Art or Advertising?

I’ve been fixated on this little watercolor painting below ever since I spotted it in the archives of Northeast Auctions a few months ago. Described as a “watercolor trophy with flags and banner with landscapes”, it was painted by C.C. Redmond of Salem in December of 1880. For me, this little image begs the perennial question:  is it art or advertising?

Trade Sign C.C. Remond 1880

I find this question difficult to answer when it concerns bespoke items, produced not for a mass market but for a single customer or client, and the amazing prices that nineteenth-century trade signs fetch at auctions seems to confirm their artistic status. I wish I had found this watercolor “sign” (?) in an auction listing rather than an archive, because I would have snapped it up:  I love the combination of  lettering and landscapes, and the patriotic symbolism and Salem connection make it even more appealing. Searching around for more information about Redmond, I became even more confused about the art vs. advertising question, as he seems to have presented himself as both artist and “advertiser”, whether out of voluntary inclination or economic necessity I do not know. Charles C. Redmond’s life was short (1850-1889) and busy: he was born in northern Maine, enlisted in the Civil War at age 15 and saw action, and ended up in Salem after the war. He hung his own sign in front of his Essex Street shop in the later 1870s, and the Salem Directory for 1886 includes the following advertisement:  Charles C. Redmond, Sign and Ornamental Painter. Particular attention given to all kinds of Portrait and Landscape Painting. Scroll work on wagons, coaches, etc…243 1/2 Essex Street Salem. Redmond was active in the Salem G.A.R. post, and when Lieutenant-General Philip H. Sheridan visited Salem in 1888, his portrait was painted by Redmond, who was described in a souvenir pamphlet from the following year as “a local artist now deceased, who was possessed of rare genius in line of work”. According to the Smithsonian’s Catalog of American Portraits, Redmond painted at least two other portraits before he died, of Salem photographer-entrepreneur Frank Cousins and President Ulysses S. Grant (whose birthday is today!). Both portraits are in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum here in Salem, but I don’t think they’ve been on view for quite some time.

I would love to see these Redmond portraits (especially the Cousins one; I know what Grant looked like), but I would really love to see more Redmond signs. I searched and searched through all my sources, but no luck. I did find some contemporary wooden signs made in Salem by Redmond’s competitors, but I imagine his to be more “artistic”–whatever that means! (Perhaps these beautiful “spectacles” with some fancy scrollwork naming their maker).

Trade Sign Salem 1880s Pollack Antiques

Trade Sign Spectacles Aldrich

Shoemaker’s trade sign made in Salem c. 1880 and signed “Manderbach”, Pollack Antiques; Spectacle sign by E.G. Washburn, New York City, c. 1875-1900, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.

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