Sunday, December 12, 2010

Portraits: President Grant's inaugural ball, March 1869

I love the way that old 1800s tabloids like Harper’s Weekly, Leslie’s Illustrated, and the others, long before photographs could be copied on newsprint, used artist’s sketches to capture dazzling visual scenes. The process was primitive and tedious by modern standards. Artists literally had to take their pencil drawings and carve them by hand onto wooden block or steel plates for the ink-slathered printing machines. But the results could be breath-taking, the first time many American’s in their lifetimes ever saw the faces of famous people, the insides of well-known buildings, or glimpses of how the other half lived.

Here’s a nice one: A full-page panorama of the great gala inaugural ball thrown for Ulysses Grant, newly elected president of the United States, in the great chandeliered hall of the Treasury Department in March 1869. It appeared in Leslie’s Illustrated on March 20th that year, drawn by a young artist named James E. Taylor who earned his wings sketching battle scenes during the Civil War.

Click on the photo to see it full size. Look at the detail, the faces, the clothes, the room, and imagine the hours of labor it took to capture each line and nuance. The drawing is so accurate that you can make out individual faces in the crowd, not just President Grant and his wife Julia but also House Speaker James G. Blaine (standing behind Mrs. Grant’s shoulder), Senator Carl Schurz (over to the right), and several Civil War generals.

Photographs and videos are fine, but some of these artist sketches are true Pop Art masterpieces. Hope you like it.

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