Imperfection Section

“Imperfections” in graphic art that might be seen as diminishing the aesthetic appeal or importance of an item in an art museum can be viewed as actually enhancing the research value of a work in a special collections library, such as the Library Company. Artistic or printing errors can teach us about how an item was created or the relative importance ascribed to it. Added inscriptions, while sometimes visually distracting, can provide invaluable historical information. Damage or deterioration can tell us how the item was displayed or used and helps us understand what the item meant to its owner. All of these perceived flaws provide us with a greater understanding of the graphic as a whole, beyond what is pictured in the image, as the works on display demonstrate.

Imperfect History is supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, Walter J. Miller Trust, Center for American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Jay Robert Stiefel and Terra Foundation for American Art.

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Washington on ornate boat in harbor greeted by large crowd and dignitaries on wharf.

John C. McRae after Henry Brueckner, First in Peace (New York: John C. McRae, 1867). Hand-colored engraving. Gift of David Doret, 1994.

Published in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, McRae’s depiction of George Washington’s triumphal arrival in New York City for his presidential inauguration served as a visual balm to a still divided country. McRae specialized in creating large prints portraying romanticized scenes of America’s past, a genre of art that lost favor in the later 19th century. Depictions of significant events in American history have long been a focus of the Library Company’s graphics holdings. The print, despite its imperfect representation of an event, large size, and less than perfect condition, had research potential and we accepted the gift. We are deliberately not hiding its many imperfections in displaying it here since they are part of the print’s “life” story. This was the first item donated to the collection by David Doret who in the last two decades has given hundreds of graphic items, a selection of which can be found in this exhibition.

Series of cards depicting scenes of children with animals, toddling, in a walker, and at play in a barrel and overturned chair.

“Life of Childhood. Part I" ([Boston]: [L. Prang & Co.], ca. 1863). Chromolithographs. Incomplete set of album cards. Purchase with funds for the Visual Culture Program, 2015.

During the early 1860s, prominent Boston lithographer L. Prang & Co. published over 200 editions of sets of twelve album cards that were "especially adapted for filling blank leaves in the Photograph Album, or for ornamenting the parlor table." Life of Childhood. Part 1 was one of those sets which were "also very desireable [sic] for Rewards of Merit in schools, and for slight presents generally" from their “beautiful and artistical execution” as well as “truthfulness to the natural objects they represent." Although missing one-third of the cards, the "beautiful and artistic execution" of the prints is not lost. The tiny works of art remain a source of study of visual culture of antebellum childhood and children as when originally promoted as “designed to please, amuse, and instruct.”

Photographic reproduction of family group of drawn full-length silhouettes of men, women, children and babies in a three-window room of a house. Figures sit, stand, and some children play with a hobby horse and doll or lie on pillows on floor.

[Photographic Reproduction of Silhouettes of Lea Family members by Augustin Edouart] (Philadelphia?, ca. 1900). Gelatin silver print with ink. Gift of Mrs. A. Douglas Oliver, 1977.

During the 1970s, Elizabeth Lea Oliver (1923-2017) regularly donated material to the graphics collection, including lithographs and cased photographs. In late 1977, the Librarian’s Report noted her generosity in giving two silhouette portraits of the extended family of Joseph and Sarah Robeson Lea of Philadelphia, executed by the well-known French artist Augustin-Amant-Constant-Fidèle Edouart (1789-1861) in 1843 during his stay in the United States. Unfortunately, later when this work was unframed and more easily examined, the family portrait silhouettes turned out to be a photograph of the original artwork with added ink. The original of this silhouette grouping is held in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Frederick Graff, [Plan of Centre Square], ca. 1800-1827. Pen and ink, graphite, and watercolor. Purchase at Jay T. Snider Collection Auction, 2008.

Philadelphia engineer and architect Frederick Graff (1774-1847) worked with architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820) to design the city’s water works at Centre Square and became their superintendent in 1805. This plan with its many notations made over the span of more than two decades shows how the water works became integrated into the fabric of the lives of the city’s residents. Unsurprisingly, Graff included information about the length, width, and circumference of various walkways in the square, but we also learn through these additions of the presence of a gambling house and the discovery of a murder victim’s body. Despite the item’s obvious imperfections when sold (see the “before conservation treatment” photograph), the curators could not pass up the opportunity to acquire such an evocative document of Philadelphia’s less well-known history.

Plan composed of a square within a small circle within a larger circle within a square. A grid of lines connects the edge of inner circle to inner edge of larger circle.  Includes several handwritten notes in ink.

Corine McHugh, [Plan of Centre Square]. Before conservation treatment photograph, 2018.

Face to face pages containing paper dolls inserted into paper gilt stamped pouches pasted on the pages and designed as cabinets and sets of drawers.

Scrapbook repurposed from edition of Mitchell's New Physical Geography containing paper dolls clipped from fashion periodicals and homemade paper clothes, ca. 1873-ca. 1875. Gift of Historic Media Archives, 2020.

