The Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge

Stockbridge, MA



Pushing the Envelope: The Art of the Postage Stamp

November 11, 2000 - May 28, 2001


For the first time in this country's history, 155 original works of art from the archives of the United States Postal Service have been brought together for an exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge, Massachusetts from November 11, 2000 to May 28, 2001.

The exhibition explores the evolution of the postage stamp, from early hand-engraved depictions of our historic past to dynamic graphic statements that document all aspects of American life -- past and present. Thumb-sized masterpieces created by some of the world's most celebrated artists, stamps are a universally accessible art form. The exhibition also outlines the process by which stamps come into being through letters, commentary, photography and process imagery. (left: Richard Schlecht, First Voyage of Columbus, ©1992 United States Postal Service, All Rights Reserved)

First issued in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, postage stamps have become cultural artifacts that convey a sense of national identity in tiny but vivid imagery. American postage stamps were first created in 1847 and bore the likenesses of such national leaders as Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin and President George Washington. By 1860, most countries throughout the world had postage stamps. Since then, the art and design of postage stamps have evolved into a unique and dynamic form of communication. Stamp collecting, or philately, is the most popular hobby in the world today. (right: Mark English, George Washington, ©1982 United States Postal Service, All Rights Reserved)

Postage stamps not only document, but reflect the history and character of a country. The first US commemorative stamps, issued in 1893 for the Colombian Exposition, were declared "unnecessary" by a joint congressional resolution. But then Postmaster General John Wanamaker defended them, claiming that they would make a profit. The designs, based on various artists' depictions of Christopher Columbus, were, in fact, extremely popular with the public. The sale of those first stamps yielded more than $40 million and contributed to the success of the Exposition.

Pushing the Envelope spans 40 years of illustration history, from 1960 to 2000, reflecting the evolutionary process that changed American stamps as new subjects and designs were explored. It also pays tribute to the contributions of more than 70 outstanding artists and designers whose captivating and aesthetically diverse images serve as strong statements of our national artistic expression. The making of a stamp from public request to printed pane will be explored through such process materials as sketches, correspondence, and props. (left: Howard Koslow, West Quaddy Head, ME Lighthouse, ©1990 United States Postal Service, All Rights Reserved)

"United States postage stamps are masters of illustration and design that must convey ideas effectively, maintain accuracy and please the eye," said exhibition curator, Stephanie Plunkett. "We are thrilled to celebrate the work of the extraordinary stamp artists and designers represented in Pushing the Envelope: The Art of the Postage Stamp, and honor the United States Postal Service's long-term commitment to the art of illustration."

Two images Norman Rockwell produced especially for the United States Postal Service for engraved stamps will be showcased in the exhibition; Saluting Boy Scouts and City Mail Delivery. Rockwell was commissioned to create the 4-cent Boy Scouts of America 50th Anniversary stamp, issued on February 8, 1960, and the 5-cent City Mail Delivery commemorative stamp issued October 26, 1963, marking the centenary of free city mail delivery. Although several other Rockwell images were featured on stamps, including the famous Triple Self-Portrait, they were not originally commissioned as stamps. (left: Norman Rockwell, City Mail Delivery, ©1963 United States Postal Service, All Rights Reserved)

Postage stamps are miniature works of art that educate as well as capture the imagination of the public. Postage stamp design is an unusual art form requiring exacting skill in portraying a subject in very small scale. Illustrator Stevan Dohanos (Doll Carriage and Toy Horse on Wheels) described postage stamps as "...carrying an important visual message...a significant art form, passing across borders and acting as a nation's calling card."

Stamps document the history of their issuing country by honoring outstanding people, places and events that helped shape the country. Some of the philatelic themes included in this exhibition are By Land and Sea (American Classic Aircraft, Locomotives), The American Scene (American Dogs, Aquarium Fish, Sporting Horses); New Frontiers: Science and Technology (The World of Dinosaurs); Flora and Fauna (State Birds and Flowers, Wild Animals, Nature of America - Pacific Rain Forest); Charting America's History (The Landing of the Pilgrims, California Gold Rush, Veterans World War I); American Legends (Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickock), Arts and Entertainment (American Folk Art, Broadway Musicals, Classic Movie Monsters - Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Boris Karloff as Frankenstein); Athletic Achievement (Olympics summer & winter 1979, winter 1984, Atlanta 1996); and Love stamps. (left: Chris Calle, Moon Landing, ©1992 United States Postal Service, All Rights Reserved)

Other commemorative stamps featured in Pushing the Envelope depict historical events from the First Voyage of Christopher Columbus (1992); the Signing of the Constitution (1987); the California Gold Rush (1999); 1941: A World at War (1991); and the Moon Landing (1989) to The Gulf War (1990).

Famous people from all walks of life have been immortalized in stamps. Included in the exhibition are such notables as Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong, Woody Guthrie, Joe Louis, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Walt Disney, John James Audubon, WEB DuBois, and Arthur Fiedler. (left: Mark Stutzman, Elvis Presley, Design ©1993 United States Postal Service, All Rights Reserved)

Several of the artists featured in Pushing the Envelope who have designed stamps for the Postal Service are illustrators whose work has been featured in previous exhibitions at the Norman Rockwell Museum. Among those artists are Michael Deas (Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Thomas Wolfe), Stevan Dohanos (Doll Carriage, Toy Horse on Wheels), Al Hirschfeld (Stars of the Silent Screen series), Mark Hess (Harriet Tubman, Ulysses S. Grant, Geronimo), C.F. Payne (Ethyl Merman), and Drew Struzan (Celebrate the Century - 1990s).

Pushing the Envelope: The Art of the Postage Stamp was organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in collaboration with the United States Postal Service.

Related articles from this magazine:

Read more in Resource Library Magazine about the Norman Rockwell Museum

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/6/11

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