This essay discusses the life and work of 19th century chromolithographer Louis Prang, hailed as the greatest of American chromolithograph publishers. In it, I shall firstly introduce Louis Prang. Then I shall describe the graphic form which became known as chromolithography, after which I will have a look at Louis Prang’s setting; his competitors and associates. After this I will focus on some examples of his work and the methods he used to produce them. Lastly I will summarize his contribution to the world of art and graphic design in particular.
Louis Prang was born in Germany in Breslau (present day Poland) in 1824. He learnt the fundamentals of printing in his father’s fabric printing shop. In 1850, when Prang was twenty- six years old he immigrated to America and settled in Boston. He formed a chromolithographic firm with Julius Mayer in 1856 in which, initially, Julius Mayer printed the stones produced by Prang. Prang’s colourful work was very popular and the firm grew rapidly. In 1860 Prang bought Mayer’s share in the company and changed its name to L. Prang and Company. Prang’s company became a major lithographic firm and a benchmark of the era.
A Lithograph was produced by firstly drawing the image on a flat stone surface in an oil based medium, the stone is then moistened with water which is repelled by the oil the surface is then inked with an oil based ink which is unable to adhere to the wet surface. A Chromolithograph is a coloured picture produced by making and superimposing multiple lithographic prints, each of which adds a different colour. The process of colour lithography was first experimented with in the early 1800s by Aloys Senefelder the inventor of lithography, while chromolithography’ was patented in 1837 by a French printer Godefroy Engelmann.
When Prang set up shop in Boston there were already several lithographic firms in operation one such firm which provided a source of inspiration as well as competition was Bufford and later his sons also. Bufford often used five or more colours in his work; he laid his colour prints down before printing a final layer of black which assembled his image, for an example of his work see the Swedish song quartet’. Bufford’s firm’s quality steadily declined after 1870, after Bufford’s death, and finally folded in 1890. Bufford’s firm was then only in competition with Prang’s during Prang’s first years of operation. Unlike Bufford, Prang opted not to use a black master plate but to rather build up an image from subtler colours in an effort to print with a closer likeness to the natural colours in the paintings he was reproducing. (See the visual explanation he gives with Prang’s Prize Babies.) Currier and Ives, which operated from 1857-1907 were his biggest competitors and were based in New York City. Currier and Ives mostly reproduced scenes from battle and landscape paintings. They too, followed the style of Bufford and sons including the use of a black final print. Their work was slightly less sensitive than that of Louis Prangs but because they used fewer stones they were able to compete because of their prices.
Prang and his company produced many chromolithographs during his career including scenes from the Civil War, art reproductions, scrap-album art and cards, particularly Christmas cards.
Prang is noted for his firm grasp of colour, he put vivid colour in the lives of every citizen by publishing literally millions of art bits, Bits of art he called scrap, collecting these and arranging them along with other treasures in scrap albums became a major Victorian pastime. Many of the scrap pieces were depictions of wildflowers, children, butterflies, animals and birds, and the scrap albums became the expression of the nostalgic sweetness of the era.
By the late 1860s Prang was producing work that was suitable for framing. Prang reproduced the paintings of many of America’s leading artists in his prints, including those by A.F. Tait, Eastman Johnson, Thomas Moran, F.S. Church, and Albert Bierstadt. Often the artist worked in collaboration with Prang to produce the piece and more often than not both the artist and public would regard the reproduction as a piece of art in its own right. In Prang’s Chromo’, a magazine he launched in the late 1860s, he advertised his prints in this way:
“Prang’s American Chromos. The Democracy of Art’ . . . Our Chromo Prints are absolute FACSIMILES of the originals, in color, drawing, and spirit, and their price is so low that every home may enjoy the luxury of possessing a copy of works of art, which hitherto adorned only the parlors of the rich.”
