Articles At A Glance
Painter of American History
J. L. G. FERRIS
By: Roy Nuhn
As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, April 2007
In the years between 1900 and 1930, painter J. L. G. Ferris created a series of 78 historical scenes portraying America's past from the discovery of New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492 to the beginning of World War I. Today his artwork is the largest intact series of American historical paintings by a single artist.
What Ferris did was to devote the last 30 years of his life to recapturing the greatness of the American experience on canvas. Even more remarkable, his paintings were not for sale. He did not want the visual effectiveness of his paintings to be lost selling them off one at a time. They were to be viewed as a whole.
Ferris was possessed by a vision. The first half of his life - years of growing up, of art training, and years of studying worldwide and at home in Philadelphia the great, paintings of the past and present - came during the last four decades of the 19th century. This was an age when historians, artists and craftsmen of all disciplines - from architects and writers to furniture designers and educators - as well as the general public looked backward to the greatness of our nation's past.
Rightly so have these years been called the "American Renaissance," a time when all things American began to be considered important and our past glorious. No longer would European ideas, models and movements influence us too greatly. Beginning with the Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia in 1876, it lasted until the decade or so before World War I, when technology, invention and the marvels of the machine became dominate.
Ferris was one small part of this cultural movement. His paintings, so painstakingly researched down to the tiniest detail, added a humanistic touch to the grandeur of the American past as it found its way onto his canvases. Like many of his contemporaries, he made the great and small figures of America's great pageant more lifelike, more human, and less the gods and mythological heroes they were once thought to be.
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris was born in Philadelphia on August 18, 1863. His father was a well-known portrait painter and etcher, his mother the sister of three popular artists. Small wonder that he received much encouragement to become an artist. His father was his first teacher.
In 1879 young Jean was enrolled in the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, located in Philadelphia. There he received the best possible art education in America and had the finest teachers in the country. He made several trips abroad, with his father, to study the paintings of Europe's best.
In 1883 he was sent to the Academie Julian, in Paris, to study with the world's most respected teachers of the time. In France he was drawn into the current anti-establishment art movement of the day, which advocated the combination of the traditional academic approach with a free style - eventually to be called "impressionism." A close study of Ferris's paIntings shows traces of this influence.
Always drawn to American history, the young man gravitated in that direction when it came time to earn his own way in the world. However, it was the financial, as well as the moral, support of his family that enabled him to keep painting.
His first major painting, "General Howe's Levee, 1777," was sold in 1898, when he was 35 years old. Upon reflection, he regretted selling it because his dream of putting together the American epic in a series of paintings would not work if they were sold off individually.
And so, with the arrival of the new century, J. L. G. Ferris buckled down to his life's major work, the creation of that saga in oils. He vowed never again to sell these paintings.
To support himself he did book and magazine illustrations, miscellaneous historical paintings not part of his special series, and - of great interest to us - sold reproduction rights to the many pictures he was creating for his epic saga.
Sometime around 1908 several publishers began marketing prints of Ferris's artwork. These came in all sizes, with some intended for framing. Schools, banks and government offices often adorned their walls with them. Many others were sold as souvenirs to be saved in scrap albums as special treasures. The prints were on sale at five-and-dimes, stationery shops and other stores coast to coast, though a few quality editions of art gallery beauty were found in upscale emporiums.
During the first half of the 20th century, a couple of publishers produced calendars with illustrations from the paintings. Brown and Bigelow's rank among the best of these.
The Ferris collection also inspired many postcards. A few will be found on the older pre-1920 cards. The most reproduced of all his scenes is "Lincoln and the Contrabands, " showing the president with a group of former slaves in the occupied South at war's end.
International Art Co. used it for one of its unnumbered postcards. The company also printed many of the pictures as blank back trade cards for use by advertisers, such as H. D. Foss & Co. Quality Premier Chocolate (Boston) and Dr. D. Jayne's Family Medicines Co. (maker of patent medicines), which added its own promotional messages.
The paintings showed up on other postcards, as well, mostly by small publishers, including linen-style printings of the. 1930s. In the post-World War II era, quite a few were published as sharp quality chromes, especially for sale during the American Bicentennial celebration of 1976.
In modern times the most effective use of the great historical paintings of Ferris on the postcard form was a group by a Michigan firm, Paw Paw Plastics Laminating Service, Inc. In 1972 they printed and sold an 18-card large size, chrome-like set. As late as 1984 these were still being sold at retail for $5 a set.
After being exhibited for many years at the Smithsonian and elsewhere, the paintings eventually returned to the Ferris family who licensed the use of their images to a number of firms. J. L. G. Ferris had died in 1930.
Today, prints in good condition, depending upon age, sell for $10 to $25. Framed large prints carry larger price tags. Old postcards are in the $8 to $10 range; the various trade cards go for a bit more. Postcards of the 1930s to 1980s usually sell for $3 to $5.
There has been a growing demand for such prints and postcards over the last couple of decades and availability is not as good as it used to be. Ferris's interpretation of America's past is greatly loved today, especially in these highly patriotic times.
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