IntroductionThe pictorial collections of the Library of Congress represent an immense fund of human experience, knowledge, and achievement. Works in these collections touch upon almost every realm of human endeavor: science, art, invention, government and political struggle, and the recording of history.
In these realms, the arts of drawing, printmaking, and photography have served a multitude of purposes over the years. They have been the bearers of information, vehicles of commentary and persuasion, tools in the creative process, and media of artistic expression. All of these roles are represented in the drawings, prints, and photographs in the Library's collections.
These works' value as historical documents is informed and enriched by the circumstances of their creation. As bearers of information, the arts of drawing and printmaking have a long history. Since prehistoric times drawing has been a universal language, used by people to record and, in the process, interpret their surroundings. Printmaking, a much younger art than drawing, has provided a means of disseminating drawings and the information they contain. The birth of printmaking in the West six centuries ago coincided with the revival of science and classical humanism in late medieval Europe. Prints and drawings were indispensable to the communication of the new scientific information gathered during the era of exploration that followed. The artist John White, who accompanied Sir Walter Raleigh's expeditions to the Carolina coast in the 1580s, created a vivid visual record of everyday life in the native societies there. After White's return from America his drawings were engraved to illustrate a series of volumes on New World voyages published in Germany.
John Rubens Smith. Mill on the Brandywine,
Deleware. Watercolor on laid paper, circa 1830.
As time went on, drawings and prints were produced to mark
important milestones in the transformation of the American
landscape through settlement, urbanization, and industrialization
and to display the wonders of its unspoiled regions. In the
early years of the nineteenth century artists like John Rubens
Smith traveled throughout the United States, recording in pencil
and watercolor the cities and towns, the mills, the bridges, and
the suburban estates that dotted the countryside during that
dynamic age. (John Rubens Smith Collection. Gift of the Madison
Council and Mrs. Joseph Carson)
Nicholas H. Shepherd. Abraham Lincoln. Quarter-plate
daguerreotype, circa 1846.
Photography, first introduced in the nineteenth century,
eventually superceded the other graphic arts as a medium of
historical record. Initially it was hailed as a paragon of
factuality. Its images materializing through the action of
sunlight on a sensitized plate, the medium supposedly eliminated
from the recording process the subjective element of human
mediation. As a result, people embraced photography as a way of
preserving important moments in the course of their lives. The
thirty-seven-year old Abraham Lincoln, soon after winning his
first seat in the House of Representatives, sat for a local
daguerreotypist at Springfield, Illinois. The portrait, as
straightforward as its plainspoken subject, is the earliest known
photograph of the Great Emancipator, taken when he had yet to
cast his first vote in the Congress. (Gift of Mary Lincoln Isham)
Julia Margaret Cameron. Portrait of Alfred, Lord
Tennyson. Albumen silver print, 1876.
Despite its fidelity to appearances, photography actually
allows considerable room for subjectivity. Any number of
creative decisions made by the photographer in the process of
making a photograph, such as the choice of subject, perspective,
equipment, and the moment of exposure, all introduce a measure of
interpretation. In her portraits of a number of the luminaries
of her age, the British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron used
the technical variables of the medium to express, as she put it,
"the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer
man." In her portrait of Alfred Lord Tennyson, one of several
intimate studies included in a Cameron album owned by the
Library, the photographer exploits the optical peculiarities of
her camera lens and the physical properties of the albumen
printing process to convey the brooding genius of the Victorian
Ancient Ruins in the Cañon de Chelle, New Mexico. Albumen silver
It was photography's literal rather than evocative qualities
that have endeared the medium to scientists, explorers,
historians, and others with a vested interest in fidelity to
observed detail. In the decades following the American Civil War
photographers were employed to accompany a succession of
congressionally funded exploring expeditions and geological
surveys of the American West and Southwest. Expedition
commanders often published reports of their surveys illustrated
with large albumen print photographs of peculiar and magnificent
features of the wilderness terrain. Photographs like Timothy
O'Sullivan's view of New Mexico's Cañon de Chelle, produced on
the George M. Wheeler Expedition, were intended both to inform
and dazzle the public--as well as the expedition's federal
Frances Benjamin Johnston. West Martingham Outbuildings, St. Michael's, Talbot County,
Maryland. Gelatin silver print, 1936.
