Representing Gender and Crisis in Contemporary, Independent Puerto Rican Art

By Joyce Rivera González, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Anthropology

It reeks to always walk with tense shoulders, shoved upwards
A knife hidden under my tongue
Rear wheel mirrors

— Karla Cristina
Sobre el hombre y otros sistemas de colapso
(La Impresora, 2020)

In this blog post, we showcase a collection of zines, chapbooks, and posters published by the independent, women-led Puerto Rican press La Impresora (“the printer,” in Spanish).  This collection is one of the most recent acquisitions to augment Rare Books and Special Collections’ holdings of Hispanic Caribbean literature.

La Impresora is an experimental workshop headquartered in northwestern Puerto Rico. It is a small-scale risograph press, which combines the aesthetic and uniqueness of stencil and screen-printing with the expediency and convenience of digital copiers. Since the inception of risograph technology in 1940s Japan, this technology has allowed artists around the world to conveniently and inexpensively reproduce and disseminate their creations. In addition, La Impresora seeks to be more than just a printing press: as part of its vision, creators and artists are actively involved in the reproduction of their art in what the press’ founders call a book-making school, “a space to learn and share knowledge that is not formally taught in Puerto Rico, which is usually mediated or limited by the supply and demand of the publishing market.” 

The selection currently held by Rare Books and Special Collections is composed of 62 items, a polyphonic kaleidoscope of form and lived experience. Much of this work captures—textually and visually—the lingering stasis that haunts a generation of Puerto Ricans. To differing degrees, the archipelago’s youth have experienced systems of limbo, collapse, and crisis. These predicaments arise from socio-natural disasters (and postponed recoveries), neocolonialism, corrupt and impotent local government, and crippling (largely illegal) public debt. The pieces created by this collective comment on and represent both the everyday and large-scale manifestations of the Puerto Rican crisis. 

Selected chapbooks and zines from the La Impresora collection.

Authors include (from left to right) the La Práctica collective, Agnes Sastre-Rivera, Kelly Díaz, Karla Cristina, and Nicole Cecilia Delgado.

In addition to the pamphlet-sized zines and chapbooks, the collection includes a limited run of eight posters (11 x 17″) published by the collective, the majority of which were the result of a collaboration between the press and female Puerto Rican artists between 2019 and 2021. 

Some of the posters are the result of historical processes in the history of gender rights and relations in Puerto Rico. In “HISTÉRICA,” illustrator Adriana García centers the gendered attribute of “hysterical” in a minimally-illustrated piece. Written in red letters across a drawing grid, she embraces the gendered epithet and proclaims, in smaller, black font, to hysterically await a moment in which women “can live peacefully.” In slightly larger uppercase letters, she echoes contemporary demands for gender-perspective school curricula, an ongoing debate since at least 2008, split along partisan lines in the archipelago. 

Part of the 2019 art exhibition “Oda a nuestra sangre” (trans. “ode to our blood”) held in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Lorraine Rodríguez’s print hopes to challenge societal taboos surrounding menstruation. In her piece, Rodríguez centers a minimally drawn menstrual cup, surrounded by blooming dandelions, a moon, and stars. In this landscape, menstruation is as natural as the blooms and celestial bodies that surround it. Moreover, the print seeks to desexualize and normalize female anatomy.  

Print of Lorraine Rodríguez’s unnamed piece, from the “Oda a nuestra sangre” exhibition held from March 7-April 2, 2019 in Pública, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

With the exception of Rodríguez’s piece (printed in 2019), the collection posters highlighted in this post were produced and distributed by La Impresora in 2021. This is far from a coincidence, as the year 2021 saw a record-breaking number of femicides and incidents of gender-based violence in Puerto Rico, averaging one a week. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports that Puerto Rico has the highest per capita rate of femicides against women over 14 years of age. These statistics include high-profile cases such as the murder of Keishla Rodríguez by rising boxer Felix Verdejo. In a way, many of the artworks in this collection emerge from the 2021 protests that demanded the enactment of a state of emergency by Governor Pedro Pierluisi in response to gender-based violence. Initially set to expire in June 2022, this state of emergency was recently extended: to this date, 24 women have been murdered in Puerto Rico, three times the number of 2021.  

Echoing these demands, photographer Nina Méndez Martí highlights the black-and-white photograph of a woman’s torso. Hands in the air, the words “ESTADO DE EMERGENCIA” (trans. “State of emergency”) are emblazoned across her chest and abdomen in bold, black, uppercase letters. 

