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    Chromolithography: Bringing Color to the Masses


    Posted: 4.3.2006

    close-up of chromolithography print

    Chromolithography revolutionized popular art in America by making affordable, colorful images available to the middle classes.

    print of woman lying down

    This print originally sold for $10 in the 1880s. According to Christopher it is now worth about $1,000.

    picture with frame

    Chromolithographs simulate the textures and richness of oil painting so well, they can often fool the untrained eye.

    print by Albert Bierstadt

    This print, Sunset: California Scenery, by Albert Bierstadt, is worth about $4,500 today.

    If you're interested in collecting antique oil paintings, but you don't have much money to invest, Christopher Lane, of The Philadelphia Print Shop, might have an attractive alternative: chromolithographs.

    Learn about the printmaking process that brought color to the masses

    "The [chromolithograph] prints are wonderful in terms of their decorative appeal and quality," Chris says, "and they are under-appreciated today." They are also fairly easy to find, and come in a variety of sizes and prices.

    In the late 19th century, many chromolithographs were sold for under $10 and were hailed as "the democracy of art" for middle-class families. "The blues, the browns, the reds, they all were layered up, and this gave them a texture and richness and feel of an oil painting," Chris says. Heavy oil-based inks were used to create the effect, and they have prevented these lithographs from fading over time. Today, the casual eye is still fooled.

    "A lot of people come in to our booth at antiques shows or into our shop and they think they're looking at original oil paintings," Chris says. "The quality is that good."

    Louis Prang
    The chromolithographs that most often fool people were published by Louis Prang, a Bostonian who became the most successful American publisher of chromolithograph prints after the Civil War. He produced fine-art subjects, such as still lifes, landscapes, and classical subjects, not unlike you'd find in the fine-art world at the time. He called chromolithography "printing in colors from drawings on stone." Prang would sometimes commission artists, but would also issue chromolithographs of famous paintings, featuring many of them in his magazine, Prang's Chromo: A Journal of Popular Art. The press and art lovers alike praised the new art form, especially Prang's high-quality prints. For one of his prints, called Prang's Prized Babies, 19 different stones were used to press separate colors. This and other chromolithographs were often sold door-to-door.

    "Prang was the popularizer," Chris says. "He showed people you could do this, and they followed on his coat tails."

    What to Look For
    "Like everything else, you want to see prints in good shape," Chris says. He also recommends you find chromolithographs that still have the period frames they were sold with and the publisher's label pasted on the back.

    The more common chromolithographs, which sell for a few hundred dollars, tend to be copies of popular fine-art paintings. Chris points out that you also can find chromolithographs by European artists at less expensive prices than American ones—as is the case with most art. You can also find less expensive ones by publishers who weren't quite as talented as Prang. "They were made with fewer stones," Chris says, "but they have the charm of a folk art."

    More valuable are the chromolithographs in which Prang and other publishers commissioned well-known American artists, such as A.F. Tait, Thomas Moran, and Albert Bierstadt. Original chromolithographs by these artists can sell for thousands of dollars, and the Bierstadt shown here, called Sunset: California Scenery, is worth about $4,500.

    The technique of chromolithography faded towards the end of the 19th century. In a sense, the process was done in by its own success. Poorer-quality chromolithographs cheapened the reputation of the entire field, as did cheaper machine prints. "People forgot about them," Chris says. "Today, people don't know about them, but they're great prints that tell us about our culture in the late 19th century."

    For more on chromolithography, Chris Lane recommends:
    The Democratic Art: An Exhibition on the History of Chromolithography in America, by Peter C. Marzio, 1979.
    Chromolithography: The Art of Color, an essay on the Web site of the Philadelphia Print Shop

    More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Tips from the Prints & Posters category:
    Finding a One-of-a-Kind Map (Tucson, 2007)
    WPA: Putting Art to Work (Houston, 2006)
    Jules Chéret: Elevating Ads to an Art Form (St. Paul, 2005)
    Who Were the Prairie Print Makers? (Portland, 2005)
    Verifying Antique Maps
    Lithography 101
    World War One Posters: Easy Targets

    Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.