Photography has also been used extensively to record
architecture and the built environment. One of architectural
photography's acknowledged masters was Frances Benjamin Johnston.
Possessed of a prescient interest in the humbler structures of
American vernacular architecture, Johnston spent the latter part
of her career documenting the vanishing buildings of the Old
South. In her photograph of the whitewashed outbuildings of
West Martingham in rural Talbot County, Maryland, Johnston has
preserved some of the more rudimentary products of American
architectural creativity. (Carnegie Survey
of the Architecture of the South)
Joseph Pennell. Building Miraflores
Lock. Lithograph, 1912.
In architecture as in portraiture the best records are not always the most literal ones. Drawing can often surpass photography in capturing the essence of architectural and engineering accomplishments, and in conveying a sense of the human experience of these works. By far the most ambitious engineering venture of its era, the construction of the Panama Canal surmounted enormous obstacles--environmental, political, and technical--before its completion in 1914. In his series of drawings and lithographs of the construction the influential American printmaker, illustrator, and critic Joseph Pennell captured the superhuman scale of this achievement.
Pennell's Panama Canal series, moreover, exudes an unabashed
national pride in the American accomplishment of carving a
waterway to link two great oceans. The canal was not only a
marvel of American ingenuity but a symbol of the emergence of the
United States as the major power in the Western Hemisphere. As
an expression of that moment, Pennell's work is, more than a
record, a commentary on the new international order of his day. (Gift of Joseph and
Elizabeth Robins Pennell)
As Joseph Pennell recognized, images possess an innate
advantage over text as vehicles of commentary and persuasion.
Their immunity to the constraints of reasoned argument have made
them valuable tools in politics and advertising. The Library's
extensive collections of political prints and posters consist of
works created to advance the goals of societies, governments, and
movements and those which voiced the doubts of their critics.
Francisco Goya y Lucientes. Lealtad (A M
an Mocked). Etching and burnished aquatint on laid paper, 1816 or later.
Among the most penetrating social commentaries ever created
are the etchings of the Spanish artist Francisco Goya. Employed
at the court of Charles IV, Goya witnessed from a privileged
vantage point the corruption of a decadent regime, the foibles
and superstitions of his own society, and the atrocities
committed by Napoleon's occupying troops upon his countrymen.
His prints present a deeply cynical picture of his times, as a
dark age pervaded by human evil. (Caroline and Erwin Swann Memorial Fund
unknown. The Tory Mill. Woodcut and letterpress on green
wove paper, circa 1834.
The darkest days of American president Andrew Jackson's
administration were a golden era for political cartoons in the
United States. During Jackson's second term, thousands of
caricatures were issued by opponents of his fiscal program and
the corrupt spoils system of government patronage. Cartoons from
the period, most of them issued anonymously, reflect the high
pitch of public feeling on these issues. (Caroline and Erwin Swann Memorial Fund
Five Celebrated Clowns Attached to Sands, Nathan Company's Circus.
Woodcut printed in colors by Morse, M'Kenney & Company, 1856.
Optimism, not doubt, is the pervasive tone in the Library's
holdings of advertising posters and prints. Since the early
nineteenth century, commerce has used printmaking to present its
objects of desire--be they soap, entertainment, or political
candidates--in a favorable light. Posters (printed images
executed on a bold, attention-grabbing scale) were pioneered by
American circuses and political campaigns. Joseph Morse's tour
de force of the genre, from the Library's rich collection of
early American circus posters, is over eleven feet long. It was
probably meant to be posted on the side of a building, to herald
the arrival of a troupe of traveling circus performers. (Transfer,
U.S. Copyright Office)
Otis Shepard. Wrigley's Double Mint Chewing
Gum. Color offset poster, 1938.
In the twentieth century, with large-scale industrial
development and the advent of an international consumer economy,
advertising has become a virtual weapon of intense competition.
