American Art On Postage Stamps: Telling The Story of A Nation

Smithsonian's National Postal Museum

From the early colonial period to the present day, American artists have captured their interpretation of the American experience using different forms of art. These pieces of fine art have been adapted to portray famous American individuals, events, and geography on postage stamps. Postage stamps depicting fine art have become another looking glass into this country and its many themes.


- Introduction
- The Founding Fathers
- Commemorating George Washington
- Washington Bicentennial: The Houdon Bust
- Washingon Bicentennial: 2-cent Postage Stamp
- 1932 Washington Bicentennial: 3-cent Postage Stamp
- Honoring Benjamin Franklin
- 250th Anniversary of Franklin's Birth
- Remembering Abraham Lincoln
- The Common American
- Norman Rockwell's Art
- Rockwell's Four Freedoms
- American Children
- Celebrating Motherhood
- Mary Cassatt & Maternity
- FDR and Mother's Day
- Maternity Through Sculpture
- The American Pioneer
- The Figures of the American West
- The American Farmer
- The Migrant Worker
- American Landscapes:The West
- Niagara Falls
- The Oceans
- American Cities: Ash Can Painters
- American Cities: Hopper
- American Cities: Franz Kline
- Abstract Expressionism: Jackson Pollack
- Credits


From the early colonial period to the present day, American artists have captured their interpretation of the American experience using different forms of art. These pieces of fine art have been adapted to portray famous American individuals, events and geography on postage stamps. It is unlikely that Grant Wood, the creator of “American Gothic,” ever intended for his famous image to appear on a postage stamp. However, Wood’s work along with hundreds of other paintings, photographs, busts and sculptures have been featured on American postage stamps. By highlighting American leaders, ordinary citizens, and locations, postage stamps depicting fine art have become another looking glass into this country and its many themes.

Designers of postage stamps face a unique challenge when working with American art. They use some of this nation’s greatest works to honor important American themes, but they only have a postage stamp sized space within which they can work. Consequently, some pieces have to be cropped, but not to such an extent where the meaning of the art is lost. Additionally, consumers respond better to brighter, bolder colors. Designers must keep this fact in mind when they manipulate art work for inclusion on stamps. Finally, some art, such as Jackson Pollack’s drip paintings, would be hard to discern in a space the size of a stamp. Ultimately, postage stamp designers are forced to not only choose carefully which artwork they depict, but also which aspects of those works they highlight. The process of using prominent works of American art to celebrate the Founding Fathers, common citizens and the geography of America on postage stamps remains one of the most fascinating chapters in the story of United States stamp design.

The Founding Fathers

Prominent members of the British's thirteen colonies in America united after years of British taxation and restrictions to establish a new independent nation. These men, later honored as the Founding Fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence, shaped the course of the American Revolution, and created a new system of government. Art captures the historic acts of these men, and stamps use these depictions to honor America's first leaders.

The Founding Fathers

John Trumbull, one of America’s most famous painters, was one such artist who captured the work of the Founding Fathers. He produced a monumental painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Trumbull painted forty-two of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration and used real life models and sittings to capture the details of the delegates. The work’s central focus is the Committee of Five presenting the final draft of the Declaration to the Continental Congress' President, John Hancock. Congress purchased the painting in 1819 and installed in the Capitol rotunda in 1826.

Fifty years after the purchase of Trumbull's painting, the first postage stamp depicting this iconic image was issued to the public. It was included as one of the ten stamps of the 1869 Pictorial Issue. This issue featured the first US postage stamps to capture something other than a portrait of a president or Benjamin Franklin. The four highest denominations, including the 24-cent depiction of Trumbull's painting, were also the first American postage stamps printed with two colors. The central image featuring Trumbull's painting was printed in violet and the outer frame in green. The stamps of the Pictorial Issue set the stage for single and bi-color postage stamp issues to come. These issues to follow would feature a wide array of subjects far beyond the established portraits of founding fathers.

The 6-cent John Trumbull Issue stamp was released October 18, 1968.

Commemorating George Washington

The individual featured on more American postage stamps than any other figure is George Washington. During his life, Washington led the Continental Army in the American Revolution, presided over the Constitutional Convention and then became the first president under the Constitution.

Due to Washington's critical role in the birth of the United States and his popularity during his life and since his death; artists have eagerly portrayed this great leader in a wide variety of formats and mediums. Many of these artworks have been adapted for use on postage stamps.

Commemorating George Washington

A more recent depiction of Washington, this stamp was issued in 2002.

