Sheldon Museum of Art


Date of this Version



Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, University of Nebraska - Lincoln, 1994


All images are copyright by the original artists. Publication copyright 1994 The Regents of the University of Nebraska


Art is often defined as the mirror of society. Chromolithography fulfills that defmition because it was invented in response to the changing demographics of post -Civil War America. During the period 1860-1900 a variety of social changes transformed America from a small agrarian society to a giant industrial nation poised on the brink of joining the modem international world. Many aspects of American life were imbued with an egalitarian spirit. The new democracy was especially evident in the reformed educational system. For the first time in U.S. history, public schools were mandated for all U.S. children, and land-grant universities (including the University of Nebraska), were established. This broad dissemination of knowledge formerly reserved for the privileged class was now made available to the masses through the increased publication of newspapers, books and posters, and chromolithographs.

The chromolithograph is a printed-color lithograph in which the image is composed of at least three colors, and often more than a dozen, each applied to the print from a separate stone. Unlike tinted lithographs, with their second and third colors casting hues across the print, chromolithography is technically very complex, because it requires perfect registration and a sophisticated understanding of color. Though chromolithography was invented in Germany in 1796, the proliferation of this printed medium in the U.S. occurred during the last decades of the nineteenth century, when reproductions of paintings satisfied the public's new appetite for culture. Thus chromolithography represents a bridge between artists, intellectuals and the common people. It symbolized the American pursuit of democracy -- the democratization of culture as well as of government. With this rush for culture came the demand for art, and the color lithograph and chromolithograph were major elements in the movement to make the aesthetic available to everyone. Fine art reproductions could now hang in every home, to the dismay of elite social observers who were convinced that culture -- packaged and ready for purchase -- was destined to lead to mental and moral chaos, and the birth of a "smug society of ignoramuses." The escalating demand for original fine art and the resulting development of museums and art galleries can be traced in part to the wide availability of chromo lithographs by the turn of the century. Though commercial lithography is today distinguished from fme art lithographs, in the mid-nineteenth-century printing world, the two could not be completely separated. By the turn of the century, the demand for art reproductions waned and the chromolithographic process was applied to commerce. The distinction between fine and commercial art became more explicit, relegating chromolithography to the level of greeting cards and bookmarks. Long before Andy Warhol and Pop Art. chromolithography fused advertising with art reproduction, creating a new hybrid that eventually became the advertising art so fundamental to the twentieth-century mindset.