With its upwardly mobile society, the United States has frequently been characterized by its interest in material things. The decades after the Civil War were particularly noted for constant debates about the nature of currency and for a preoccupation with wealth. In 1863 the United States...
With its upwardly mobile society, the United States has frequently been characterized by its interest in material things. The decades after the Civil War were particularly noted for constant debates about the nature of currency and for a preoccupation with wealth. In 1863 the United States Congress established a national banking system, and two years later National Bank Notes were issued to replace notes from thousands of state-chartered banks. This was the era of William Jennings Bryan’s famous Cross of Gold speech (1896), in which he attacked the thesis that gold was the only sound backing for currency, and the Greenback party, which advocated for keeping in circulation the greenbacks issued by the government during the Civil War rather than returning to a gold-backed currency. Called the Gilded Age by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their 1873 satirical novel, these decades saw industrialization and monopolies concentrate fortunes in the hands of a few tycoons. Both literature and the arts reflected this obsession with money. A character in William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) serves as an example when he remarks, “there’s no doubt but money is to the fore now. It is the romance, the poetry of our age. It’s the thing that chiefly strikes the imagination.”  Money also became a subject for paintings. Although European artists occasionally included money in their paintings, it was usually in the form of gold or silver. American artists made a specialty of painting paper currency, a development peculiar to the United States. The practice began with still-life painter William Michael Harnett [39.761], who invented the genre in 1877 when he executed a trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) replica of a five-dollar bill (Still Life—Five-Dollar Bill, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania). He painted five other minutely detailed depictions of paper currency, and his illusion of reality was so effective that he was threatened with arrest for counterfeiting in 1886; he thereafter refrained from painting money pictures. However, the publicity from this episode no doubt encouraged other artists to tackle the subject. Nicholas Alden Brooks was one of some twenty artists who rendered deceptively real, life-size bills against flat surfaces. Brooks painted more than a dozen trompe l’oeil images of ten-dollar bills, some accompanied by postage stamps, playbills, ticket stubs, or racing forms, among them Ten Dollar Bill with Saratoga Race Form (about 1880, Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford,Pennsylvania) and Still Life with Playbill (after 1893, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, Ohio). A Ten Dollar Bill is a simple composition showing a well-used, soiled greenback with torn corners, rough edges, and fold marks set against a mahogany table. The painting replicates a ten-dollar bill bearing the printed signatures of Register of the Treasury James Fount Tillman and Treasurer of the United States D. N. Morgan, both of whom served from 1893 to 1897; thus Brooks’s note must have been issued sometime after 1893. The note was engraved with a portrait of Daniel Webster in the bottom left corner and a scene representing Pocahontas being introduced to the British court at the bottom right. Of the dozen known compositions of simple ten-dollar bills by Brooks, the MFA’s is one of the largest and one of the few on canvas rather than panel. A comparison of these paintings discloses differences in the details between the original currency and Brook’s depictions. For example, Bruce Chambers, in his study of trompe l’oeil images of American currency, observes that “reproductions of the portraits on the bills (Andrew Jackson on the five-dollar note; Daniel Webster on the ten dollar) vary widely among themselves, but the expressions [Brooks] manages to convey on their faces are almost caricatures of the original. Webster, for instance, with his prominent eyebrows, acquires scowls, frowns, or looks of incredulity under Brooks’s pen.”  In the MFA’s painting, Webster looks younger and more benign than in the other portrayals. With his various renditions of Webster’s facial characteristics, Brooks may have been having some fun. He and other money painters deliberately tweaked the Treasury Department with their replicas of currency. Counterfeit money was a real problem in the nineteenth century, as the New York Times reported: “Secret Service Agent Scanlan states that a large number of counterfeit ten-dollar Treasury notes bearing the head of Daniel Webster have lately been put into circulation in [Philadelphia]. The counterfeit is generally well executed, but may be detected by the poorly engraved head of Webster.”  The Treasury Department was suspicious of artists who were able to replicate the bills so convincingly, and it was not until the capture in 1896 of notorious master counterfeiter Emanuel Ninger (known as Jim the Penman) that the artists were finally cleared. Meanwhile, paintings like Brooks’s A Ten Dollar Bill were immensely popular with the public, who admired the clever verisimilitude of the pictures, their inherent commentary about what constituted legal tender, and their sly allusions to the art of “making money.” Notes 1. Quoted in Edward J. Nygren, “The Almighty Dollar: Money as a Theme in American Painting,” Winterthur Portfolio 23, no. 2/3 (Summer–Autumn 1988): 130. 2. Bruce W. Chambers, Old Money: American Trompe L’Oeil Images of Currency (New York: Berry-Hill Galleries, 1988), 55. 3. “A Counterfeit Ten-Dollar Note,” New York Times, January 24, 1885. Janet L. Comey
Signed and inscribed at lower left: N.A. Brooks / N.Y.
With Schwarz Gallery, Philadelphia; to a Private Collection; by 2008 with Menconi and Schoelkopf, New York; 2008, sold by Menconi and Schoelkopf to the MFA. (Accession Date: April 23, 2008)
Museum purchase with funds by exchange from The Hayden Collection—Charles Henry Hayden Fund, Gift of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815-1865, Bequest of Georgianna Buckham Wright, Bequest of Miss Ellen Starkey Bates, and Gift of Mrs. Henry Lyman