Washington Bicentennial: The Houdon Bust

One of the most extensive commemorative postage stamp issues devoted to Washington is the 1932 George Washington Bicentennial Issue. This twelve stamp issue includes the work of Gilbert Stuart and Charles Peale, two well-known American portrait painters.

To celebrate the bicentennial of Washington's birth, the George Washington Bicentennial Committee asked the Post Office Department to issue stamps featuring Washington at different points in his life. Postmaster General Walter Brown and his staff searched the nation for the most accurate depictions of America's first president. According to Brown, “We hope to show Washington as a youth, a civil engineer, as a commander and chief in the army, and so on through life.” The Postmaster General desired to use portraits of Washington as opposed to historical paintings that depicted events; the Post Office Department feared these historic images would be less accurate than a portrait. The challenges the Post Office Department faced in its search to find realistic renderings of Washington are good examples of the struggles stamp designers still face to this day.

Since accuracy was and still is such an important factor for stamp designers, the Postmaster General chose the most accurate depiction of Washingon for the 1-cent stamp of the Bicentennial Issue. It features the "Houdon Bust" which the artist, Jean Antoine Houdon, created from life when he stayed at Washington's home in Mt. Vernon. Not only did this work adorn the stamp, it was the official portrait of the bicentennial celebration. Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) engraver J. Eissler used BEP designer A.R. Meisser’s sketch of the bust to make the engraving for the 1-cent denomination of the 1932 Washington Bicentennial Issue.

Washington Bicentennial: 2-cent Postage Stamp

As is typical with stamp design, the creators of the 1932 Washington Bicentennial Issue proposed using a variety of images for their stamps. One proposal included a depiction of Washington's birthplace at Wakefield, Virginia. In the end, the design team decided to portray Washington at different points in his life. Gilbert Stuart's 1796 "Athenaeum" portrait featuring Washington in the final years of his life was chosen for the 2-cent stamp of the bicentennial series. The portrait is part of a set of two works depicting the President and his wife. Commissioned by Martha Washington, the pieces were intended for her home at Mount Vernon, however, the artist never finished them.

Washington Bicentennial: 2-cent Postage Stamp

The design of the 2-cent Washington Bicentennial Issue was used for a 3-cent Washington regular issue released to the public June 16, 1932. This stamp was issued to pay the new 3-cent first class rate, which went into effect on July 5, 1932.

Gilbert Stewart is one of America's greatest portrait painters. He was born in America, but moved to Europe as a young man. While there, he painted portraits of leaders such as Charles I and Louis XVI. He returned to the United States where he created some of the most iconic images of George Washington. He often depicted the president as an ideal head of state. Since 1923, the US government has used Stuart's image of Washington on the one-dollar bill.

1932 Washington Bicentennial: 3-cent Postage Stamp

The 1932 Washington Bicentennial Issue features a 3-cent violet stamp of Washington. For this stamp, the creators originally considered using a design featuring Washington next to his wife Martha. This image was abandoned in favor of a portrait of Washington wearing military apparel and a cocked hat. The picture, a representation of Charles Wilson Peale’s painting from Valley Forge, was more in line with Postmaster General Brown’s desire to depict the nation’s first president as a military leader.

Another stamp depicting Washington at Valley Forge was issued October 21, 1977. The J.C. Leyendecker painting “George Washington at Valley Forge” inspired the 13-cent multicolored Washington at Valley Forge stamp. The painting first appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on February 23, 1935.

Charles Wilson Peale was another prolific individual in the history of American art, regarded as one of the greatest portrait painters of the revolutionary period. He was born in Maryland and studied under Benjamin West in London. Peale served in the Continental Army and moved to Philadelphia after the war. While in the City of Brotherly Love, the artist befriended important revolutionary figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

Honoring Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, one of the most prominent Founding Fathers, has been the subject of many portraits and sculpted busts. Postage stamp designers have relied on these artistic depictions when commemorating Benjamin Franklin. As America’s most prominent Renaissance man, Franklin filled many roles and held many official positions throughout his life. Most importantly to the postal history of the United States, Franklin was the first Postmaster General under the Continental Congress. At the dedication ceremony for the stamp celebrating the 250th anniversary of Franklin’s birth, Albert Robertson, the Assistant Postmaster General, emphasized the importance of Franklin to the development of the Post Office Department. His long relationship with the post is one of many reasons for his commemoration on postage stamps.

The 1-cent Franklin stamp was designed by James Macdonough of the National Bank Note Company. The image of Franklin depicted on the stamp was adapted from a Jean-Antoine Houdon bust of Franklin executed by the artist in 1778.