Lastly, Yvonne Santiago’s “Seguimos luchando,” depicts a woman drawn in purple lines, her right fist raised in the air. The color purple has a long and important history in feminist activism, from its association to women’s suffrage to Alice Walker’s famous analogy, “womanism is to feminism as purple is to lavender.” The woman depicted by Santiago has two tattoos: a pot (cacerola) with a cooking spoon on her tricep and a machete on her forearm. Both the cacerola and the machete are important symbols of resistance, especially in Puerto Rico. 

The pot refers to the cacerolazo, a protest tradition which consists of banging pots cacophonously as a way of amplifying anger and dissatisfaction amid protests. In Puerto Rico, cacerolazos became a popular protest form during the Verano del 2019 protests, which called for the resignation of former governor Ricardo Rosselló. 

The machete symbolizes pro-independence struggle and political nationalism on the island, most commonly associated with 20th-century armed pro-independence militancy, primarily with the Boricua Popular Army, known as Los Macheteros (trans. “Machete wielders”), and the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN). However, the machete, as a political symbol, dates to the original Revolutionary Anthem of Puerto Rico, written in 1868 by Lola Rodríguez de Tió. The hymn’s lyrics were deemed too controversial and revolutionary and were subsequently changed for a less political version in 1902. 

Nosotros queremos la libertad
Y nuestros machetes nos la dará

We want Freedom
And freedom, our machetes will grant us

Yvonne Santiago’s piece chants its own hymn of subversion and defiance, lest we forget. 

For the women in my life
For the ones I have lost
For the ones to come
We will keep fighting


Additional Resources

Spanish

Adriana Díaz Tirado & Alejandra Lara Infante, “Ni una más: las familias de las víctimas de feminicidios reclaman reparación y justicia,” Todas, November 22, 2021. URL: https://www.todaspr.com/ni-una-mas-las-familias-de-las-victimas-de-feminicidios-reclaman-reparacion-y-justicia/ (accessed Jun 23, 2022). 

Cristina del Mar Quiles, “Sin fiscalización los programas de desvío para agresores por Ley 54,” Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, Jul 15, 2021. URL: https://periodismoinvestigativo.com/2021/07/fiscalizacion-programas-desvio-agresores-ley-54/ (accessed Jun 24, 2022). 

Elithet Silva-Martinez & Jenice Vazquez Pagán, “El abuso económico y la violencia de género en las relaciones de pareja en el contexto puertorriqueño,” Prospectiva, 28 (2019): https://doi.org/10.25100/prts.v0i28.7264 

María de los Milagros Colón Cruz, “Más agresores asesinan a sus parejas con un arma de fuego que mediante otras formas letales,” Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, Jun 9, 2022. URL: https://periodismoinvestigativo.com/2022/06/mas-agresores-asesinan-a-sus-parejas-con-un-arma-de-fuego-que-mediante-otras-formas-letales/ (accessed Jun 24, 2022). 

Observatorio de Equidad de Género en Puerto Rico, “Feminicidios,” OEGPR website, May 12, 2022. URL: https://observatoriopr.org/feminicidios (accessed Jun 24, 2022). 

Patricia Velez & Alvin Báez, “El dolor de los que se quedan: El calvario silencioso de los feminicidios en Puerto Rico,” Univisión Noticias, Jun 16, 2021. URL: https://www.univision.com/especiales/noticias/2021/feminicidios-violencia-genero-puerto-rico-calvario-silencioso/index.html (accessed Jun 23, 2022). 

Redacción BBC, “Feminicidio en Puerto Rico: 4 claves para entender qué llevó a la isla a declarar un estado de emergencia por violencia de género,” BBC News Mundo, Jan 27, 2021. URL: https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-55820829 (accessed Jun 23, 2022). 

English

ACLU, “Failure to Police Crimes of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in Puerto Rico,” ACLU website, n.d. URL: https://www.aclu.org/other/failure-police-crimes-domestic-violence-and-sexual-assault-puerto-rico (accessed Jun 23, 2022). 

Aileen Brown, “Dozens of murdered women are missing from Puerto Rican police records, new report finds,” The Intercept, Nov 16, 2019. URL: https://theintercept.com/2019/11/16/puerto-rico-murders-femicide-police/ (accessed Jun 24, 2022).

