Color Lithographs Illustrate 19th Century 'Explosion of Color'
Color Lithographs Illustrate 19th Century 'Explosion of Color'

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Technology can bring lasting change to society, and one change it brought in the 19th century was the widespread use of color in art and commerce. A printing process known as lithography began in Germany and then spread to America, where brightly colored printing transformed popular culture. An exhibition called The Color Explosion at the Huntington Library illustrates the changes.

The 19th century is often recalled as a monochrome world, remembered through stiffly posed, black and white photographs of people dressed in shades of gray. Much of the century, however, was awash in color, especially in America, where brightly colored prints found a place on boxes, cans and cartons, as well as children's games, calendars and posters.

David Mihaly, curator of the Huntington exhibition, says the mass production of color was enabled by a groundbreaking process called lithography. "It had a tremendous visual impact on people who, up to this time, really had not seen much color before. So lithography, one of its major impacts, was to colorize America and bring color to virtually every community and every home, affordable."

Lithographic artists used grease crayons to sketch images on a block of limestone. The printer applied water and ink, and the ink adhered to the greasy image. The stone block was then used to mass-produce printed copies.

Black and white lithography was invented in Germany in the 1790s, and it spread to France and England, then made its way to America with German immigrants. Mihaly says that after a few decades, printers started using colored ink, as the process expanded from city to city in the country's westward expansion.

"As we start to push from the eastern seaboard cities, going a little further inland by way of canals and rivers, we start seeing more lithographic centers. By the 1840s, we get into some color printing that's starting to develop in America. And by the 1870s, this is where you really see the boom in lithography with the introduction of color," he said.

He says the vibrant prints helped spur the development of a consumer culture.

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Colored lithographs adorned boxes of citrus and cigars, sheet music and calendars that advertised insurance companies. A lithographer named Milton Bradley created a colorful children's game in the 1860s called The Checkered Game of Life, and went on to make a fortune as a game producer.

Memorable battles from the Mexican-American War and the American Civil War were rendered in vivid prints, and Mihaly says mass-produced art added color to the homes of average Americans.

"Color lithography became so universal that in the 19th century eventually people woke up seeing color lithographs and went to bed seeing color lithographs. And it's that color that is around us today and we sort of take for granted," he said.

Through the 19th century, the boundaries were blurring between fine art and commercial art, as hungry artists went to work for business clients. The Huntington's director, David Zeidberg, says modern art lovers may value these lithographs more than the artists who created them. He says many worked commercially just to pay their bills. "I think initially, they perhaps looked on this more as a way to make a living, and perhaps a little bit a denigration of their artistic talent, but I think it is a form of art in its own right, and I think it stands with fine arts just fine today," he said.

Color lithography also gave rise to a culture of collecting, and thanks to early collectors, many of these art works retain their brilliant colors.

The 280 objects on display in the exhibit The Color Explosion are drawn from a 135,000 piece collection, which is being donated to the Huntington by high tech entrepreneur Jay Last. The show will be on display through late February.