Prang of Boston

Last month, the Peabody Essex Museum here in Salem opened a year-long exhibition of seldom-seen treasures from its Phillips Library entitled Unbound, Treasures from the Phillips Library at PEM.  Even though the exhibit includes a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible and original transcripts from the Salem Witch Trials (which, pardon my rant, are public records and should be more generally accessible), the most compelling visual images in the exhibition are the progressive proofs for a lithographic portrait of Ludwig von Beethoven produced by Louis Prang  & Company of Boston in 1870.  The collective image is very modern in its repetition and perspective, and also illustrates the intensity of the chromolithographic process.

Progressive Proofs from the Phillips Library, PEM, and the finished portrait from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Prang & Company was the color printer for most of the second half of the nineteenth century.  Louis Prang learned the art of color lithography in Germany and perfected it in Boston, where he produced reproductions of great works in the spirit of “the democracy of art”.  He was a also a practical printer who produced thousands of cards, calendars, and advertisements for his always expanding market. Prang’s “views”, whether artistic, historical, or scenic, seem to have a strong American  theme; he had fled Europe right after the tumultuous revolutions of 1848 and clearly valued American democracy as well as cultural democracy.  Here are some of my favorite Prang prints from the Library of Congress and New York Public Library; given the business locale, the Boston Public Library also has a large collection of Prang prints.

A very diverse assortment from the Library of Congress:  the popular bird’s eye view of Boston (1877), a kitchen view  from Prang’s Aids for Object Teaching (1874), a baseball game(1887), and an undated still-life.

I find Prang’s advertising posters even more appealing than the products they are peddling, especially as we get closer to the turn of the century and art nouveau imagery.  Here are a few advertisements from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery, both from the 1890s.

Prang is also an important figure in the history of ephemera, quite apart from chromolithography, because of his pioneering role in the emerging greeting card industry.  I’ve seen him referred to as the “father” of the Christmas card (and the Valentine’s Day card, and the Easter card, etc…) more than once.  I’ll post some Prang cards a bit later in the season, but for now, just a preview.

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