was elevated to new prominence by Bonaparte’s fame.
Most of the prints on display came to the Museum as part of a two-part gift of nearly 2,800 European popular prints from Alice Newton Osborn in 1958 and 1961. Osborn and her husband, Frank, obtained the prints from the Émile van Heurck, a well-known Belgian collector of European popular prints and the co-author of two definitive reference works on the subject. Van Heurck’s collection focused on the 19th century, and included examples from Amsterdam, Brussels, Munich and other European cities. The majority of the prints on view in Curious and Commonplace were created in the celebrated print publishing center of Épinal, a town in northeastern France whose name is an essential component of the phrase by which French popular prints are best known today: Imagerie d’Épinal.
Exhibitions in the Berman and Stieglitz Galleries in 2008, including Curious and Commonplace: European Popular Prints of the 1800s, are made possible by RBC Wealth Management.