Brittany Valentine, “Puerto Rico courts face down the greater issue of gender violence on the island,” Al Día, Aug 16, 2021. URL: https://aldianews.com/politics/policy/femicides-puerto-rico-0 (accessed Jun 24, 2022). 

Carli Pierson, “She just wanted to be safe. Her femicide started a movement in Puerto Rico,” USA Today, Mar 13, 2021. URL: https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/opinion/2022/03/13/angie-noemi-gonzalez-santos-puerto-rico-usa-today-women-of-the-year/6795005001/ (accessed Jun 24, 2022). 

Cristina Corujo & Penélope López, “Puerto Rican families devastated by gender-based killings remain concerned about government’s approach to crisis,” ABC News, May 26, 2021. URL: https://abcnews.go.com/US/puerto-rican-families-devastated-gender-based-killings-remain/story?id=77739523 (accessed Jun 24, 2022). 

Cristina del Mar Quiles, “The children whose mothers were taken away by machismo,” Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, Dec 16, 2021. URL: https://bit.ly/3xNHd0Y (accessed Jun 24, 2022). 

Denise Oliver Velez, “The ‘other epidemic’ in Puerto Rico: Femicide and gendered violence,” Daily Kos, Jan 28, 2021. URL: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2021/1/28/2012301/-The-other-epidemic-in-Puerto-Rico-is-femicide-and-gendered-violence (accessed Jun 24, 2022). 

Jhoni Jackson, “Hundreds Take to the Streets of Puerto Rico to Protest Two Femicides,” Remezcla, May 3, 2021. URL: https://remezcla.com/culture/hundreds-take-streets-puerto-rico-protest-two-femicides/ (accessed Jun 24, 2022). 

Lillian Perlmutter, “Deadly Violence Against Women in Puerto Rico is Surging During Lockdown,” VICE, Dec 8, 2020. URL: https://www.vice.com/en/article/qjpj5d/deadly-violence-against-women-in-puerto-rico-is-surging-during-lockdown (accessed Jun 24, 2022). 

Nicole Acevedo. “Puerto Rico’s new tipping point: Horrific femicides reignite fight against gender violence,” NBC News, May 16, 2021. URL: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/puerto-rico-s-new-tipping-point-horrific-femicides-reignite-fight-n1267354 (accessed Jun 23, 2022). 

Raquel Reichard, “Feminicide in Puerto Rico: A History of Violence and Resistance,” Hip Latina, Nov 30, 2020. URL: https://hiplatina.com/femicide-puerto-rico-protest-violence/ (accessed Jun 23, 2022). 

The Breastplate of Saint Patrick — Thomas Kinsella and the Dolmen Press

by Aedín Ní Bhróithe Clements, Irish Studies Librarian

For St. Patrick’s Day, we feature The Breastplate of Saint Patrick, translated by Thomas Kinsella.

Thomas Kinsella, recently deceased, was one of Ireland’s most highly-regarded poets of recent times. In addition to his poetry, he translated many literary texts from Old Irish and Modern Irish to English. Prominent among these are his translation of the epic Táin Bó Cuailgne, and also his translated poems in An Duanaire: Poems of the Dispossessed. Liam Miller’s The Dolmen Press published many of Kinsella’s works, usually with the close collaboration of poet, printer and artist. 

The Breastplate of Saint Patrick (front cover) by Thomas Kinsella, published by Dolmen Press, 1954 (left) and Faeth Fiadha: The Breastplate of Saint Patrick translated by Thomas Kinsella from the Irish (front cover), published by Dolmen Press, 1961.

The 1954 edition of The Breastplate of Saint Patrick is decorated with designs by H. Neville Roberts, based on early Christian art. On the cover is a picture of the Shrine of the Bell of Saint Patrick, an ornate shrine made around 1100 to house the older relic, the Bell of Saint Patrick, which is held in the National Museum of Ireland. The image, and the designs within the book, are appropriate to the text, which is a hymn found in an eleventh-century manuscript, the Liber Hymnorum, thought to date to the eighth century.

On the left is the first page of the hymn in the 1954 edition, and on the right is the first page of the hymn in the 1961 edition.

A note in this Dolmen Press edition states that this text is from the manuscript in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. This is one of two Liber Hymnorum manuscripts. The other is part of the Franciscan Manuscripts collection at UCD Archives, also in Dublin. Both manuscripts have been digitized and images of the text may be viewed and studied online.

