Distant Lands

 Mary J. P. Kelly, 2001  
  Welcome to Distant Lands. These paintings and drawings were done during what has come to be known as the "Golden Age of American Illustration," approximately 1880 to 1930. Illustrators of the period including Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, and Charles Dana Gibson, were some of the most talented and influential individuals of their time and treated much like the movie stars of today. The work of illustrators served as both the Disney Channel and CNN and whether or not their portrayals of other places and people were fully accurate (and often they were not) they were regarded as the truth. The images these men and women created were seen on magazine covers, in stories, as posters and advertisements. The artist’s purpose was to grab your attention, whether to entice you to buy a magazine or a refrigerator. These images are also a record of the society, fashions, customs, and prejudices – both positive and negative – of the period.

This show contains fifty works from more than twenty-five of the best known of these illustrators. A few portray familiar scenes: Norman Rockwell’s Homecoming hobo or N.C. Wyeth's unnamed wintry scene originally done for the Interwoven Sock Company. But readers at the turn of the century also sought stories exotic and different from their own lives and circumstances and we have taken this desire as our theme: Distant Lands. Almost all of the images in this show were chosen as examples of how the artists, and thus the reading public, perceived times, places and people "distant" - whether in geography or time - from the America in which they were living. Frederick Yohn’s London at Midnight depicts Big Ben in London – a city most readers would never have the opportunity to see. Wyeth’s Bruce on the Beach, the cover illustration for this catalogue, comes from The Scottish Chiefs - the story of the rebellion of the Scots against the English in the 14th Century. There are also several rather sinister portrayals of Chinese communities. The turn of the century was a time when labor unions and others sought to keep out cheap labor from Asia. Most Americans on the East Coast had little contact with Asia – a truly distant part of the world – and regarded these stories and pictures as the truth.

A bit of history will help shed light on some of the artists’ thinking in these portrayals of Distant Lands and their inhabitants. So, let us take a brief look at the United States of a hundred years ago.

A Nation of Immigrants

The turn of the last century was a time of tremendous change: from countryside to city; from handicraft to factory; from candles to electricity. The nation was becoming increasingly urban. It was also very much a country of immigrants who brought new customs, language and clothing from their distant homelands. In the 1880s, some 500,000 people immigrated to the United States annually. During the first decade of the new century, the number averaged almost 900,000 a year. [1] The earliest immigrants, those of the 17th and 18th centuries, had largely been western and northern Europeans – the English, Dutch, French, Swedes. Among these groups there were some commonalties – shared or similar clothing, customs or religious practices. Now, in addition to increasing numbers of the Irish, immigrants were coming from eastern and southern Europe – Poland, Russia, Italy, Greece - and the process of assimilation into the mostly English-speaking United States was not always easy. Many of the German and Scandinavian immigrants in the latter part of the 19th Century had had some money when they arrived and were able to move west, creating new farms and small towns along the growing network of railroads. But many others, such as the Irish and Eastern European Jews, were impoverished, often refugees from famine, and coming to join family or friends in America’s new industrial cities. Factory jobs were plentiful in the North and East, but wages were very low and the hours long.

Some of these new Americans were able to get ahead, gradually expanding a new middle class. A few, like Andrew Carnegie who had arrived as a penniless youth of thirteen in 1848 from his native Scotland, were able to make vast fortunes. But many immigrants ended up living among people like themselves, who spoke the same language and had the same customs. Overcrowding and poverty gradually produced ghettos and by the end of the 19th century, an estimated 10% of the American population lived in these confined communities. As more and more people came to start a new life in the city, crime, disease, bars and brothels burgeoned in these slums. A New York City commission in 1900 found that conditions in New York’s tenements were even worse than they had been in 1850.

There were also many immigrants on the West Coast, and problems of a different sort. Thousands of Asian workers, primarily from China, had come to the United States to work on the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s and 1870s. Many returned home with substantial nest eggs, which frequently encouraged other young men to make the trip. (Women rarely came, but waited years in China for the return of their husbands.) Here there were immigrants who not only had a very different culture, but also looked different. In 1882, fearing competition from Chinese laborers who often accepted lower wages, the labor unions convinced Congress to ban Chinese immigration completely for a period of 10 years. The Boxer Rebellion, where Chinese radicals revolted against the foreign presence in China began in May 1900 with many foreigners and Chinese Christians killed. Two months later came the Siege of Peking, where the Boxers held Western legations hostage for a month, which only added to the general American and European distrust of the Chinese.


[1] Foster Rhea Dulles, The United States since 1865 (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press 1969) 169.



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