The Graduate Center - City University of New York

Frederick Douglass, Letter to Louis Prang, Prang’s Chromos: A Journal of Popular Art (1870)

Louis Prang, a Boston-based printer, began to mass produce color prints (chromolithographs) of paintings by famous artists in 1866. L. Prang and Company also printed greeting cards, trade cards, toy books and games, and fine art books. His chromolithographs created a large market for prints across the country with advertisements offering “the democracy of art.” In 1870, the company issued a chromolithograph of Theodore Kaufmann’s oil portrait of Mississippi Senator Hiram R. Revels, the first African-American U.S. Senator. The prominent aboltionist, Frederick Douglass, was sent a copy of the print by a friend and asked to comment on it. His response, in the form of a letter to the L. Prang Company was printed in the company’s magazine, Prang’s Chromos: A Journal of Popular Art in September 1870.

Creator: Frederick Douglass

Date: June 14, 1870

Source: Katherine Morrison McClinton, The Chromolithographs of Louis Prang (1973)

Rochester, June 14, 1870

 

My Dear Sir: —

I shall find it no hardship to say a good word for the portrait of Senator Revels, which has just been published by Messrs. Prang & Co., in Boston, for it is a remarkably good one. Since my letter to you in April, have several times seen Mr. Revels, and I can therefore speak of his picture from personal knowledge. It strikes me as a faithful representation of the man. Upon public grounds, I thank the publishing house of Prang & Co., for giving the country this admirable picture of our first colored American Senator. Whatever may be the prejudices of those who may look upon it, they will be compelled to admit that the Mississippi Senator is a man, and one who will easily pass for a man among men. We colored men so often see ourselves described and painted as monkeys, that we think it a great piece of good fortune to find an exception to this general rule.

            Heretofore, colored Americans have thought little of adorning their parlors with pictures. They have had to do with the stern, and I must say, the ugly realities of life. Pictures come not with slavery and oppression and destitution, but with liberty, fair play, leisure, and refinement. These conditions are now possible to colored American citizens, and I think the walls of their houses will soon begin to bear evidences of their altered relations to the people about them. This portrait, representing truly, as it does, the face and form of our first colored U.S. Senator, is a historical picture. It marks, with almost startling emphasis, the point dividing our new from our old condition. Every colored householder in the land should have one of these portraits in his parlor, and should explain it to his children, as the dividing line between the darkness and despair that overhung our past, and the light and hope that now beam upon our future as a people.

 

Yours respectfully,
Frederick Douglass