'Printsburgh! Printed Views of Pittsburgh, 1826-1885' a surefire treat

Kurt Shaw
| Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012, 8:53 p.m.

On display for only a few short weeks, the exhibit “Printsburgh!: Printed Views of Pittsburgh, 1826-1885” is a must-see for those interested in the history of Pittsburgh, antique prints or both.

On display in the campus art gallery of Chatham University, the exhibit of nearly three dozen prints and maps is the culmination of a semester-long project spearheaded by Elisabeth Roark, associated professor of art, for her class “ART 368: Museum Education and the Visual Arts.”

Nearly all of the material on display, which ranges from 1826 to 1885, is from the collection of the Catherine R. Miller, who bequeathed her extensive collection of Pittsburgh prints, books and paintings to the university upon her death in 1962.

“The last time this collection was shown was in 2000,” says Roark, who stumbled across the material several years ago while working in the archives at the university's library. “I'm the first art historian at Chatham who specializes in American art, so I was really excited about them.”

Roark says Miller, who was from Sewickley, was a student at Dilworth Hall, a preparatory school in existence from 1907 to 1917. It was founded by the university, then known as the Pennsylvania Female College, and located on the grounds.

“In the 1950s, (Miller) opened her home in Sewickley and let people come in to see the prints for the bicentennial of the city,” Roark says. “She never married, and when she passed away in 1962, she gave us the collection, plus several paintings and books on local history.”

About the prints on display, Roark says, “Most of these things were book illustrations or were in magazines.” In that regard, two prime examples of publications from which they came are also on display — Volume 94 of Godey's Magazine, which is open to reveal a print of Fort Duquesne in 1824, and “Picturesque America,” which is open to reveal the panoramic print “Pittsburgh, from Soldiers' Monument.”

Roark says the former volume is original, while the latter volume was published in 1976. “It's a facsimile, but it gives you an opportunity to see where the print came from and the kind of text that went with it.”

Originally published between 1872 and 1874, “Picturesque America,” was the magnum opus of American poet, editor and journalist William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) who practiced law until 1825, then switched avocations and became editor and finally owner of the New York Evening Post. It was Bryant himself who was responsible for choosing artists rather than photographers to interpret American cities for the two-volume set.

Not far away hangs the original print from 1872. A beautifully executed steel-plate engraving by William Roberts (birth and death dates unknown), with later hand-coloring, it exemplifies the high point of 19th-century intaglio printing, when exacting detail could be achieved on even the smallest scale.

From small to large, and everywhere in between, the exhibit contains a number of prints that have historical significance. Such as the “Great Conflagration at Pittsburgh” by Nathaniel Currier (1813-88), which depicts the Great Fire of April, 10, 1845, that ravaged no less than a third of the city.

A hand-colored lithograph, the subject, believe it or not, was a common one in the 19th century, a time when fires raged through many American cities. Roark says these fires were usually followed by the appearance of speculative prints like this, which were sold not just in the city in question, but around the country. “This particular example is one of the earliest of its kind,” she says.

Most locals will no doubt notice that the large mountain in the background is totally out of place, and other details, such as the location of the rivers, are a bit skewed. This was due to the likelihood that the print was based on a drawing, rather than a photograph, that was a first-hand account of the scene.

The exhibit also includes some of the earliest maps of Pittsburgh, such as French military cartographer Joseph Warin's “Plan of the Town of Pittsburg (1796)” engraved by Antoine-Francois Tardieu (1757-1822). Also having later hand-coloring, it depicts the ruins of Fort Pitt at the Point, with the later Fort Lafayette placed further upstream along the Allegheny River. Curiously, coal mines also are identified and the scale is given in fathoms.

Finally, among the most rare is an engraving by Charles Doumeclun (birth and death dates unknown) titled “Pittsburg” from the mid-1840s. Published by C. Berg of Nuremberg, Germany, it is one of the very few prints to depict the city prior to the Great Fire of 1845.

“Six of our prints were featured in ‘A Panorama of Pittsburgh,' the groundbreaking exhibition of Pittsburgh prints at the Frick Art Museum in Point Breeze in 2008,” Roark says. “This was one of them.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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