A scrapbook, in essence, is many times a volume of repurposed works of art. Sometimes the scrapbook itself is repurposed. This recent gift is of both kinds. Homemade paper dolls clipped from periodical fashion plates, handmade wardrobes and dressers, and clothing made from colored tissue paper fill the pages of this 1870s geography textbook. With a pasted label warning, "this book must be covered, not be scribbled upon, kept clean, and paid for if not returned when demanded" during its time as a textbook, it is imperfectly perfect in form and function as a work of "idiosyncratic" art and an historical visual material. The volume entices, engages, and enlightens the researcher of scrapbooks; women's fashion; children's education; and the history of collage.

Faded portraits on torn mats depicting a full-length portrait and bust-length portrait of young African American women, their hair pulled back, and attired in blouses.

[Sarah E. Showell] and [Lillie Showell], ca. 1917. Gelatin silver prints. Gift of Brice C. Showell, 2015.

The flu epidemic of 1918 took the lives of these young African American women according to their family history. With the decision by Sarah and Lillie Showell's descendant to give their likenesses to the Graphic Arts Department, these portraits evolved from a private to public artifact of the history of a Black family during the period of World War I. The historical significance of the provenance and context of the photographs supersedes their worn and faded images.

Nineteenth-century street scene depicting people leaving the Protestant Episcopal Church of Epiphany, pigeons on roofs, and street and foot traffic.

D.K., Chestnut Street and Fifteenth Street. City of Philadelphia, May 1849. Watercolor. Purchase at Jay T. Snider Collection Auction, 2008.

Signed D.K, this is one of a number of watercolors of unconventional Philadelphia scenes held by the Graphic Arts Department with this signature. Acquired in the auction of the Jay T. Snider Collection of Philadelphiana in 2008, the drawing with a distinctive playful aesthetic was attributed by the auction house to Philadelphia watercolorist David Kennedy. Initially Department curators deferred to the Kennedy attribution despite extensive stylistic differences with Kennedy's known and signed work. D.K.'s identity is still not known. But she or he, not David Kennedy, is now the attributed artist of this view, pigeon dung and all, showing the Protestant Episcopal Church of Epiphany built fifteen years earlier after the designs of Thomas Ustick Walter (1804-1887).

View showing a trolley on street tracks. Handwritten note is written along upper edge and in corner of image.

“All Aboard!" Car on Philadelphia and West Chester Trolley (Media, PA.: Philip H. Moore, 1907). George Brightbill Collection. Gift of George Brightbill, 1999.

At the end of the 20th century, the Graphic Arts Department received over 6,000 postcards from Temple University archivist George Brightbill, collected for an intended history of postcard publishing in Philadelphia. Works of collectible art and a fad at the turn-of-the 20th century, the postcards are visual and textual documents depicting the cityscape and history of Philadelphia, including businesses and industries. A seeming defacement, the “time-sensitive” message written across this view of a city trolley enriches our understanding of these primary sources of popular culture that were also a means of daily local communication.

Full-length portrait of young white man, standing, holding a hat and attired in a shirt, jacket, and pants.

John Frank Keith, [Portrait of Walt Bright], ca. 1930. Gelatin silver print postcard. John Frank Keith Collection. Purchase 1981.

From the 1910s to the 1940s, John Frank Keith (1883-1947) took hundreds of portraits of Philadelphians standing and sitting outside their rowhomes, images he then printed onto postcard paper stock. The Library Company’s Keith Collection consists of 250 photographs, but only twenty-one identify either the sitter or the location of the image through annotations on the prints. Rather than being an imperfection, these scribbled notes, appearing on both the front and back of the postcards, have become an avenue of research They have allowed us to more definitively identify the neighborhoods he photographed and to explore the relationships between Keith, his portrait subjects, and the sitters themselves. The inscriptions have enriched our understanding of Keith and the working-class Philadelphia he inhabited. About the time of this photograph, the unemployed Walter Bright (ca. 1910-?) lived as a boarder on South Philadelphia’s Reed Street.

Photograph with stained and mildewed mat depicting a horse-drawn wagon display of s-shaped metal rain spouts and rectangular roof slats.

Robert Newell, Austin's Patent Conductor, as Exhibited by Austin, Obdyke & Co., in Parade at Philadelphia, December 16, 1879 (Philadelphia, 1879). Albumen print. Purchase 2017.

On December 16, 1879, Philadelphia welcomed back former President Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) with a holiday and parade at the end of his two-year world tour. On that day, noted Philadelphia commercial photographer Robert Newell (1822-1897) made this view of the horse-drawn display of metal roofing manufactured by Austin, Obdyke & Co. that was exhibited along the mile-long route of the procession. The nearly forty-year old firm commemorated their excellence and the day with this photograph of their award-winning wares and the employees who made them in front of their Chestnut Street storefront. The ink touch ups in the image and staining on the original mat does not lessen its value as a commercial art photograph and a historical document of President Grant’s 1879 world tour, the Philadelphia business, and Chestnut Street.