The Graduate Center - City University of New York

"Art Critics Criticized," Prang's Chromo (1868)

Louis Prang, a Boston-based printer, began to mass produce color prints, which he called 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. Prang's chromolithographs catered to an increasingly large market for prints across the countr, his advertisements offering “the democracy of art.” Some leading cultural critics, however, objected to the popular dissemination of art, foreseeing a "chromocivilization" where Americans couldn't tell original works from copies, and possessed art without the taste or knowledge to truly appreciate its virtues. Prang responded to critics' objections in his company’s journal, Prang’s Chromos: A Journal of Popular Art, acknowledging that chromolithographs were not original art, but a handicraft that allowed greater access to “artistic copies of genuine works of art.”

Creator: Louis Prang

Date: September 1868

Publisher: Prang's Chromo 1 (Boston: L. Prang and Company)

Source: American Social History Project

Chromo-lithography is not the art of producing original paintings, but simply the art of reproducing them in absolute or near perfect fac-simile. In a high sense, nothing is art which is not creative and original. From that point of view, chromo-lithography is simply a handicraft. But, from that point of view also, every painter, however eminent, ceases to be an artist, and becomes a mere workman (more or less skillful) the very moment that he begins to copy one of his own pieces, or the pictures of any one else. If there is no merit in copying a work of art with entire accuracy, both as to the form and sentiment, then chromo-lithography is a worthless invention; but if there is merit, artistic merit,--in reproducing a work of are with fidelity, in drawing, color, or spirit,--there is at least as much credit due to the chromo-lithographer as to a copyist with brush or palette. As perfect a knowledge of the principles of drawing and coloring—as great a skill in manipulation—is required to produce a first-classchromo, as to copy a painting in the ordinary way. The slightest lack of skill or knowledge on the part of any one, artist or pressman, at any stage of the complex process, is instantly detected by the practiced eye in the finished performance.

No “tricks” whatever are used in legitimate chromo-lithography to produce the legitimate effects of painting. “Loaded touches” produce effects in a painting which nearly all “smooth pictures” lack: it is absolutely necessary to reproduce these touches in a chromo in order to give the effect of the original. If your critic will examine a first-class chromo before and after what he calls the “embossing” process, he will see at once that it is one of the most important elements in an effective reproduction. There is no “deception” intended. All our chromos—all our best productions—have the name of our firm on the picture, with the name of the original artist, and the name also of the artist of our establishment who copied it and superintended its publication; and there are only a very few exceptions to this rule in cases where our firm was accidentally omitted. Every chromo and every half-chromo issued by our house has also a conspicuous label on the back, which makes any attempt at deception impossible. Instead of attempting to palm off our chromos for paintings,--as seems implied in the article under notice,--we have published very extensively in our own “Art Journal,” and in hundreds of leading papers, a clear explanation of “How Chromos are made.” Neither in fact nor fancy, therefore, is it true that we “remain nameless,” in “sublime negation,” in order that we may be “true to art and his pocket.” On the contrary, by every worthy and legitimate method, I take especial pains to be known only as a reproducer of works of art, and to let it be known that chromo-lithography aims, and aims only, to enable the people to possess worthy and artistic copies of genuine works of art. I claim, that what journalism is to literature, chromo-lithography is to art. And as Richter says, “Why should one quarrel with the high because it is not the highest?”