Color Lithography Revolution

Prang’s chromos could be found in homes everywhere. He created a huge market for color reprints of famous paintings. He even imitated the subtle textural lines of the linen canvas and added a layer of shellac to imitate the sheen of oil paint.

Albert Bierstadt painting of sunset in California 1864Albert Bierstadt painting of sunset in California 1864

I will even venture to say that Louis Prang had the vision of Steve Jobs crossed with Andy Warhol, establishing the first Kinko’s and rolled into one. prang-chimpanzee-1885 img class=”alignright size-medium wp-image-4317″ alt=”prang-battle-of-shilo” src=”×219.jpeg” width=”300″ height=”219″/>

For the first time in history, copies of classic artworks were available to the middle-class and upper-working class. This provoked a lot of controversy. His pictures were criticized for being gaudy, with inauthentic colors. prang-egypt-1879 Those who could afford the real thing weren’t so thrilled cheap copies could be had, no matter what the quality. prang-dancing-daisies

But Prang took pride (on his way to the bank) in the attention to detail that went into his chromolithographs, and defended his imitations for enriching the lives of those who could never afford the real thing. Prang's-fine-art-books At least now, he argued, everyone could be exposed to the work of the masters, if only as an introduction, and experience artwork in their daily lives. prang-child-puppy

The scorn for these new color prints was much like the disdain that would soon greet new products made of celluloid. The invention of celluloid had made it possible to mass produce cheap imitations of products previously made with expensive materials such as ivory.

Printers like Prang were accused of homogenizing taste, destroying individuality, and tempting people to succumb to gluttonous acquiring of cheap things. This seems to be a recurring theme in our culture: if it has the power to please the majority, there must be something wrong.

In the 1970s, when artists began processing their own color photography, a similar backlash occurred. Color was considered tacky; only black and white photographs qualified as “real art.” That prejudice gradually wore away. Black and white still might be admired for its elegance, but it also can just seem old-fashioned or charmingly vintage.

During the 1930s, chromolithography was overtaken by offset printing, a process that was cheaper and easier but didn’t typically produce the same intense colors.

Now that everything is digital, we can capture instant pictures on an iPhone and use an app to alter that photo so it can be black and white, sepia, or tinted with any color effect we fancy. Then we can instantly post it online for all the world to see. The internet makes color more abundant than ever.

Critics still find things to complain about. But those people who disapproved of chromos never could’ve imagined how easy it’s become to make copies of everything. Now art is everywhere, and everyone can be an artist.