Organized chronologically, the exhibition not only highlights some four hundred years of joyous occasions, but also demonstrates the wide variety of methods that artists have employed to capture the appearance of fireworks in action. From monochromatic woodcuts to the elaborately colored prints of Currier and Ives, artists over the centuries have been amazingly successful at depicting the fleeting but awesome effects of fireworks. Many of the prints in the exhibition were published in official accounts known as festival or fête books, a practice that flourished until the books themselves rivaled the festivities they documented in elaboration and scale, reaffirming the wealth and power of the commissioning entity.
While most fireworks today are viewed against a night sky and admired for their brilliant colors, dramatic effects, and technical innovation, early displays were more like stage presentations, often depicting an allegorical narrative or symbolic tableau. When two Holy Roman Emperors were welcomed into cities of the realm—Charles V into Munich in 1530 and Maximilian II into Nuremberg in 1570—both cities staged displays representing military victories over the Ottoman Turks. Among the earliest works in the exhibition is the five-block woodcut commemorating the entry of Charles V, which depicts cannons firing on a stage set of Turkish-looking buildings, to set them ablaze.
Such displays quickly became more sophisticated, as is illustrated in a print from a century later, when Louis XIV made manifest the power and magnificence of a strong, centralized monarchy with lavish entertainments at Versailles. The fête of 1664 was titled "The Pleasures of the Enchanted Isle," with the palace, set amid lush gardens, making a seemingly magical enclave for the king and his court. In 1814, London staged an extravaganza in the city's three major parks to celebrate—prematurely, as it turned out—the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The ambition and complexity of this festival were a measure of the fear engendered by the "tyrant of France."
The focus of the prints also evolved over the centuries. In early prints fireworks were always depicted at their most dramatic point—even if the actual displays misfired or failed to ignite altogether, as sometimes happened—and it was taken for granted that the audiences would admire them. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, both Honoré Daumier and Winslow Homer made images in which the spectators are the principal subject. By the beginning of the twentieth century the function of documentary prints had largely been overtaken by photography, which could increasingly capture the dazzling split-second effects of fireworks in ever shorter exposures.