Besides reproducing fine art, Prang was constantly pushing the edges of format for this new media. In 1873 Prang produced small colour trade cards which he distributed at the Vienna International Exhibition; these were sold in bulk (over twenty thousand) with room for the trader’s information either on the back or in a space provided on the front. It was the suggestion of the wife of his London agent that the ribbon or scroll on the cards be filled in with a Christmas greeting and be sold as a Christmas card . These first Prang Christmas cards were sold in England and proved to be a great success. Two years later, in 1875, Prang started publishing and selling American Christmas cards. They were a great success, so much so that Prang became known as the Father of the Christmas Card’ regardless of the fact that he was not the first person to invent or produce them. His Christmas cards included popular theme icons such as St. Nick, reindeer, children and Christmas trees. His Christmas cards were followed by an entire range of cards for Easter, Valentines Day, New Years and birthday cards. His cards became an aspect of society, young ladies are said to have noted in their diaries how many “Prangs” they had received that year . So successful were his cards that he could not keep up with the demand and was printing approximately five million cards each year. Cards Dominated Prang’s printing presses for most of the 1880s and as his card designs became more and more popular so the competition rose; his rivals began printing similar designs with fewer stones, undercutting the cost.
Prang and company produced many scenes and images from the civil war. In fact they produced an entire series between 1886 and 1888 consisting of Eighteen elaborate chromolithographs of important battles of the war ( see below for an example.) of the eighteen prints six were of eastern battles; six were of western battles; and six were naval images. He tried to create work which would be appropriate for all tastes, and Prang chose to depict heroes who were still living at the time to increase popularity. The images in the Civil War series were issued either together in a portfolio or separately. At first they were issued over time as they were produced, but eventually they were packaged into three groups: East, West and Naval.
Thure de Thulstrup. “Battle of Chattanooga, November 25, 1863.”
Boston: L. Prang, 1887. 15 x 21 7/8. “This print shows the action at Chattanooga. From the top of a hill, General Ulysses S. Grant uses a field glass to follow the Union assault on Missionary Ridge. Grant is joined by Generals Gordon Granger (left) and George H. Thomas, whose chief of staff would later this image as a “beautiful lifelike picture.” Thulstrup’s details are noteworthy, from the orderly that holds the general’s horses in the foreground to the artillery smoke rising from the distant enemy.”
This is a remarkable image from the series of the Civil War issued by Louis Prang between 1886 and 1888. He decided to issue a portfolio of 18 elaborate chromolithographs of important battles of the war. Prang termed his prints “aquarelle facsimile prints” to distinguish them from “mere” chromos. Prang claimed they were made by a “new and secret process”, but basically they were just made without any line work. They were based on watercolours commissioned by Prang and they were intended to be and accurate, because Prang was marketing these prints at veterans and their descendants. Prang got testimonials on their accuracy from prominent veterans and he included detailed text on the battles involved. The prints were quite popular, and helped to bring about a patriotic nostalgia about the war.
Eastman Johnson’s “Barefoot boy”
Eastman Johnson, “The Barefoot Boy” Boston: L. Prang ; Co., 1867. 75 cm x 63.5 cm. Johnson’s “The Barefoot Boy” is one of the most famous of all Prang’s chromolithographic reproductions, advertised by Prang as the personification of the American character, the boy “in homespun clothing, barefooted,” symbolized “that self-reliant aspect which characterizes the rural and backwoods children.” This print was based on a painting by Eastman Johnson depicting John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, “The Barefoot Boy.” The chromo was praised in magazines and books, and Prang claimed that it was “the most popular of all our publications.” It took three months to make the twenty-six stones used to make this print, and five months to print the first run. Prang gave free copies to the writer and painter and then quoted them for advertising. Whittier responded, “It is a charming illustration of my little poem, and in every way satisfactory as a work of art,” and Johnson said, “It strikes me as being one of the best chromolithographs I have ever seen.”
Wild fruit by George C. Lambdin.
Lambdin was an artist from Germantown, PA, who later moved to New York City. This painting shows a shy girl, also barefoot, leaning on a tree and holding a hand-full of grapes. This image, entitled “Wild Fruit,” was published by Prang two years after Johnson’s barefoot boy. The two prints together make a pair that conveys the ideal image of the American youth many held after the Civil War. These prints are also good examples of the quality of Prang’s prints.
