by Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein. Syracuse University Press, August 2018. 424 p. ill. ISBN 9780815610953 (h/c), $60.00.
Reviewed January 2019
This text positions Frances (“Fanny”) Bond Palmer as a nineteenth-century Norman Rockwell and advocates more broadly for the recognition of graphic arts and women artists. It is the last work produced by the late Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, who authored three books on women artists. Rubinstein’s text features Palmer’s contributions to Currier & Ives as the second most prolific artist in its history. It also shares a detailed biography and discusses Palmer’s life as an artist beyond the firm. As a British immigrant to America who became the primary breadwinner for her family, Palmer’s personal story is often as engaging as her work.
The first four chapters outline Palmer’s early artistic training in England, marriage, and transition to life and work in New York City. Chapters five through seven focus on Palmer’s prints for Currier & Ives and the appeal of her art to the American public. Following the eighth chapter, devoted to Palmer’s final years, the book covers the artist’s creations from a technical perspective and the legacy of Palmer’s prints in artistic and academic circles since her death.
Throughout the text, Rubinstein puts Palmer’s prints at the forefront of discussion, using close readings to position Palmer as an artist for the American people. According to Rubinstein, Palmer embodied “Yankee know-how and Progress with a capital P.” Palmer’s art directly and indirectly covered events critical to American identity, such as the Civil War and westward expansion. Highlighting these national themes, Rubinstein places Palmer’s prints alongside works by renowned artists like Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hart Benton, and George Caleb Bingham, thus demanding greater recognition than has been previously given to this female graphic artist.
The quantity and quality of the illustrations are unprecedented in prior scholarship on Palmer. In addition to the figures densely spread throughout, the book contains a gallery section devoted to full-page plates and appendices of prints. The gallery section features both pendant pieces and selections from series that are optimally viewed by being placed side-by-side, filling the double-page spread. These larger illustrations also provide readers with the opportunity to read the fine print at the bottom of each piece, fittingly emphasizing the textual content of the lithographs. The five illustrated appendices foster additional analysis through their organization, which allow readers to distinguish between prints created for Currier & Ives and Palmer’s freelance works. Separate appendices for drawings and attributed works also reveal less popular imagery associated with the artist, many of which have not been previously published. This book is rich with works both familiar and new that highlight the rare contributions of a British immigrant in shaping American visual culture.