Have you ever heard of chromolithography? I definitely hadn’t, until I found out that I would be the educator on the team for the DAM’s new exhibition, Thomas Moran’s Yellowstone: A Project for the Nation. Lithography was familiar enough to me, and I’d used MOMA’s “What is a Print?” website to quickly illustrate it in my college classrooms numerous times. But add “chromo” to the beginning of that word, and I’d entered new territory. I’d known that lithographs were often colored by hand in the 1800s, but chromolithography actually involved using the same printmaking method to add layer upon layer of successive colors. The end result is a stunning picture that looks more like a painting than a print.
What’s so amazing about the chromolithographs on display in this exhibition is just how many colors were used to create the final images. Up to 56 lithographic stones were used to apply each…individual…layer…of color. It may not sound that impressive to the ear, but to the eye, the result is a jewel box of color. The subtle gradations in tone, evocation of light and shadow, and masterfully blended hues are magical. But it wasn’t magic. It was the result of a careful, exacting process in which the lithographer had to strategize how the colors would relate to one another, in what order they should be printed on the paper, and what the final product would ultimately look like. He basically worked backwards from the final image to the first layer he needed to print.
The process of chromolithography was also a collaborative one. Thomas Moran visited Yellowstone and other parts of the Rocky Mountains in the early 1870s and brought back a substantial stash of pencil drawings and watercolor sketches that he made onsite. He used these studies, along with photographs of the region by his friend William Henry Jackson, to create larger oil paintings. And he sent the watercolors to a lithography firm, Louis Prang and Co., where lithographers transferred them into prints using the complex process of chromolithography. You’ll be able to see all of these materials, side-by-side, in the exhibition.
Moran’s chromolithographs of Yellowstone were America’s first glimpse of the region “in color” during an era that predated color photography. Hard to imagine in our age of digital cameras, Instagram, and social media!
Image credit (top): Thomas Moran (American 1837-1926), Hot Springs of Gardiner’s River from The Yellowstone National Park, and the Mountain Regions of Portions of Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and Utah, 1876, chromolithograph on paper, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, Gift of Gail and Michael Yanney and Lisa and Bill Roskens, 2001.40.1.