George Catlin painting a Chief


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

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The travel narrative is one of the earliest and most enduring of literary genres. From the Odyssey onward, the interest of the public in hearing tales of foreign places, and the desire of the traveler to tell them, have never wavered. Through their words of description writers tried to provide their readers with pictures of places and things seen. Early travel narratives very seldom contained accurate illustrations; pictures were generally included for decoration, not illustration and readers relied on the verbal text for information.

In the 18th century travel accounts began increasingly to incorporate illustration as a parallel visual text to describe and explain the observations of travelers. The ability of pictures to accurately convey detail and nuance gave both the artistic and scientific traveler a new tool with which to explain their experience to the reader. With the invention of the new printing techniques of aquatint and lithography in the late 18th and early 19th centuries the possible uses for illustration increased in sophistication and affordability.

This exhibition displays illustrated traveler's narratives and original art by travelers from the later 18th to the late 19th century. Geographically it covers travelers to North America in its broadest sense, from the high Arctic to the Caribbean. In al most every item shown, the printed images are based on original artwork by either the author or an artist connected with a larger expedition or team which included the narrative's author. In some cases the artists who translated the original image into print took liberties with the traveler's artwork, but in most instances shown the author-artists have expressed themselves directly in both word and image. This intertwining of verbal and visual texts allows a far more effective and sophisticated presentation of evidence to the reader.

The media shown here range from mezzotint and engraving, through aquatint, lithography, and chromolithography, to photography and photomechanical processes invented in the late 19th century. The material varies widely in purpose, from images designed to capture mood and "spirit of place" to scientific illustrations. Often the artists themselves were ambivalent about their intent, infusing scientific images with a picturesque air, or allowing the format of the publication, such as costume books or landscape portfolios, to dictate the presentation. In other instances they appear in close support of a written text. In every case, the illustrations exist within the context of the words which accompany them.

The show is arranged in six broad thematic categories, which try to illuminate some of the variety and richness the illustrating travelers brought to their work. Each section has been divided into three WWW pages to reduce the time required to load them.

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


Send comments to George Miles, William Roberston Coe Curator of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

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