250th Anniversary of Franklin's Birth

The 250th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin's birth commemorative stamp features painter Benjamin West's portrait "Franklin Taking Electricity from the Sky.” This work depicts the story of the Founding Father looking toward the sky as he attempts to draw an electric current using a key. He is dressed in black and surrounded by putti (small babies). According to remarks by Assistant Postmaster General Robertson, the work is a very dramatic depiction. He also noted that there is a special authenticity to it as the artist and his subject knew each other.

Benjamin West was a pioneer in the American art world. He was one of the first Americans to achieve fame internationally and today is commonly known for his history paintings. He went abroad to Italy where he studied classical art, and eventually moved to London. While there, West influenced American artists Charles Peale, Gilbert Stewart and John Trumbull.

The 10-cent Benjamin West stamp was issued February 10, 1975.

Remembering Abraham Lincoln

Regarded as one of America's greatest leaders, many American artists celebrated Abraham Lincoln while he was alive and in the years following his death with numerous portraits.

Lincoln also has a connection to the postal world. In 1833 he assumed the duties of the postmaster of New Salem, Illinois, becoming the only man to serve as a postmaster and later president. Given his importance to this country and his relationship with the post, Lincoln has been featured on many postage stamps. For example, in 1959, the government released a commemorative series celebrating the 150th anniversary of the president's birth. In his remarks at the ceremony for the release of the first stamp of the series (shown here), George M. Moore, executive assistant to the Postmaster General, emphasized Lincoln’s wisdom, ability to teach basic truths, and principled nature.

The 1-cent stamp shown here was designed by Ervin Metzl who used a painting by George Healy to portray Lincoln. Known as the “Beardless Lincoln,” this work highlights a younger looking Lincoln desired by the Post Office Department for the stamp. Healy painted the piece from life in 1860 following the election of Lincoln to the presidency. This artist was one of the most well known portrait painters of the 19th century. Born in Boston, Healy underwent training in Paris and eventually settled in Chicago.

The Common American

Men such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln shaped the history of the United States and guided the nation through conflict, in both politics and war. These two men have become symbols of democracy, freedom and the American spirit. However, there are many other American citizens who embody America's democracy, freedom and spirit. They did not sign the Declaration of Independence or lead the nation, but they make up an integral part of the American identity. American artists have painted these families, farmers, sailors, pioneers, Native Americans, and city dwellers in an attempt to display the American nation. Throughout the twentieth century, stamp designers have chosen this art to celebrate America and its diverse population.

Between 1847 and 1868, US stamps exclusively featured various Founding Fathers. As time passed, stamps celebrated prominent figures and important events. However, towards the latter half of the 20th century, designers featured a larger variety of people, objects and themes on stamps. Cartoon characters, sports, wildlife and many other topics soon became typical stamp images. The depiction of common citizens and the celebration of the artists who portrayed them stands out as some of the most engaging details in the continuing story of using American art on postage stamps.

American artist Norman Rockwell, sculptor Isamu Noguchi and photographer Dorthea Lange along with many others have used their chosen mediums to portray ordinary Americans. Many of their works along with the works of other artists have been adapted for use on US postage stamps.

A stamp featuring the love between a mother and daughter. Such imagery is typical of American Impressionist Mary Cassatt.

Geroge Bingham's painting showing common boatsmen on the Mississippi River. This work attempts to portray a feeling of hope felt by many Americans due to westward expansion.

Norman Rockwell's Art

Norman Rockwell, the well-known illustrator of Saturday Evening Post covers beginning in 1916 at the age of twenty-two, serves as a prime example of an artist who used his art to honor ‘main street’ America. Rockwell's artistic talents were apparent at a very young age as he attended art classes in New York City, then the National Academy of Design, and finally the Art Students League.

Norman Rockwell's Art

Richard Sheaff, an art director at the Postal Service in 1993, wrote an inscription that appeared on the Norman Rockwell postage stamp souvenir sheet when the design and text was first released to the press in December of 1993. Sheaff wrote, “For half a century, artist Normal Rockwell captured the essence of the American pageant in his paintings of common folk in everyday scenes…” His statement accurately describes Rockwell’s art displaying the emotion and character of Americans from soldiers to astronauts. Stamp designers selected this art to celebrate not only Rockwell himself, but also the people of America.

