Book Review: Chronicling the West for Harper’s, by Claudine Chalmers

Chronicling the West for Harper’s: Coast to Coast With Frenzeny & Tavernier in 1873–1874, by Claudine Chalmers, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2013, $45

Harper’s Weekly, which first rolled off the presses in 1857, provided enough news about the United States and the world to proudly call itself “A Journal of Civilization.” What made it extra special to many people then (and now, too), though, was not so much the text (stories and advertising) as the wood engravings. A decade later, the work of two young French artists, Paul Frenzeny and Jules Tavernier, caught the eye of brothers John and James Harper. In 1873 the Harpers hired the duo for a coast-to-coast sketching tour that would include “the most interesting and picturesque regions” of the West and Southwest and cover perhaps as many as 7,000 miles.

Like the old Harper’s Weekly itself, this 272-page book has solid text (about the life and work of Frenzeny and Tavernier), but also a wealth of images (119 black-and-white illustrations and 13 color illustrations). These “special artists,” the label Harper’s Weekly gave to its illustrators in the field, viewed the frontier with the same fresh eyes as some of the emigrants they sketched—the difference being, of course, that Frenzeny & Tavernier (as they signed their work) documented what they saw with 100 vivid sketches. They didn’t merely draw landscapes or portraits. Instead, as Chalmers notes, they drew action scenes “with accurate, practical details and specific places so that future emigrants could use these reports as a reliable source of information.” Among the subjects the Frenchmen cover so well are the Plains Indians’ Sun Dance, San Francisco’s Chinatown, a bear hunt in the Rockies, a prairie windstorm, a Mormon domestic scene titled “Bringing Home the Fifth Wife” and a gory buffalo carcass (at least it is in black and white) labeled “Slaughtered for the Hide.”


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