According to the introduction, Patrick composed the hymn to shield him and his monks from ‘deadly enemies who were ambushing the clerics.’

The manuscript introduction announces that the hymn is called ‘fáeth fiadha’. This is usually translated as the ‘deer’s cry’ and is the title given to a later Dolmen Press edition, also by Thomas Kinsella. 

Our other Dolmen Press edition, published in 1961, is also a translation by Thomas Kinsella. There are textual variations, as can be seen from a comparison of the initial lines. ‘I arise today’ and ‘Today I put on’. The Old Irish caused more difficulty for earlier translators. George Petrie, who translated the text in the nineteenth century, decided the word ‘atomriug’ must have been two words, and that ‘tomriug’ was a form of ‘Tara’. Subsequent research in Old Irish language sources show that ‘atomruig’ may be translated as ‘I arise’.

We end with an image of the best-known part of the text. The prayer beginning with ‘Christ by me, Christ before me’ is sung in many variant arrangements. this is from the 1954 edition.

Upcoming Events: February and early March

Please join us for the following event being hosted in Rare Books and Special Collections:

Wednesday, February 9 at 2:00pm – 5:00pm | Celebration: 100 Years of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The semester-long Ulysses exhibition will be supplemented by a temporary ‘pop-up’ display of books and art. Visitors are welcome to come during any part of the afternoon. At 3:30, there will be a short talk titled “Joyce, Proust, Paris, 1922” by Professor Barry McCrea.

Registration is encouraged but not required. Read more and register


The spring exhibit The Word throughout Time: The Bible in the Middle Ages and Beyond is now open and will run through June. This exhibit, curated by David T. Gura (Curator of Ancient and Medieval Manuscripts), marks the 75th anniversary of the University of Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute. Tours are available for classes or other groups, including K-12 audiences, by request.

The current spotlight exhibits both feature materials relating to the centenary of James Joyce’s Ulysses: 100 Years of James Joyce’s Ulysses (January – April 2022) and David Lilburn’s Eccles Street Print (January – February 2022).

All exhibits are free and open to the public during business hours.

Ulysses 100 at Hesburgh Libraries

by Aedín Ní Bhróithe Clements, Irish Studies Librarian

The event scheduled for February 2 has been postponed, due to weather concerns.

At Hesburgh Libraries, along with the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, we look forward to participating in the worldwide celebration on February 2nd of the one hundredth anniversary of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The very first copies of the first edition of Ulysses were received from the printer on Joyce’s fortieth birthday, February 2nd, 1922. Sylvia Beach, the publisher, delivered a copy to James Joyce on that day. 

Of the thousand copies printed in that first edition, almost one hundred are currently in U.S. libraries. Our copy will be on display in our exhibition room throughout the semester.

Parts of Joyce’s novel had earlier been published serially in America in The Little Review, a magazine edited by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap. This came to the attention of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and eventually the magazine had to cease publication of the novel and it was banned by the United States Post Office.

Joyce subsequently had difficulty finding a publisher, and Sylvia Beach, owner of Paris bookshop and lending library Shakespeare and Company, agreed to publish the book. Every detail along the way, from finding typists who would agree to type the text through distributing (sometimes smuggling) the book to readers, forms an interesting story. Much of the story is recounted in Noel Riley Fitch’s book, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation (1983).

Another great champion of Joyce’s writing was publisher Harriet Weaver, whose Egoist Press in England published a number of his works. Her edition of Ulysses was also published in 1922 and our copy is on display. 

Also in the display case is a magazine in which unauthorized episodes were published, alongside a printed copy of the protest, signed by 167 artists and writers, against this piracy.

In a separate case, we will exhibit a print by the late Irish artist David Lilburn – Eccles Street, from In Medias Res: The Ulysses Maps: A Dublin Odyssey. This print will be available for viewing through the month of February.

The Celebration

On Joyce’s 140th birthday, we will host a special event in the Hesburgh Library, with the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies.

Professor Barry McCrea will speak on ‘Joyce, Proust, Paris, 1922’, and the launch of the ‘100 Years of James Joyce’s Ulysses‘ exhibit will be complemented by a one-afternoon temporary display.

Further information on this event is available here: https://irishstudies.nd.edu/events/2022/02/02/celebration-100-years-of-james-joyces-ulysses/

Happy Holidays from Special Collections!