The 50-cent Freedom From Fear stamp

The 50-cent Freedom From Want stamp

The 50-cent Freedom of Speech stamp

The 50-cent Freedom of Worship stamp

American Children

In 1998, the Postal Service honored twenty artists by depicting their artwork on stamps in the Four Centuries of American Art Issue. Howard Paine, a USPS art director, designed this issue to illustrate the diversity of American artists and their subjects from the 1600s to the present day. He chose a variety of both horizontally and vertically designed works for inclusion in the final product, but decided to make all the works square shaped. To accommodate his plans, Paine had to crop many of the paintings, being careful which parts of the paintings he represented.

To capture the lifestyle of the common American, many artists painted children. One such painting is Joshua Johnson's "The Westwood Children," produced in 1807. This painting shows three children standing near a dog and a window. The artist, Joshua Johnson, is thought to be one of the first professional artists of African ancestry to produce work in America. Paine had originally planned to use a painting by Thomas Cole instead of Johnson’s work, but eventually decided against it. The inclusion of "The Westwood Children" helped highlight the diversity of American artists. For the stamp, the dog and window were cropped, showing only the three children. Despite the cropping, the artist’s style is still evident. He typically painted families from Baltimore and used distinctly outlined figures to depict his subjects.

The painting by Ammi Phillips, “Girl in a Red Dress with cat and dog,” is another image of a child featured on a postage stamp in the Four Centuries of American Art Issue. Phillips lived in New England and this piece shows his typical style. The dog from the original painting was removed when the work was cropped to fit into the stamp-sized space. Howard Paine, the designer of the issue claimed, “I chose the painting because I wanted some bright color, and the red dress is just a knockout.”

The 1998 Four Centuries of American Art Issue sheet of twenty depicts Johnson and Phillips's works along with many other stamps explored in this featured collection.

The 32-cent stamp featuring "The Westwood Children" by Joshua Johnson was issued August 27, 1998.

The 32-cent stamp featuring "Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog" by Ammi Phillips was issued August 27, 1998.

Celebrating Motherhood

Along with portrayals of children, the Four Centuries of American Art Issue also included an image dedicated to motherhood. “The Freake Limner” is one of the earliest American artworks focusing on the theme of motherhood from the mid to late 17th century. The image depicts Mrs. Elizabeth Freake and her child. Their clothing identifies the subjects as belonging to the higher social classes of early Bostonian society. USPS art director Paine chose “The Freake Limner” portrait as a defining example of this early period of American colonial art.

The stamp featuring "The Freake Limner" was issued August 27, 1998.

Mary Cassatt & Maternity

One of the most famous female American artists, Mary Cassatt, focused extensively on maternity in her work. She was born in the United States but spent the majority of her life in Paris. While abroad, the French impressionists influenced Cassatt and she eventually became one of the great American impressionists.

Mary Cassatt

Cassatt and her artwork have been featured on many US stamps, including in 2003 when the Postal Service produced four reproductions of her work. Terrance McCaffrey, the manager of USPS stamp development at the time, spoke about the Cassatt stamps. “The committee wanted…to develop a series of attractive colorful images that people would be prone to use on their mail.” Derry Noyes, the designer of the stamps, commented on the themes of Cassatt’s work. She stated, “The subject matter, women and children, they just worked so well together.”

One of the colorful postage stamps issued August 7, 2003, featuring Mary Cassatt’s “Girl in a Straw Hat.”

Postage stamp issued August 7, 2003, featuring Mary Cassatt’s “Young Mother.”

Postage stamp issued August 7, 2003, featuring Mary Cassatt’s “On a Balcony.”

Postage stamp issued August 7, 2003, featuring Mary Cassatt’s “Children Playing on the Beach.”

FDR and Mother's Day

In 1933, Mrs. H. H. McCluer, the past president of the American War Mothers, requested a stamp honoring America's mothers be released by the Post Office Department. Postmaster General James A. Farley approved of her idea, and President Franklin Roosevelt suggested using the 1871 painting by James M. Whistler entitled “Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist’s Mother.” More commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother,” the painting shows a frail and quiet woman sitting against a plain wall.

FDR and Mother's Day

The Post Office Department followed the suggestion of President Roosevelt and portrayed “Whistler’s Mother” on the Mothers of America Issue postage stamp. However, if the full piece had been depicted, it would have been too hard to see the mother figure. As a result, the Post Office Department cropped the painting and added flowers to the left corner. Manipulating Whistler's original painting was somewhat controversial at the time the stamp was issued. On one hand, some complained the stamp sullied Whistler’s work. On the other hand, the stamp was not meant to primarily honor Whistler’s painting. It was intended to celebrate all mothers by concentrating on the mother figure in the painting.

