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  • What the Four Million Bought: Cheap Oil Paintings of the 1880s
  • Saul E. Zalesch (bio)

During the last two decades, art historians have reinstated many famous and popular painters who disappeared from art histories of the late nineteenth century. The departure of the painters occurred when writers began after World War I to focus exclusively upon avant-garde movements. 1 This sensible expansion of the scope of inquiry has enabled scholars to gain unexpected insights into the ways that art functioned in Western societies during the late nineteenth century. 2 A second and equally dramatic expansion of the study of American art of that era is needed, however. This expansion is necessary because even the most revisionist scholars still concentrate on successful artists and their affluent supporters. Historians continue to rely almost exclusively on elite publications, such as the New York Times and Century Magazine, for information about American art of the period, and these resources address only the circles of “high” art. 3 Scholars have had no reason to suspect that high art was merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg, the hidden remainder of which consisted of millions of inexpensive, mass-produced oil paintings. These forgotten cheap paintings are the subject of this article.

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Figure 1.

36 × 22 inch oil painting. Geo. N. Lee & Co., Chicago, 1884. Courtesy, The Winterthur Library: Printed Book and Periodical Collection.

Cheap paintings became ubiquitous after 1880, a fact that will force—and also enable—Americanists to reassess the roles that paintings played in postbellum American society. 4 During the 1880s, Hiram J. Thompson, the Adam J. Press Manufacturing Company, C. F. Rice, George N. Lee and Company, and numerous other frame and molding [End Page 77] manufacturers located in Chicago issued thick, wholesale catalogs whose offerings included oil paintings of various subjects, sizes, and grades, both framed and unframed (fig. 1). These manufacturers usually specialized in 22 × 36 inch, sofa-sized paintings, the supply of which became increasingly systematic during the course of the decade. 5 The price of these paintings plummeted after 1879, which put them within the reach of all but the poorest Americans. 6 By 1884, Thompson sold 22 × 36 paintings in four grades, ranging in price, unframed, from 65¢ to $3.50. 7 Rice eventually offered paintings of this size in five grades. The grade-one paintings cost 45¢ in 1888; the premier grade-five pictures sold for $3.50. 8

In sheer numbers, the cheap oil paintings that mimicked their “betters” would have swamped the creations of the artists being emulated. 9 Nevertheless, few commentators deigned to notice these works; those who did called them “daubs.” 10 In cultured circles, cheap art was taboo—as ubiquitous as sex but equally unmentionable. To be more exact, this neglect of cheap art suggests some desire on the part of writers to appropriate—or possibly retain—art and its appreciation for the exclusive benefit of elite circles, a situation paralleling what was then happening to Shakespeare and opera. 11 Contemporary readers already knew, however, from daily experience that the cheap paintings existed. Unfortunately, this was not so for later historians. Scholars remained oblivious to the cheap paintings of the late nineteenth century so long as they focused on the careers of leading artists and relied primarily on information provided by art journals and influential periodicals like Century and Harper’s Monthly. 12 The existence and ubiquity of the cheap oil paintings are only revealed by trade catalogs and by a trade journal—the Picture and Art Trade—that published several articles describing in fascinating detail the matter-of-fact production and sale of cheap art. 13

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Figure 2.

Detail of cover of mailer. E. F. McCormick Co., Chicago, ca. 1890. Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

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Figure 3.

John Haberle, Torn in Transit, 1890–1895. Collection of the Brandywine River Museum. Gift of Amanda K. Berls.

Painting manufacturers distributed their products both through intermediary jobbers and those small retailers—including picture dealers, framing shops, stationers, auctioneers, and dry goods stores—that...

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