This fall, I am taking my History of American Art class (ART 3663) to the OSU Museum of Art several times to see objects from the permanent collection in the Study Center. Although we worked hard to research the collection during the building project, our focus was necessarily on objects that were featured in Sharing a Journey: Building the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art Collection (Stillwater: OSU, 2014). That catalogue includes over 200 works—but that is still less than a tenth of the permanent collection! In preparation for my class visits, therefore, I’ve been doing a bit more research into the objects I want to share with my students. There’s a lot to discover! In this mini-series on the blog, I’m sharing what I’ve learned about one of our prints: A Sibyl, by John W. Casilear.
Although our impression of A Sibyl dates from 1881, John W. Casilear (American, 1811-1893) first made the engraving for the American Art-Union in 1847. The American Art-Union was a membership-based art patronage organization founded in 1838. It used dues collected from members to purchase paintings, some of which were then copied by reproductive printmakers for distribution to the membership.
The painting after which Casilear created this engraving is also titled A Sibyl. Painted by Daniel Huntington (American, 1816-1906) in 1839, it was typical of Grand Manner history painting in subject matter and style. The Grand Manner was characterized by references to ancient, classical, and biblical history and mythology; it was ambitious in scale and intended to be allegorical and allusive, often making coded references to current events as well as representing universal values. By 1847, Huntington was a prominent American painter; a former student of Samuel F. B. Morse (American, 1791-1872) and Henry Inman (American, 1801-1846), he was known for his history paintings as well as work in portraits and genre painting.
Huntington became the third president of the National Academy of Design in 1862, and according to a critical review of his career written by Samuel G. W. Benjamin in 1879 for Harper’s magazine, “he won a permanent place in our annals by such compositions as Mercy’s Dream, The Sibyl, and Queen Mary Signing the Death-warrant of Lady Jane Grey.” The prominence of Huntington’s place in the American art world likely attracted the directors of the Art-Union; in turn, their patronage extended his reputation even further.
The Art-Union’s mission was “the patronage of artists and the cultivation of the people, by means of a periodical exhibition of the works of good artists, a permanent gallery, and the annual purchase of American works of art to be distributed among the members of the association. … It was […] determined that after a suitable amount of the funds should be invested in paintings for distribution, and engraving should be produced, of which a copy should be given to every member.”
Casilear created this print by engraving on copper, which was then steel-faced (electrochemically covered with a thin layer of steel over the copper) in order to protect the plate from wearing down as thousands of copies were printed. In 1847, the Art-Union had 9,666 subscribers, raising a total of $48,734 for the acquisition of art and the creation of prints for distribution. Casilear’s was one such print; the other was The Jolly Flat Boatmen, engraved by Thomas Doney (America, b. France, active in New York 1844-49) after George Caleb Bingham (American, 1811-1879).
These two images are strikingly different: the first is a classical subject, drawn from ancient Greek mythology, and the second is a genre scene (a representation of everyday life). A Sibyl anticipates a literate and educated audience, who would have known that the Sibyls were oracles—women who could predict the future, aided by gods whose temples they inhabited, most famously at Delphi. The Jolly Flat Boatmen, on the other hand, represented a contemporary American type: French traders who traveled the length of the country’s waterways, from the Great Lakes and Canadian fur trapping territory to the cotton markets of New Orleans.
To some critics, prints like The Jolly Flat Boatmen were dangerously lowering the standards of American art audiences. A critic writing for the Literary World in 1847 wrote of Casilear’s print as an “antidote to the common or vulgar subjects depicted in other works purchased” by the American Art-Union. Opinions such as these were countered by the populist sentiment that art should be accessible to the widest possible audience—an audience that, in the United States, was proud of its diversity and its working-class roots, and which (as the Art-Union’s own mission suggested) was increasingly rejecting the idea that art was to be enjoyed only by elite patrons.
In Part 2, I’ll share more about Casilear and his career as an engraver and painter. In Part 3, I’ll explain how and why the print made by Casilear in 1847 was reprinted in 1881—in the edition that our print actually comes from.
 Samuel Greene Wheeler Benjamin, Art in America: A Critical and Historical Sketch (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1880 [originally published in Harper’s magazine, 1879]): 51.
 “The Old Art Union: First Paper,” The Art Union 1.3 (March 1884): 58-59.
 Ibid., 60.
 Barbara Dyer Gallati, “American Genre Painting and the Rise of ‘Average Taste,’” The Magazine Antiques (Nov./Dec. 2011): 134-141.