Many consider James M. Whistler one of the most important American artists of the nineteenth century. James Whistler was born in Massachusetts but spent the majority of his life in London. James Whistler followed in his father's footsteps to West Point but did not graduate. In addition to painting, Whistler employed his skills as an engraver to produce many different types of print work. The Tonalist Movement influenced Whistler's paintings in the later years of his distinguished career.

The 2-cent Famous Americans Issue stamp honoring artist James Whistler was issued September 5, 1940.

Maternity Through Sculpture

Themes of maternity have also been explored in sculpture. A beautiful example executed by the Japanese American artist Isamu Noguchi is “Mother and Child.” The work is made of onyx, a form of quartz, and is located in the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in New York. It is 60 inches tall, and only the top part of the work was used on the stamp. The Postal Service featured this work along with other Noguchi pieces in a set of five stamps issued in May 2004. These stamps are part of a series honoring a variety of American artists. However, the Noguchi stamps stand out as the only ones issued using no color other than black and white.

Derry Noyes, an art director at the Postal Service, designed the stamps. She is an admirer of Noguchi and had met with him twenty years prior to the release of the stamps honoring his work. Noyes discussed her struggles of trying to adapt Noguchi’s work. “I did a tremendous amount of research…The breadth of work is mammoth, and the scale of it ranges from stage sets to portrait busts…I wanted…to get across what set him apart that he tried to put beauty of his sculpture into everyday things.” Noyes was also concerned that the images would look abstract and unrecognizable when they were placed into a stamp size space. “It was hard to hold onto the detail on the photograph and not lose a lot of it into shadow,” stated Noyes. Despite the challenges, the five stamps nicely represented a wide variety of Noguchi’s work.

The stamp featuring Isamu Noguchi's "Margaret La Farge Osborn" issued May 18, 2004.

The stamp featuring Isamu Noguchi's "Akari" issued May 18, 2004.

The stamp featuring Isamu Noguchi's "Figure" issued May 18, 2004.

The stamp featuring Isamu Noguchi's "Black Sun" issued May 18, 2004.

The American Pioneer

While art on stamps highlights the American family and explores related themes, it also celebrates the pioneers and settlers who pushed this nation westward. Since the arrival of Europeans to the North American continent, frontiersmen have left the comforts of the established eastern cities and moved to the unsettled west. Their migration represented the articulation and fulfillment of America’s feelings of manifest destiny. American artists have depicted the ruggedness and bravery of these individuals through a wide array of mediums, and this art has been used on postage stamps to honor these pioneers and their desire for expansion.

In 1971, the Post Office Department issued a stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of Missouri’s statehood. The stamp shows an image from a mural at the Truman Library completed by Thomas Hart Benton. This was appropriate for a stamp celebrating Missouri as both Truman and Benton hailed from the state. Known as “Independence and the Opening of the West,” the overall intent of the mural is to show the beginnings of Independence, Missouri. It depicts a wide variety of trappers, hunters, and settlers along with a group of painted Pawnee Indians who meet the new comers. The mural also gives the viewer a look at blacksmiths, forts, and many of the trails of the west such as the Oregon Trail.

The image on the stamp portrays several pioneers and a Pawnee Indian. Benton placed these subjects in a central position in his mural, thereby identifying them as important. The Post Office Department, by selecting this portion of the painting, placed significance on the settlers who pushed America westward.

The Figures of the American West

Historically, the American West has served as a home for a wide range of people. Legends surrounding the cowboy and Native American are evidence to this region's influence on American culture. Frederic Remington celebrated the American West through a variety of artistic mediums. He portrayed the Native American in a painting entitled "Smoke Signal," and also honored the Cowboy in a sculpture named "Coming Through the Rye." These two works are depicted separately on a 4-cent and 18-cent stamp. The stamps honor Remington, but they are also reminders that the legends and events from the West are an important part of America's identity.

The Post Office Department issued "Smoke Signal" on a stamp in 1961 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Remington’s birth. The image shows two Native Americans releasing a smoke signal as a means of communication. In the painting, there is another native and a horse. However, they were both cropped in order to center the stamp’s focus on the smoke signal. At the dedication ceremony for the stamp, Postmaster General J. Edward Day said that this image was fitting, as it shows early communication between men. Day pointed to the fact that The Post Office Department was continuing that communication through the use of over 36,000 post office branches. The stamp was the first to portray a piece of American art in its full color, and it was designed with the intention of adding beauty to postage stamps.

