The Becker Collection contains the hitherto unexhibited and undocumented drawings by Joseph Becker and his colleagues, nineteenth-century artists who worked as artist-reporters for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper observing, drawing, and sending back for publication images of the Civil War, the construction of the railroads, the laying of the trans-atlantic cable in Ireland, the Chinese in the West, the Indian wars, the Chicago fire, and numerous other aspects of nineteenth-century American culture. These “first-hand” drawings, most of which were never published, document in lively and specific ways key developments in the history of America as it struggled to establish its national identity.
Nineteenth-century American life was rocked by seismic shifts as the new nation struggled to define its identity amid expanding and contested territories, evolving technologies, and the question of who would enjoy the freedoms the Declaration and Constitution had very recently promised. To navigate that seemingly unstable environment, citizens sought to know what was happening – the latest events, the important issues, the key figures. Knowledge was power that would help them survive and succeed in that constantly changing world.
By mid-century news was consumed by an avaricious reading public. Three quarters of Americans could read and write, and books, magazines, and newspapers traveled via road, canal, and rail to an unprecedented reading public. Publishing became increasingly centralized in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, and such new technologies as the telegraph and the transatlantic cable linked cities and made national and international news accessible and immediate while new methods of engraving and printing brought texts and images to the public with ever increasing speed.
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper was in the forefront of this rush toward the nineteenth century information age. However, the effort, itself, to expedite production, to bring the news – words and particularly images - to the public, necessitated compartmentalizing the tasks of printing, dividing images into small components, editing, clarifying, simplifying, often idealizing or exaggerating to suit the inclination of publishers, sponsors, and the public. The general idea of the original drawings of the artist-reporter might remain, but the enlivening and specific detail, the quick notation, the mood, and certainly the hand of the artist disappeared in the production of the mediated mass image. Joseph Becker’s archive brings the viewer back to the original “first hand” drawings.
Becker’s career at Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper spanned the second half of the nineteenth century. Hired by Frank Leslie as an errand boy at the age of eighteen in 1859, he retired in 1900 after supervising the art department for the last quarter of the century. At 22, he was sent as an artist–reporter to cover the Civil War, and he traveled with the Union Army recording scenes of daily military life as well as the preparation and action of battle. After the war, he traveled throughout the West to draw images for the series “Across the Continent.” It included such diverse subjects as the western landscape, Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, and Mormons in Utah. His drawings possess a liveliness and immediacy rarely achieved in contemporary photography and a wealth of information previously unavailable.
However, Becker did not work alone. Frank Leslie sent numerous artists to see and record the facts of the American experience: J.F.E. Hillen, Henri Lovie, Edwin Forbes, Frederic B. Schell, Francis H. Schell, Edward Hall, James E. Taylor, Andrew McCallum, C.E.H. Bonwill, William T. Crane, Arthur Lumley, E.F. Mullen, and others. They all sent drawings back to New York where editors selected images that fit stories, and other artists traced and altered the original work. Most of the drawings never appeared in print. As supervisor of the art department, Becker saved the discarded drawings.
Becker’s archive allows the viewer to glimpse the life of the artist as the maker of a crucial visual record, the mark-maker responding to key and quotidian events. The drawings are a treasure-trove of historical information for scholars and a how-to demonstration of drawing techniques for art students. They offer insights into overlooked aspects of nineteenth-century American life. They reveal how on-the-spot draftsmen employed traditional and innovative strategies to capture their observations. They constitute a resource that can reveal itself in a moment or over time. The Becker Collection offers opportunities for both.