THE ILLUSTRATING TRAVELER

George Catlin painting a Chief

An Analytic Eye
Part I of III


A Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library Exhibition. Organized by William S. Reese and George Miles
Last Revised September 4, 1996


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Many illustrated travel narratives of the late 18th and 19th centuries were reports of exploratory voyages or scientific surveys. Their illustrations were often an important part of the text, seeking to convey visually a more accurate idea of natural or man-made phenomena than words alone could provide. The analytical eye of the artist remained of paramount importance, though accuracy was sometimes compromised by romantic impulses. The form and function of such illustrations evolved as new printing techniques became available and as the nature of the publications in which they appeared became more specialized.


Unless otherwise noted the author of the work is also the artist of the illustrated plate.


Luigi Castiglioni. Viaggio Negli Stati Uniti.... Milan, 1790.

Rice milling equipment

[Rice Milling Machinery in South Carolina] (Engraving)

Many travelers came to America to observe particular things: people, places, natural phenomena, and on occasion the works of humans. The Italian traveler Castiglioni found that from a technical aspect the United States was not as backward as many Europeans of the Revolutionary era thought. In South Carolina he saw methods of milling rice, only introduced in 1787, which he regarded as major improvements over those of Lombardy, where rice had been grown for centuries. This plate illustrates his observations.


Francois Andre Michaux. The North American Sylva, or, a Description of Forest Trees, of the United States, Canada, and Nova Scotia.... Philadelphia and Paris, 1817-19.

Oak leaf

Pierre J. Redoute, "Over Cup White Oak." (Colored stipple engraving)

Michaux and his father traveled extensively in the United States to gather material for their works on American trees (and possibly serving as French spies in the process). Their extensively illustrated books depict one particular slice of specialized information which could be gathered by a traveler and best conveyed by illustration. While the letterpress for these books was printed in Philadelphia, the plates were cut, printed, and colored in Paris under the direction of two masters of botanical illustration, Redoute and Bessa. Later, the plates were imported to the United States, and subsequent editions were printed from them in Philadelphia. This particular copy was presented to the Yale Library by the author in 1817.


Georg Heinrich Langsdorff. Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World, During the Years 1803, 1804, 1805, 1806, and 1807. London, 1813.

Material culture of the Pacific

"Various Objects from New California and Norfolk Sound." (Engraving)

Travelers sought to illustrate not only natives they encountered but also their material culture. In this plate Langsdorff displays a variety of artifacts collected on the Northwest Coast by the Krusenstern expedition. Such collections of artifacts were typical of the major European Pacific voyages of the period, and from the early 19th century on the accumulation of artifacts in museums became a primary resource for categorizing non-European cultures.


Edwin James. Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, Performed in the Years 1819 and '20...under the Command of Major Stephen H. Long. Philadelphia, 1823.

View of the Rockies

Samuel Seymour, "View of the Rocky Mountains on the Platte 30 Miles from their Base." (Engraving)

The United States lagged far behind Europe in producing even the simplest book illustrations, particularly in travel narratives. Neither the Lewis and Clark nor Pike expeditions had any graphic content beyond maps. The report of the Long expedition, with plates after drawings by Samuel Seymour, was the first account of an official United States expedition to be illustrated. Even here the plates were neither particularly impressive nor useful; the first published view of the Rocky Mountains is singularly lacking in drama.
Additional Seymour engravings


Charles Wilkes. Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition. During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842. Philadelphia, 1844.

Pine Forests of Oregon

Alfred Agate, "Pine Forests, Oregon." (Engraving)

The Wilkes expedition sought to place the United States with France and England as a sponsor of great exploring expeditions, by sending a squadron of naval vessels on a four year long cruise to gather scientific data in a variety of disciplines. Wilkes was determined the official publication of the survey would also be on a scale with the greatest of the European voyages, with numerous scientific reports supplementing the narrative. This plate from the narrative section of the work shows two members of the expedition measuring a tree in Oregon. The technical volumes accompanying the narrative report were still being published in the 1870's.


An Analytic Eye, Part II

The Sublime and the Picturesque
The Spirit of Place
Encountering Native Americans
Customs of the Country
Valor and Endurance

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