Rare Books and Special Collections is open through this Wednesday (December 22, 2021). After that, we will be closed for the Christmas and New Year’s Break (December 23, 2021 through January 4, 2022). Special Collections will reopen on Tuesday, January 5, 2022.

This is the last blog post for 2021.
Happy holidays to you and yours from
Notre Dame’s Rare Books and Special Collections!


The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore, with illustrations by Philip Hagreen
(London: Selwyn & Blount, 1923).
Special Collections, Rare Books Small PS 2429 .M5 N5 1923

Color Our Collections: End of the School Year Stress-Relief

Today’s coloring sheet features an illustration by Florence Harrison from Poems by Christina Rossetti (London, Glasgow & Bombay: Blackie and Son, Ltd., 1910). The image comes at the end of the poem ‘Summer’ — something most of us are looking forward to at this point!

If you’d like to see more of this item, make an appointment to visit us and ask to see the book in person — the call number is on the coloring page.

Good luck with the end of the semester, everyone!

Competing with Finian’s Rainbow

by Aedín Ní Bhróithe Clements, Irish Studies Librarian

This immigrant librarian was delighted to see Ireland’s national holiday celebrated in American elementary schools. It was dismaying, however, to walk down a school corridor in March of 1996, and see the walls bedecked with rainbows, crocks of gold, and leprechauns.

Did a film about a leprechaun and a crock of gold so captivate American audiences that no other stories could compete? Have books of Irish stories been available for children who grew up in America in the last century?

Padraic Colum, The King of Ireland’s Son, illustrated by Willy Pogany. NY: Macmillan, 1921.
Rare Books Medium PR 6005 .O38 K54 1921

Padraic Colum (1881-1972) and Ella Young (1867-1956) are the only Irish authors whose books have been recognized with a Newbery honor. The Newbery medal was founded in 1922 and is awarded annually by the ALA for an American-published children’s book. In addition to the medalist, a few books are named honor books each year. Colum and Young are also among the few Irish authors mentioned in American reviews of children’s books in the first half of the twentieth century.

Colum’s The King of Ireland’s Son, illustrated by Willy Pogány, has many stories woven into a framing narrative. Between the time when Connal, the King of Ireland’s son, is sent on a quest by the Enchanter and the end where he and Fedelma, the Enchanter’s daughter are finally married, there are many stories and adventures, some concerning Connal and Fedelma, and some being stories told by our characters — stories within stories.

As in all Colum’s books for children, the art of the storyteller is always close to the surface.

Padraic Colum, The King of Ireland’s Son. Illustrations by Willy Pogany.

And then a flock of ravens came from the rocks, and flying straight at them attacked Fedelma and the King of Ireland’s Son. The King’s Son sprang from the steed and taking his sword in his hand he fought the ravens until he drove them away. They rode on again. But now the ravens flew back and attacked them again and the King of Ireland’s Son fought them until his hands were wearied. He mounted the steed again, and they rode swiftly on. and the ravens came the third time and attacked them more fiercely than before. The King’s Son fought them until he had killed all but three and until he was covered with their blood and feathers.

Colum, 51
Padraic Colum, The Girl who Sat by the Ashes. Illustrated by Dugald Stewart Walker. NY: Macmillan, 1919.
Rare Books Medium PR 6005 .O38 G57 1919

Colum’s children’s books, published by Macmillan, are drawn from the literature of a number of countries and cultures. His The Golden Fleece and The Children’s Homer were much-read and constantly recommended for youth, and his Hawaiian stories were written at the request of the Hawaiian legislature. His Irish stories include The Girl who Sat by the Ashes, and The White Sparrow, and The Forge in the Forest is a collection of stories of different cultures all told in a forge, a traditional setting for storytelling.

Typically, Colum’s books have stories within a story, so that the narrator and context of the storytelling is part of the story. In The Big Tree of Bunlahy, for example, the narrator sets the scene by claiming that the big elm tree in his small native village is world-famous. The narrator proceeds to tell of many instances where he sat under the tree as a boy, often in the context of an errand such as a visit to the shoemaker, and he tells of a colorful series of people who gathered under the tree, and the stories that they told on different occasions. Stories vary from early Irish literature such as the story of Oisín (Usheen) and Tír na nÓg, to stories about animals and birds.

Colum’s children’s books are just one aspect of the literature for which he was known. He was already well-known in Ireland as a playwright and a poet when he left for America in 1914. In fact, he is mentioned in Joyce’s Ulysses as one of Ireland’s most promising young writers in 1904.