The heat of this competition and a revolution in printing
technology transformed graphic design from a craft into a highly
sophisticated profession. Posters and other print advertising
by modern manufacturing giants are often the products of
corporate identity programs, demographically based marketing
strategies, and motivational research. Chicago artist and art
director Otis Shepard developed an advertising campaign for the
Wrigley Corporation in the 1930s that continues to influence the
look of the company's corporate advertising today.
Jan Tschichold. Der Berufsphotograph. Color offset
In their work, twentieth-century graphic designers wield a
vastly expanded vocabulary of typography, photography, and
printing techniques. In his 1938 poster for an exhibition of
commercial photography, Czech designer Jan Tschichold applied
this vocabulary in the disciplined terms of Bauhaus design, where
the forms themselves and the interrelationship of text and image
become the subject of the work.
Benjamin Henry Latrobe. United States Capitol. Rendered Elevation for West Front
with Propylaeum. Graphite, ink, and watercolor on laid paper,
Far from the political fray or the engines of commerce, the
graphic arts have also played a role in the creative process, as
tools in the shaping of the man-made world. Drawing in
particular has been instrumental in the making of buildings,
bridges, monuments, and other elements of the built environment.
For architects and patrons, drawings have provided a means to
conceptualize and develop schemes for architectural projects and
to impart their schemes to those who constructed them.
Capitol in Washington evolved through a succession of design
competitions and building campaigns, which can be traced in part
through architects' drawings which survive in the Library's
collections. In his 1811 elevation rendering, Benjamin Henry
Latrobe presented a majestic scheme, though one ultimately
discarded, for the West Front of the Capitol.
Robert Fulton. Section Rendering of Submarine or "Plunging Boat." Graphite, ink, and watercolor on paper,
Robert Fulton, best known for his invention of the
steamboat, elaborated in a series of drawings a number of schemes
for submarines, torpedoes, and other underwater devices,
anticipating by over a century the actual introduction of
undersea navigation. Fulton actually built and tested his
submarine, or "plunging boat," the Nautilus, for Napoleon in
France in 1800.
John T. Daniels.
First flight, December 17, 1903. Distance, 120 feet. Time 12 seconds. Orville
Wright at controls. Modern gelatin silver print from glass negative.
Other inventors have used photography to record works in
progress, documenting the arduous, often lurching, progress of
experimentation and discovery. Photographic "note-taking" by
the Wright brothers, Alexander Graham Bell, and others has
yielded today's researchers a detailed record of the triumphs and
failures of these pioneers. The Wright brothers systematically
photographed the prototypes and tests of their various flying
machines. Their historic first powered flight at Kitty Hawk,
North Carolina, in December 1903 was one of a number of scenes
documented in a collection of about 300 negatives acquired by the
Library from the estate of Orville Wright. The camera, operated
by an attendant from a nearby lifesaving station, captured their
plane on the instant of takeoff. The craft soared to an
altitude of 2 feet.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. The Three
Trees. Etching, drypoint, and engraving on laid paper, 1643. (Gardiner Green
The less practical uses of the graphic arts prevail in the
Library's holdings of fine prints and master photographs. For
almost six centuries artists have found in printmaking a realm
where technical process uniquely informs creativity, and have
explored the expressive possibilities of the medium as a way of
communicating deeper human matters of perception and meaning.
Master painters like Rembrandt, Whistler, and more recently Susan
Rothenberg have created substantial bodies of work in
printmaking. Among the most masterful and enduring
accomplishments in the art is Rembrandt's etching The Three
Trees, an outstanding impression of which is owned by the
Library. In this work Rembrandt uses line, thick and thin,
richly overlayed and isolated, to both describe the forms in a
landscape and suggest the surrounding space, light, and
James McNeill Whistler. Nocturne. Etching an
d drypoint, printed in brown ink on laid paper. First state of five, circa 1879. (Joseph and
Elizabeth Robins Pennell Collection)
In a series of Venetian studies made in 1879 or 1880, Whistler used the same medium in a much different but equally remarkable manner. In Nocturne, the artist reserves his line to provide a shorthand description of a few recognizable objects, such as a ship, the church of Santa Maria della Salute, and the island of San Giorgio, allowing the manipulated inking on the surface of the plate to dominate the sheet and provide an