"Coming Through the Rye" was issued on a stamp in 1981. The bronze sculpture shows cowboys on horseback with their guns drawn. Remington finished the work in 1902. He died seven years later.

The 10-cent Famous Americans Issue stamp honoring artist and sculptor Frederic Remington was issued September 30, 1940.

The American Farmer

American farmers have always been a crucial part of the American economy and identity. Their lifestyle and character have been captured in American art since the Revolutionary War period. One piece that depicts the farmer is “American Gothic” by Grant Wood. Known as one of the most iconic and recognizable images in the history of American art, the work displays a farmer and his daughter in front of a gothic style home. The stamp featuring Wood’s art was released in 1998 as part of the Four Centuries of American Art Issue. The back of the stamp states: “American Gothic…has become the classic image of upright, American self reliance. Known as an example of regionalism, this work is a celebration of the national heartland and the agrarian life.” Grant Wood, was born in Iowa and lived in the Midwest for his entire life. He was a supporter of the Regionalist Movement, a style of painting that focused on rural life and traditional American values.

The art director responsible for the stamp’s design, Howard Paine, used “American Gothic” because of its time tested fame. He stated, “ I feel its a ‘port of entry’ into the world of art by virtue of its wide popularity, its instant recognizability, so that someone with little interest in or knowledge of art would be willing to focus on the other stamps after seeing this one.” For the postage stamp, the top of the gothic house in the background was cropped along with the father’s grip on his pitchfork.

The stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of Iowa's statehood was issued August 1, 1996. It features Grant Wood's "Young Corn," a painting showing the artist's regionalist style.

The Migrant Worker

Some of the most striking portrayals of the average American during the twentieth century are captured in photography. One such image known as “Ditched, Stalled, and Stranded, Joaquin Valley, California” by American photographer Dorthea Lange shows a migrant worker. The image effectively depicts the feelings of despair and frustration experienced by many during the Great Depression, when Lange took this photograph.

“Ditch, Stalled, and Stranded, Joaquin Valley, California” was issued on a stamp in June 2002 as part of the Masters of American Photography Issue, designed by USPS art director Derry Noyes. It was imperative to the Postal Service that the issue utilized images that represented the major fields of photography. The issue, while focusing on photography as an art form, also depicted subjects showcasing many different peoples and backgrounds including women, African Americans, and Native Americans. The images had to represent all regions of the United States, and the designers of the series placed a special emphasis on depicting the western part of the country. While creating the series, Noyes was careful not to place pictures of similar subjects close together and at the same time keeping the works in chronological order.

Another photograph taken by Dorthea Lange during the Great Depression expressing the desperation of the period was "Migrant Mother." This image was featured on a postage stamp as part of the 1998-2000 Celebrate the Century Stamp Series.

American Landscapes: The West

America’s majestic landscapes, natural wonders, and other unique locations compose an important element of the American essence. Many great works of American art have depicted the places that separate this nation from other lands. A variety of US postage stamps feature these images.

The artist Thomas Moran immortalizes the mountains and beauties of the west in his work “Cliffs of Green River, Wyoming.” Born in England, Moran moved to the United States where he studied art. In the 1870’s he followed an expedition to the Yellowstone Region and made sketches for some of his most famous landscape paintings. He soon became renowned for his depictions of America’s landscapes.

The Postal Service issued Moran’s painting on a postage stamp in 1998 as part of the Four Centuries of American Art Issue. The painting depicts large rock formations and a river where one man rides on his horse. For the stamp, much of the scenery on the left and right was cropped. The designers wanted to focus the eye on the break in the cliffs.

American Landscapes: The West

The vastness of the American West has been captured in photography as well as paintings. One photograph, known as “Sand Dunes, Sunrise,” explores the unique layout of Death Valley in California. Ansel Adams, the photographer of the piece, is known for his detailed images of the American West. His work is showcased on a stamp included in the 2002 Masters of Photography Issue. According to the Ansel Adams Trust, “Sand Dunes, Sunrise, 1948, reveals the sharpness of detail and rich tonal range from the deepest black to the purest white that are hallmarks of his [Adams’s] work.”