In his long career in America he taught literature at Columbia University in New York, sometimes co-teaching along with Mary Colum, his wife.

Another Irish emigrant, Ella Young, who made her home in California in the 1920s, was involved, as Colum was, in the Irish Literary Revival. She, too, taught in a university. She taught Irish myth and lore at the University of Berkeley in California. And Irish myth and lore is at the center of her books of stories for children. Shown above is her 1932 book, The Unicorn with Silver Shoes, illustrated by Robert Lawson.

Ella Young, The Wonder Smith and his Son: A Tale from the Golden Childhood of the World. Illustrated by Boris Artzybasheff. NY: Longmans, Green, 1927.
Rare Books Medium PS 3547 .O4745 W66 1927

The Wonder Smith and His Son was a Newbery Honor book in 1928, and The Tangle-Coated Horse and Other Tales was a Newbery Honor book in 1930.

The Wonder Smith is Young’s name for An Gobán Saor, a mythical builder, stonemason and trickster, who figures in many Irish folktales. The title page by Boris Artzybasheff, with its decorations inspired by the designs on Irish illuminated manuscripts, enhances the idea of these tales orginating in ‘the golden childhood of the world’.

Ella Young. The Wonder Smith and his Son. Illustration by Boris Artzybasheff.

It is interesting that the works of these two writers of the Irish Revival, settled in America, were selected by American publishers and reviewers alike. They represent a new image of Ireland for American readers, one of a nation with its own folklore and literary traditions. Earlier books such as Only an Irish Boy by Horatio Alger, told stories of Irish immigrant children who ‘made good’ in America, and so the insistence of these writers on the existence and richness of Ireland’s culture was probably very welcome.

Our Fall 2013 exhibit was on Irish children’s literature, and we hope to have a selection from that exhibit online in the near future.


Happy St Patrick’s Day to you and yours
from all of us in Notre Dame’s Special Collections!

St Patrick’s Day 2018 post: St. Patrick’s Day in America (1872)
St Patrick’s Day 2019 post: St. Patrick and the Nun of Kenmare
St Patrick’s Day 2020 post: St. Patrick’s Day Postcards

Or, you can browse all our Irish Studies related posts.

The New Morality

by Daniel Johnson, English; Digital Humanities; and Film, Television, and Theatre Librarian

James Gillray’s New Morality (1798) is a loaded work from one of England’s greatest caricaturists at the height of his powers. The eighteenth-century had witnessed a flowering of both English art generally (with, for example, the establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768), and caricature specifically, especially in the work of Gillray’s predecessor, William Hogarth (1697 – 1764; for an example in RBSC, see Hogarth’s illustrations for Hudibras, below), although some care should be taken with terminology. Hogarth was concerned enough by the slight implied by “caricature,” that he created  a print in 1743, “Characters and Caricaturas,” to emphasis his separation from the latter style. As the editors of the Public Domain Review write, “for Hogarth the comic character face, with its subtle exploration of an individual’s human nature, was vastly superior to the gross formal exaggerations of the grotesque caricature.”

Comic grotesquery would remain controversial, but it provided a powerful vehicle for visual expression, and its exaggeration need not imply a lack of technical mastery. Gillray was an early member of the Royal Academy (admitted April, 1778), and during “a sabbatical” from satirical work in 1783-85, he produced capable, non-satiric prints ranging “from nostalgic pastoral illustrations to ‘eyewitness’ reconstructions of celebrated marine disasters” for Robert Wilkinson” (Hill xx). His failure to “secure commissions” from Benjamin West and John Boydell (an example of whose famous Shakespeare illustration commissions, featured in the RBSC’s “Constructing Shakespeare” Spotlight Exhibit in 2016, can be found in RBSC holdings Graphic Illustrations and A Collection of Prints), helped determine his future direction; by “the early nineties Gillray finally decided to devote himself fully to the profession of caricature” (Hill xxi). Although his earlier “commercial failure was absolute and ignominious, yet it is paradoxical that his laborious hours cutting and notching with his engraver’s burin and stippling tools should have immeasurably strengthened his hand as a caricaturist” (Godfrey 15). Nor was capturing the exaggerated likenesses a trivial exercise. Without the benefit of willing models, let alone photographs, artists had to hunt “on big game safaris in the wilds of Westminster” and memorize faces from afar – “Earl Spencer, when warned decades later that there was a caricaturist in the gallery of the House of Lords, shrank on the front bench and ‘sat huddled-up [with his] face and beard in his knees’” (Hill x).

