Chromolithography is a method for making multi-colour prints. This type of colour printing stemmed from the process of lithography, and it includes all types of lithography that are printed in colour. When chromolithography is used to reproduce photographs, the term photochrome is frequently used. Lithographers sought to find a way to print on flat surfaces with the use of chemicals instead of relief or intaglio printing.
Chromolithography became the most successful of several methods of colour printing developed by the 19th century; other methods were developed by printers such as Jacob Christoph Le Blon, George Baxter and Edmund Evans, and mostly relied on using several woodblocks with the colours. Hand-colouring also remained important; elements of the official British Ordnance Survey maps were coloured by hand by boys until 1875. The initial technique involved the use of multiple lithographic stones, one for each colour, and was still extremely expensive when done for the best quality results. Depending on the number of colours present, a chromolithograph could take months to produce, by very skilled workers. However much cheaper prints could be produced by simplifying both the number of colours used, and the refinement of the detail in the image. Cheaper images, like advertisements, relied heavily on an initial black print (not always a lithograph), on which colours were then overprinted. To make an expensive reproduction print as what was once referred to as a “’chromo’”, a lithographer, with a finished painting in front of him, gradually created and corrected the many stones using proofs to look as much as possible like the painting in front of him, sometimes using dozens of layers.
The process of chromolithography is chemical, because an image is applied to a stone or zinc plate with a grease-based crayon. (Limestone and zinc are two commonly used materials in the production of chromolithographs.) After the image is drawn onto stone, the stone is gummed with gum arabic solution and weak nitric acid, and then inked with oil-based paints and passed through a printing press along with a sheet of paper to transfer the image to the paper. Colours may be added to the print by drawing the area to receive the colour on a different stone, and printing the new colour onto the paper. Each colour in the image must be separately drawn onto a new stone or plate and applied to the paper one at a time. It was not unusual for twenty to twenty-five stones to be used on a single image. Each sheet of paper will therefore pass through the printing press as many times as there are colours in the final print. In order that each colour is placed in the right position in each print, each stone or plate must be precisely ‘registered,’ or lined up, on the paper using a system of register marks.
Uncle Sam Supplying the World with Berry Brothers Hard Oil Finish, c. 1880. This cheaply produced chromolithographic advertisement employs a technique called stippling, with heavy reliance on the initial black line print.
Alois Senefelder, the inventor of lithography, introduced the subject of colored lithography in his 1818 Vollstaendiges Lehrbuch der Steindruckerey (A Complete Course of Lithography), where he told of his plans to print using colour and explained the colours he wished to be able to print someday. Although Senefelder recorded plans for chromolithography, printers in other countries, such as France and England, were also trying to find a new way to print in colour. Godefroy Engelmann of Mulhouse in France was awarded a patent on chromolithography in July 1837, but there are disputes over whether chromolithography was already in use before this date, as some sources say, pointing to areas of printing such as the production of playing cards.
The first American chromolithograph—a portrait of Reverend F. W. P. Greenwood—was created by William Sharp in 1840. Many of the chromolithographs were created and purchased in urban areas. The paintings were initially used as decoration in American parlours as well as for decoration within middle-class homes. They were prominent after the Civil War because of their low production costs and ability to be mass-produced, and because the methods allowed pictures to look more like hand-painted oil paintings. Production costs were only low if the chromolithographs were cheaply produced, but top-quality chromos were costly to produce because of the necessary months of work and the thousands of dollars worth of equipment that had to be used. Although chromos could be mass-produced, it took about three months to draw colours onto the stones and another five months to print a thousand copies. Chromolithographs became so popular in American culture that the era has been labeled as “chromo civilization”. Over time, during the Victorian era, chromolithographs populated children's and fine arts publications, as well as advertising art, in trade cards, labels, and posters. They were also once used for advertisements, popular prints, and medical or scientific books.
Opposition to chromolithography
Even though chromolithographs served many uses within society at the time, many were opposed to the idea of them because of their lack of authenticity. The new forms of art were sometimes tagged as "bad art" because of their deceptive qualities. Some also felt that it could not serve as a form of art at all since it was too mechanical, and that the true spirit of a painter could never be captured in a printed version of a work. Over time, chromos were made so cheaply that they could no longer be confused with original paintings. Since production costs were low, the fabrication of chromolithographs became more a business than the creation of art.