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls is one of America’s most recognizable and famous natural wonders. Tourists from all over the world flock to see the falls, and artists have depicted its immenseness. One image of Niagara by Frederick Edwin Church has stood out as a brilliant rendering of the natural landmark. Art historian John Howat spoke about the work, stating “Niagara was a momentous cultural event…numerous newspaper and magazine critics pronounced it the greatest oil painting, as well as the greatest representation and evocation of Americas most renowned natural wonder…”

The Postal Service released the stamp depicting the painting as part of the Four Centuries of American Art Issue. For the designer of the issue, Howard Paine, Church's work was a good example of the uniquely American natural landmarks that many artists desired to depict. He stated his opinion about the work: “I’ve always loved this painting…I love the green water and the fact that you’re right on the roaring edge of it.” To attain the square shape for the block, Paine had to crop many of the horizontal aspects of the piece. The focus for the stamp is the u-shaped falls depicted on the right side of Church’s original painting.

Niagara Falls

The stamp featuring Church's work is not the first representation of Niagara Falls. The Post Office Department released a 25-cent Niagara Falls stamp in 1922. It shows an image of the natural wonder as seen from Goat Island, the land that separates the falls into the American and Canadian sides. The stamp designers originally considered using Church's work for the stamp and asked the Corcoran Gallery for a representation of the piece. While it was never used, some believed that the painting had in fact been the image the designers featured on their stamp.

The Oceans

The United States is surrounded by the world's two largest oceans, the Atlantic and Pacific. America's connections to these two large bodies of water have become an important part of its identity. Children play in these waters, fishermen draw their livelihood from them, and citizens treasure their vastness and bountifulness. Winslow Homer, one of America’s greatest artists, loved the sea, and he brilliantly depicted its qualities.

One of his pieces entitled “Breezing Up” honors the sea and man's connection with it. The Post Office Department released this work in 1962 on a stamp that celebrates Winslow Homer. Victor McCloskey designed the stamp which shows a sailboat in Gloucester, Massachusetts. This image was appropriate, as the setting, Gloucester, is a spot where over 8,000 sailors lost their lives to the ravages of nature’s ocean. Postmaster General Day hoped that this stamp would not only honor America’s oceans, but would also “broaden the interest of all Americans in historic paintings which have become a part of the American tradition.”

The Oceans

The Postal Service released another work of Homer’s, “Fog Warning,” on a postage stamp in 1998. It was a part of the Four Centuries of American Art Issue. The piece depicts a fisherman rowing in turbulent waters. He wearily looks to a sailing ship, his destination. This work once again shows man’s struggle in the sea. To make the stamp, Howard Paine, the designer of the issue, had to crop the painting’s right side which included the man’s final destination, the sailing ship.

American Cities: Ash Can Painters

American cities are economic and cultural centers. Their large buildings and diverse populations offer a wide range of subjects for artists. Consequently, depictions of the city adorn many pieces of American art. One group of painters, the Ash Can School, often illustrated the urban lifestyle. Their images were very different from traditional urban renderings. They drew the dirt, grim, and less fashionable aspects of New York and other metropolises. According to the Postal Service, “Their probing depictions of teeming lower East Side streets, harried dock workers, and low brow sometimes vulgar forms of entertainment shocked the art establishment by challenging the relevance and necessity of beauty in art.” The artists, who consisted of men such as George Bellows, Robert Henri, George Luks, and Arthur B. Davis, considered themselves in opposition to academic painting.

The Postal Service honored this group of painters in a stamp released as part of the Celebrate the Century Series. The stamp depicts a representation of the work "A Stag at Sharkey’s" by George Bellows. Two boxers swing at each other in a club located near the artist’s studio. A referee watches intently and a crowd encircles the men in the ring. Art director Carl Herrman spoke about the use of this piece for the stamp. “I looked at a number of Ash Can painters’ works, but most of them were too complicated or wouldn’t crop well to fit into the square format.” At first, the stamp depicted the words “Ash Can School.” However, the designers changed the stamp fearing the public would not know to whom the words were referring. Ultimately, the stamp features the words “Ash Can Painters.” According to Terrance McCaffrey, the head of stamp design, “then it became Ash Can Painters because that really said what the whole movement was about…”

American Cities: Ash Can Painters

The work of John Sloan, another member of the Ash Can School, is also featured on a commemorative stamp. Like his fellow painters, Sloan separated himself from the romantic school of art, focusing on less academic pursuits. He was born in Pennsylvania and worked in Philadelphia and New York. His 1903 piece “The Wake of the Ferry” is featured on an 8-cent stamp released on August 2, 1971 in the artist’s hometown, Haven, Pennsylvania. Bradbury Thompson designed the stamp that shows the deck of a ferry on a stormy day.

