Bror Thure de Thulstrup
December 9, 2014
In 2006, the Museum received the donation of this illustration signed and dated 1891 by Bror Thule de Thulstrup from a collector who knew a good thing when he saw one. He acquired it even though it lacked any reference to its place and date of publication, a critical bit of information in the history of illustration. Some illustrations have that information inscribed, usually on the reverse, often in a fine, 19th century script. But lacking that, and to complicate matters further, illustrators often created works that were not used immediately, so the date on the work does not necessarily correspond to the publication date. And, sometimes even highly-finished illustrations were rejected by artist or editor and never published. Many illustrations in the Museum’s collection were acquired beginning in the 1970s, when such works began—with the rise of popular culture studies—to come on the market. They were acquired for quality; the thought was that dedicated searching through magazines and books in libraries would eventually yield at least some identifications. Old and faded photocopies in the Museum’s object files testify to curators’ successful perseverance in locating the sources for hundreds of the works. One of my goals for our Collections Accessibility Project is to ferret out such information for as many of the rest of our illustrations as I can, which—thanks to the digitization of many historic periodicals—is now increasingly possible.
To me, this drawing of people on a dock always had the feel of Harper’s Weekly, a leading American newspaper from its founding in 1857 till its demise in 1912. Harper’s Weekly is now digitized and even includes a detailed index, but searches for docks, wharves, piers, yachts, and a few other relevant terms were unproductive. So, I paged (digitally) through all issues for 1890 and 1891 until I hit a double-page spread featuring the illustration. The image and the article it illustrated center on an enduring theme in American history, one that reverberates today: the chasm between between rich and poor.
Journalist Edmund Collins’ text describes the two sections of a New York City pier. On one section, which is dedicated to the New York Yacht Club, two smartly-dressed women in the flat, straw boaters and tailored attire popular for boating excursions in the 1890s converse with a man in a yachtman’s cap as a seaman prepares wine bottles at left. The other section, reserved for Charities and Correction, funnels “the unfortunates and the criminals” to ships that will disperse them to city prisons, asylums, and workhouses. Handcuffs, frayed shoes and clothing, and crutches identify the shuffling group. The author philosophically concludes that the pier is a “miniature world of woe and happiness, and of the good and the bad.”
Like many illustrators who were quite famous in their day, Thure de Thulstrup is not well-known today. After a military career in his native Sweden and in France, and training in topographical drawing as a civil engineer in Canada, he moved to New York and began a long career in illustration. In 1896, a noted critic included him with painters such as Winslow Homer, George Inness, and James McNeill Whistler as one of the “later American masters.”
Dr. Mary F. Holahan
Curator of Illustration / Curator of Outlooks Exhibition Series