A famous lithographer and publisher who strongly supported the production of chromolithographs was Louis Prang. Prang was a German-born entrepreneur who printed the first American Christmas card. He felt that chromolithographs could look just as good as, if not better than, real paintings, and he published well-known chromolithographs based on popular paintings, including one by Eastman Johnson entitled The Barefoot Boy. The reason Prang decided to take on the challenge of producing chromolithographs, despite criticisms, was because he felt quality art should not be limited to the elite. Prang and others who continued to produce chromolithographs were sometimes looked down upon because of the fear that chromolithographs could undermine human abilities. With the Industrial Revolution already under way, this fear was not something new to Americans at the time. Many artists themselves anticipated the lack of desire for original artwork since many became accustomed to chromolithographs. As a way to make more sales, some artists had a few paintings made into chromolithographs so that people in society would at least be familiar with the painter. Once people in society were familiar with the artist, they were more likely to want to pay for an original work.
German chromolithographers, largely based in Bavaria, came to dominate the trade with their low-cost high-volume productions. Of these printers, Lothar Meggendorfer garnered international fame for his children's educational books and games. Owing to political unrest in mid-19th-century Germany, many Bavarian printers emigrated to the United Kingdom and the United States, and Germany's monopoly on chromolithographic printing dissipated.
A. Hoen & Co., led by German immigrant August Hoen, were a prominent lithography house now known primarily for its stunning E.T. Paull sheet music covers. They also made advertisements, maps, and cigar box art. Hoen and his brothers Henry and Ernest took over the E. Weber Company in the mid-1850s upon Edward Weber's death. August Hoen's son Alfred ran the firm from 1886 throughout the early 20th century.
Rufus Bliss founded R. Bliss Mfg. Co., which was located in Pawtucket, Rhode Island from 1832 to 1914. The Bliss company is best known for their highly sought after paper litho on wood dollhouses. They also made many other lithoed toys, including boats, trains, and building blocks.
M. & N. Hanhart
Established in Mulhouse in 1830 by Michael Hanhart who initially worked with Godefroy Engelmann in London. The firm, established at Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, was named after his two sons Michael and Nicholas. Artists like Joseph Wolf, Joseph Smit, J G Keulemans and others worked for him to produce natural history illustrations that were used in the Ibis (1859-1874), Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1848-1900) and a range of books. The company wound up in 1902 after the death of Nicholas Hanhart and the rise of new printing techniques.
Chromolithographs are mainly used today as fine art instead of advertisements, and they are hard to find because of poor preservation and cheaper form of printing replaced it. Many chromolithographs have deteriorated because of the acidic frames surrounding them. As stated earlier, production costs of chromolithographs were low, but efforts were still being made to find a cheaper way to mass-produce colored prints. Although purchasing a chromolithograph may have been cheaper than purchasing a painting, it was still expensive in comparison to other colour printing methods which were later developed. Offset printing replaced chromolithography in the late 1930s.
To find or purchase a lithograph, some suggest searching for examples with the original frame as well as the publisher's stamp. Both European and American chromolithographs can still be found, and can range in cost from hundreds to thousands of dollars. The least expensive chromos tend to be European or produced by publishers who are less well-known compared to Prang.
Lithography is a form of planographic printing, meaning that the surface is flat, in contrast to relief printing (using a raised surface) or intaglio printing (using an incised surface). The earliest lithographic prints were produced using Bavarian limestones from the Solenhofen quarry, where Senefelder himself had acquired his surface material. In order to create coloured lithographic prints, printers made a series of impressions from different stones, each impression in register. The earliest chromolithographs relied on distinctive deposits of colour ("side-by-side" printing). Rapidly, printers enhanced their palettes by overprinting colours. Stippling, intermingling dots of colour much as the pointillist painters did, supplied a third mode of early chromolithographic printing that relied on optical colour mixing. The use of lightweight zinc sheets—a process that came to be called zincography —eventually replaced the heavier and more expensive limestones. Offset printing superseded chromolithography around the 1930s, yet stone and metal plate lithography continue to be used by artists in the production of fine arts posters and limited edition prints.