The boyhood of Lincoln by Eastman Johnson
The success of Johnson’s “Barefoot boy” spurred Prang to go back to Johnson for another of his excellent images; this image shows young Abraham Lincoln reading by the light of a fire in his log cabin home. This is one of Prang’s larger and most costly images, selling for $12 a copy (in contrast to the Barefoot Boy’s $5). According to Prang’s promotional text, “It teaches that in America there is no social eminence impossible to the lowest youth, who by perseverance, study, and honesty of life and purpose, shall seek to reach the ranks of the rulers of the people.” This print still evokes that American ideal, which in addition to the quality and attractiveness of this superb chromolithograph makes this a most desirable American print.
Louis Prang “Prize Babies”1888
From Prang’s book: Prang’s Prize Babies: How This Picture Is Made
Boston: L. Prang & Co., 1888
Prang developed this image in his book “Prang’s Prize Babies: How This Picture is Made” to showcase his developments and refinement of chromolithography. In it he shows each progressive print from the first layer of printing to the last and nineteenth of the popular print, “Prang’s Prize Babies” Prang’s Prize Babies was a book sold door-to-door by traveling salesmen and saleswomen. The thirty-eight progressive proof prints (one of which is shown here) were printed in a limited edition given to those who sold the most prints, as an encouragement for their successful sales record.
J.F. Herring. “Just Caught.”
Boston: L. Prang, ca.1860- 1880’s. 19.7 cm x 32.5cm.An British Sporting print which was measured against the American sporting images by Tait, Prang issued British sporting prints, for these were as popular in the nineteenth century America, particularly amoungst the naturalized citizens, as they are today. This bright image based on one of the greatest of the British artists of this genre, J.F. Herring.
“Snowy Owl” plate and cover page from Louis Prang’s Natural History Series vol.
11 cm x 7 cm. This Chromolithograph of an illustrated Snowy Owl was published in Louis Prangs Natural History Series in 1872.The inscription on the page border reads: O. Birds of prey / F. Owls / 22 in. 1. Wings 4 ft. / N. America ; N. Eu.”
Louis Prang was America’s first real art educator as he believed that all children should study art in the same way that they study language, for instance. In his day, art education was only for amateur artists and young ladies in finishing school. Louis Prang believed that artistic experience and observation quickens the imagination and independence of expression. When he wanted to teach his daughter art, Louis Prang realized the serious lack of art educational material and developed instructional guides as well as a complete educational curriculum then trained the country’s first art instructors. He printed reproductions of famous art works and published the first American art textbooks: “Art in the School Room” and “Art Education in High Schools.” In one such book from 1880, he says “drawing is the language of form: Art Education is the development of this language, and consists of the appreciation of it in industry and general culture.”
Louis Prang contributed an amazing amount to the area of American art by being entrepreneurial, committed and innovative. He established a successful and competitive printing firm, refined the process of chromolithography to reproduce subtle hues as those found in oil paintings. His reproductions made fine art more accessible to regular people. He produced scenes from the Civil War of America Which help future generations to understand the period. He initiated the tradition of buying and giving Christmas Cards by producing beautiful cards. Finally, Throughout his Career he was constantly looking for aspects of the art field in which he could make a contribution, he did this by publishing magazines and book amoung other things. This attitude also caused him to become the first American art educator, which led him to publish further works on art education.
The Philadelphia Print Shop, Ltd. www.philaprintshop.com Last updated February 3, 2005
Penne L. Restad, Christmas In America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), page 118.
The Dixon Ticonderoga Companies ( the Continued Prang Co.) www.dixonusa.com
Pictur from The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA lcweb2.loc.gov
Print Collection of Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library
Websites and reading material:
Phillip B Meggs; A History of Graphic Design
University of Delaware: www.lib.udel.edu
The Art of the Print: www.theartoftheprint.com
Antiques and Collectibles, Father of the American Christmas card: www.suite101.com/article.cfm
Livaudais Christmas Card Collection: www.livaudaisnet.com
Absolute arts: www.absolutearts.com/arthistory
M.A. Stankiewics; Roots of Art Education