By the time Gillray produced The New Morality, in 1798, he was making some of his “most artistically brilliant and inventive images” (Hallett 36). He had also settled down from the pose of “a detached, cynical ‘hired gun,’ concealing any actual political convictions beneath a veil of ambivalence and irony” to a closer apparent alignment with the Tory government, which some allege was stirred by “a secret annual pension of £200” from 1797-1801 (Hill xxii and Hallett 35). Indeed, The New Morality was commissioned for the Anti-Jacobin Magazine (though also issued on its own) to go along with the poetical “New Morality” of George Canning, politician and eventual prime minister in 1827. The imputation of bribery was a detractor and source of embarrassment for some critics, though Gillray’s sympathies had started to manifest some years before the pension.

The allegorical density of The New Morality makes the image ripe for close and detailed analysis – an intense engagement supported by the magnifying glass of high resolution scanning at RBSC. The bookseller, Bernard Quaritch Ltd, describes the tableau thus:

On the right of the print is Lépaux, a member of the French Directory who had given prominence to Paine’s Theophilanthropic sect, preaching from a stool and attended on his dais by grotesque Jacobin creatures, while behind him are the monstrous embodiments of Justice, Philanthropy (devouring the globe) and Rousseauian Sensibility. Prostrated immediately before Lépaux are the two ass-headed figures of Coleridge and Southey, clutching their works, behind whom is seen the ‘Cornucopia of Ignorance’ and a flowerpot of plants resembling Jacobin hats with cockades. Out of the water rolls the monstrous Leviathan, resembling the misled Duke of Bedford (he has a fishhook through his nose), on whose neck rides the filthy Thelwall; on his back are Fox, Tierney and Nichols, waving their red bonnets[.] Emerging from the waves behind the Duke are diminutive sea-monsters and horned creatures clutching their works, while in the sky fly five grotesque birds, all representing various political radicals. In the foreground is a train of monsters: Paine as a crocodile (crying proverbial tears); Holcroft as a dwarfish figure in spectacles and leg-braces (Southey thought the likeness to be accurate); Godwin as an ass reading his Political Justice; and a snake representing David Williams, founder of the Royal Literary Fund.

(N.B. The acquisition of Gillray’s New Morality at RBSC coincides with the acquisition of a number of books written by “the filthy Thelwall”; RBSC’s holdings of Thelwall can be found here). The image’s breathless and baroque movement across a vast cultural landscape of major and minor political, philosophical, and poetical figures is a visceral reminder that a highly charged, partisan news media is hardly a twenty-first century invention. Graphical satires “functioned as powerful supplements to, and interventions in, the predominantly textual sphere of political journalism and printed social commentary [… in which newspapers and journals] were frequently subsidised [sic] by either the government or the opposition, and consequently functioned as propagandist mouthpieces for their policies” (Hallett 35).

The physical qualities of the print are noteworthy in their own right. While the plate was designed for mass printing, the print itself bears witness to bespoke treatment in its coloration. According to Draper Hill, “individual copperplate etchings, available plain or exquisitely colored by hand, were collector’s items from the moment of issue,” and perhaps most interesting, we “know nothing” of Gillray’s “colorists; presumably they were teams of extremely accomplished ladies working in relays” for the female printseller Hannah Humphrey, at whose residence Gillray lodged (ix, xi). Ironically, Gillray’s “technical wizardry” with his engraving tools “would be concealed by the bright hand colouring which became the norm for a published print” (Godfrey 15). Nevertheless, the colorized prints bear witness to a partnership with artisan labor, rendering each one a unique production.

Works Cited

Godfrey, Richard T. “Introduction.” James Gillray: The Art of Caricature, Tate Gallery Publishing, 2001, pp. 11–21, 38.

Hallett, Mark. “James Gillray and the Language of Graphic Satire.” James Gillray: The Art of Caricature, Tate Gallery Publishing, 2001, pp. 23–37, 39.

Hill, Draper, editor. The Satirical Etchings of James Gillray. Dover Publications, 1976.

African American History Month

We join The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to celebrate African American History Month.

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s New Literary Tradition Packaged to Sell

by Rachel Bohlmann, American History Librarian and Curator

Poet and writer Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was interested in creating an African American literary tradition based on oral sources. In both works of poetry shown here, Candle Lightin’ Time and Li’l’ Gal, Dunbar used dialect, a choice he made for some of his work. Unlike most contemporary white writers, who used dialect in openly racist ways, Dunbar appropriated dialect as a way to represent fully African American expression.