American Cities: Hopper

Edward Hopper, a twentieth century American painter, is known for his ability to depict the urban lifestyle. Born in New York, Hopper is regarded as one of America’s greatest scene painters. He often painted scenes that illustrated alienation and isolated individuals in modern settings.

Due to his great fame, the Postal Service featured Hopper’s work on a stamp in the Four Centuries of American Art Issue. Howard Paine originally wanted to use Hopper's piece “House by the Railroad” for the stamp. However, the Museum of Modern Art, the institution that owns the painting, would not allow Paine to crop the image for use on a postage stamp. Ultimately, he used Hopper’s 1942 creation “Nighthawks.” Regarded as one of Hopper's most famous images, it shows four city dwellers at a small diner. The light from the establishment brightens up the dark street, and a man sits alone, a symbol of the loneliness of the city.

Of all twenty pieces of art included in the Four Centuries of American Art Issue, the stamp designers had to crop this image significantly more than the other nineteen images. Many thought the full painting did not “read at stamp size.” Only the couple in the diner and the employee are shown on the stamp. Paine commented on the cropping of the work. “The result is that it doesn’t convey the loneliness that the whole painting has."

American Cities: Franz Kline

Franz Kline, an important American artist from the abstract expressionist movement, depicts the “city” in his work. Kline’s means of painting is drastically different from Hopper’s realism. He turns to abstraction, representing the urban lifestyle using dark brushstrokes against lighter backgrounds. His painting “Mahoning” demonstrates his style. The Postal Service issued a stamp featuring this work in 1998 as part of the Four Centuries of American Art Issue.

Howard Paine, the designer of the American Art Issue, had to convince the Kline estate to let him crop the picture for use on a postage stamp. He said, “We had to negotiate. We showed them how we had cropped other paintings and urged them to let us do this one…” Once given permission to use the piece, the creator also thought this image worked well because its characteristics blended with the other stamps of the issue. According to Linn’s 1998 US Stamp Yearbook, “Paine pointed out that the heavy diagonal line across the center of the Kline painting forms an extension of the diagonal of the rooftop on the…painting to its left. ‘It’s extremely subtle, but it kind of weds the pictures together,’ he said.”

Abstract Expressionism: Jackson Pollack

Jackson Pollack was another leader in the unique abstract expressionist movement. He dripped and splattered paint onto canvases typically on his floor, creating gestural paintings full of energy. He is honored on a postage stamp released in 1999 in the Celebrate the Century Series. This stamp was included with the fifteen stamps commemorating the 1940s.

Carl Herrmann, an art director at the time, thought of using a Pollack piece on the stamp, but determined “it would have looked like a piece of carpeting.” He decided to display an image of the artist instead. His first thought was to use a photo by Hans Namuth showing Pollack at work on his painting "Autumn Rhythm." However, this piece was made in 1950 as opposed to the 1940’s.

Stamp designer, Howard Koslow, wanted to portray a photo taken by Martha Holmes in 1949. Life magazine featured the image and it shows the artist painting with a cigarette in his mouth. The background of the work is Pollack’s garage. For the stamp, this plain background was replaced by an image of Pollack’s painting entitled "Out of the Web." Koslow removed the cigarette from Pollack's mouth because the Postal Service forbids any depiction of smoking on its stamps. This act caused controversy. Don Smeraldi, a USPS spokesman said, “We’re not honoring a smoker who happened to be an artist; we’re honoring an artist who happened to be a smoker.” However, others argued that the cigarette was a crucial aspect of Pollack’s image and that the USPS was distorting its representation of the artist.

The debates surrounding the inclusion of a painting, the troubles associated with finding a work from the correct time period, and the controversy created by the manipulation of a work, are all examples of the issues designers face when they create stamps that feature American art.

Created by Clifford R. Haimann and Alexander T. Haimann, National Postal Museum
Credits: Story

Created by:
Alexander T. Haimann and Clifford R. Haimann, Smithsonian's National Postal Museum

We would like to dedicate this virtual exhibit to our parents, Mark and Amy Haimann. If we had not inherited our passion for art and stamps from them, this project would have taken a very different form.

We extend our thanks to Christine Mereand, Arago Research Coordinator for her careful assistance in reviewing and editing the text of this exhibit. We would also like to thank our fellow Arago team members MJ Meredith and Marty Emery for their support throughout our work on this project.

This virtual exhibit would not have been complete without George Amick's invaluable resource, the Linn's U.S. Stamp Yearbooks.

Linn’s U.S. Stamp Yearbook by George Amick, published by Linn’s Stamp News, Sidney, Ohio

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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