The Topicality of American Trompe lâoeil Painting
Jacob Atkinson, a Philadelphia letter carrier, painted more as a hobby than a profession. He chose to depict still life subjects of mail and money for amusement. Atkinson was a veteran of the Civil War. After the war, jobs in the postal service were often given to veterans. It is not known how many works Atkinson painted or whether he exhibited or sold any of his paintings during his lifetime.
Souvenir of the Columbian Exposition is only one of two known works by Atkinson. It exemplifies the illusionism of trompe l’oeil (French for “Fool-the-eye”) paintings, using oil on canvas to create the effect of wood grain or a paper postcard. This kind of still life subject, sometimes called a “letter rack” picture, originated in seventeenth century Holland and was revived by several nineteenth century artists working in Philadelphia, including William Harnett, James Peto, and several members of the Peale family. This painting is a document of one of the most important events in the history of American culture, the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was held in Chicago in 1893. The stamp and letters, apt subject matter for a mail carrier, all relate to this exposition. An envelope addressed to “Mr. John Smith Philada Pa” is stamped “Due 1¢” and bears the commemorative stamp of “Columbus in Sight of Land” (one cent) mailed from Kensington Station, Philadelphia. This is pasted over an embossed Columbian envelope, which reads “Columbia Station October 4 2PM Philadelphia.” Beneath these are two postcards: an “Official Souvenir Postal” of the fair and posted from “World’s Fair Station October 24.” Fascinated by the Exposition and influenced by his job, Atkinson created a skillful souvenir of this important event.
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