Beginning of “The Plantation Child’s Lullaby” from Li’l’ Gal (1904).

The books’ appearance—the detailed and beautiful bindings, illustrations, and page designs—point to Dunbar’s publisher’s confidence in their profitability. Dodd & Mead of New York produced a string of the writer’s works, a partnership that helped propel Dunbar’s popularity. Margaret Armstrong (1867-1944), one of the most successful book designers working in this period, created the bindings. Her art nouveau style featured plant motifs and gold-stamping.

The photographs for Candle Lightin’ Time were taken by the mostly white members of the Hampton Institute Camera Club, an amateur group of photographers affiliated with the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia. The illustrations in Li’l’ Gal were taken by Leigh Richmond Minor (1864-1935), an art teacher at the institute and a trained photographer. Although the pictures were staged, their subjects are presented fully as individuals, another way in which Dunbar’s books overturned contemporary, racist depictions of African Americans.

Born in Dayton, Ohio in 1872 to parents who were formerly enslaved, Dunbar showed early literary talent. He edited his high school newspaper, served as president of the school’s Philomathean Literary Society, and edited a newspaper for Dayton’s African American community for a short time. Financial hardship kept him from pursuing a college education and he found work as an elevator operator, although he continued to write.

With the support of local backers, he published Oak and Ivy in 1893, a collection of poems in both standard English and dialect. By 1895 his work was praised and championed by Frederick Douglass and by literary critic William Dean Howells. Although Howells and other white critics focused heavily on Dunbar’s use of dialect (much to the writer’s dismay) and placed his work in a tradition of white writing about plantation slavery, the breadth and variety of Dunbar’s literary work transcended the racist limitations of most dialect writing of the time.

In addition to poetry, Dunbar wrote novels, short stories, and at least one play. He gained national and international recognition at the turn of the twentieth century, one of the first African American writers to do so. He was an important literary precursor for writers of the Harlem Renaissance, two decades later.

In Rare Books and Special Collections, Dunbar’s works are part of growing collection of African American literature and historical works published before 1920 and the start of the Harlem Renaissance. Other writers include Benjamin Brawley, Maud Cuney Hare, Helen S. Woodruff, Walter E. Todd, Leila Amos Pendleton, and Oscar Micheaux.

Color Our Collections: St. Brigid’s Day and “An Alphabet of Irish Saints”

by Aedín Ní Bhróithe Clements, Irish Studies Librarian

St. Brigid’s Day, February 1st, marks the beginning of Spring in the Irish calendar.

In our exhibition of Irish children’s literature some years ago, we showed the first children’s alphabet book written completely in Irish that we know of — Na Rudaí Beaga (c. 1920) by Pádraig Ó Bróithe, illustrated by Lucas Rooney. We recently added a bilingual alphabet to our collection. An Alphabet of Irish Saints, illustrated by the same artist, was first published in 1915.

This book has a two-page spread for letters of the 18-letter Irish alphabet, each entry listing a saint and including a verse in English by Charlotte Dease and one in Irish by Tadhg Ó Donnchadha. An illustration, an ornate letter in the Gaelic font, and notes on the saint and associated place and festivals complete each entry.

The English verse refers to the story of Brigid receiving a promise that she could have all the land that her shawl, or mantle, could cover, to build her abbey. Her shawl spread to cover a great expanse of land. While this verse suggests a learned woman leader who could also cook, scrub and sew, the Irish verse must have been far less appealing to any young reader. It takes the form of a prayer to St. Brigid, and the prayer asks that the comely young women of Ireland would emulate her in practicing hard work.

Whether or not Brigid was a real person, an abbess in the fifth century, her legends have been part of Irish tradition and custom for centuries. In fact, look closely at the illustration above, and see the rushes strewn on the floor. These were surely added by the artist in reference to the story of the saint weaving a cross of rushes from the floor, and hence the traditional Crois Bhrighde, or Brigid’s Crosses, made at this time of year around the island of Ireland through many generations.


From February 1-5, 2021, libraries, archives, and other cultural institutions around the world are sharing free coloring sheets and books based on materials in their collections. Visit The New York Academy of Medicine Library’s #ColorOurCollections site for more information and to find other color options.