CHROMOLITHOGRAPHY WAS THE first process of graphic reproduction able to print large runs of colored images swiftly and inexpensively. Although other methods of producing colored images, such as the hand-colored lithographs of Currier and Ives, also brought art to American homes, chromolithography stands out for the enormous volume of material produced, its breadth of distribution, and the wide variety of uses to which the process was put.

From 1840 to 1900, when the popularity of the technique waned, chromolithographic companies used up millions of gallons of brilliantly colored inks to produce original designs and reproductions of paintings and watercolors for sale as prints, Christmas cards, calendars, posters and business advertisements.

The impact of the first widespread color printing process on 19th-century life can hardly be overstated, and yet, because it was a commercial process, it has received little serious attention from art historians. Peter Marzio, director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and former curator of prints at the National Museum of History and Technology, has attempted to remedy that neglect. The Democratic Art is a thorough and scholarly, yet also wide-ranging, survey of the origins, social function and major practitioners of chromolithography. Its main focus is on the "chromo" as a medium for the reproduction of fine art.

Lithography is a printing process based on the fact that oil and water do not mix. An image is drawn on a block of special limestone with an oily crayon or ink. After the application of a solution of gum arabic and dilute acid, which chemically fixes the design, the limestone is soaked with water, causing the nonimage areas to become ink-repellent. When printing ink is subsequently rolled over the surface, it adheres only to the design areas. Next a sheet of paper is laid on top and the entire assembly run through the press, transferring the image from the stone to the paper. A chromolithographic image gradually emerges out of the layers built up by consecutive printings of three to 25 or more stones, each bearing a different color. Overlapping areas of translucent ink allow subtle modeling and extend the range of hues even further. Not surprisingly, highly talented artists were needed to separate the intended design into its various colored components and to draw the partial images on the stones. But the lithographers were so successful that the most elaborate chromos (sometimes called oleographs), when embossed with cloth texture, varnished and glued to artists' canvas, were difficult to distinguish from paintings.

Chromolithography made faithful reproductions of works of art available to the American people at low cost, and the appetite for them was voracious. During its heyday, from the 1860s to the 1890s, the chromo hung in almost every American home. "This modest color print," writes Marzio, "represented a means of bridging the gulf between artists and intellectuals and the common people. It symbolized the American pursuit of democracy -- the demonstration of culture as well as of government." Popular subjects included landscapes, still lifes, portraits and genre scenes, executed in a style that combined fascination with detail and romantic idealization. If prints such as L. Prang and Company's famous "Barefoot Boy" (after a painting by Eastman Johnson) seem overly sentimental now, the 19th-century middle class valued their positive moral tone and their ability to educate, refine and soften the harsh edges of American life.

At the end of the century, chromos were cast aside, in part by changing public taste. The giant of the industry, Louis Prang, retired in 1897 and his business merged with the Taber Art Company. But before closing, makers such as Bufford in boston, Strohbridge in Cincinnati, P.S. Duval in Philadelphia, and Sarony and Major in New York produced hundreds of images that still retain their appeal.

The Democratic Art, with its beautiful design and printing, brings some of the best of these chromos to the attention of a new audience. To scholars and serious collectors, however, the chief strength of this book lies in Marzio's detailed research into the business and stylistic history of the founders, artists and companies of the chromolithographic era.