Out In the Open: Louis Prang’s Oriental Ceramic Art

L. Prang & Co., “Plate XVI. Transmutation Splash Vase.”
L. Prang & Co., “Plate XVI. Transmutation Splash Vase.”

In December 2014, AAS member Joanne S. Gill gave the Society a copy of Louis Prang’s Oriental Ceramic Art, published in 1897. The work, in four volumes, describes the collection of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean ceramics collected by William T. Walters of Baltimore, now housed along with some of the original Prang watercolors in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Though many institutions have copies of Oriental Ceramic Art, as far as we have been able to tell, our new resource in the Louis Prang online exhibition shows together, for the first time online, all 116 color plates included in the set.

L. Prang & Co., “Plate XXXI. Green and Yellow Vase.”
L. Prang & Co., “Plate XXXI. Green and Yellow Vase.”

Oriental Ceramic Art came about as Baltimore businessman William T. Walters searched for an art house to recreate his collection of Asian ceramics in printed form. After years of disappointment in the European printers, Walters searched back in the United States for a printer. In 1889 he commissioned Louis Prang and Company to reproduce his physical collection as chromolithographs after Prang showed him samples of what the work would look like. Prang sent British ceramic painters James Callowhill and his sons James and Percy to Walter’s house in Baltimore to paint original watercolors that would be used by the chromists in Boston to reproduce them as chromolithographs, sometimes using as many as forty stones, or colors. After more than eight years (and Walters’ death in 1894), the set, along with text by Dr. Stephen W. Bushnell and 437 black and white lithographs of the rest of Walter’s collection, was ready to be published. Walters had given Prang $500,000 to produce this work, and only 500 copies were made, at a price of $500 per set, meaning only half of the production costs were recouped in sales. Prang considered this work the pinnacle of his career, and retired from the printing business in 1897.

L. Prang & Co., “CX. Sake-bottle and Censer of Hirado Blue and White.”
L. Prang & Co., “CX. Sake-bottle and Censer of Hirado Blue and White.”

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Associate Curator of Graphic Arts, American Antiquarian Society

3 thoughts on “Out In the Open: Louis Prang’s Oriental Ceramic Art”

  1. l Around 1980, some friends and I visited the Walters Gallery and each of us bought several lithographs from this series. At the time, we were told that the Gallery had recently discovered in storage lithographs intended for the collected sets, but apparently not sold. They each came with a printed (on what seemed like thin tissue paper) description of the item depicted. Each of the 8 that I purchased were among those included in the books sold.

    I’ve always wondered exactly what the deal was with these lithographs. Were they among the 500 copies of each that were made, but not sold? Were they in excess of the 500? In any case, they are lovely and I’ve enjoyed them on the walls of my home for decades now.

    1. Melissa,

      This is very interesting! We were not aware of any chromolithographs from this set being sold by the Walters as late as the 1980s. Since Mr. Walters, and then his son, were the patrons for the project, it is completely possible that they received any press overruns from the book. These could have certainly ended up at the Walters.

      Each of the original plates in the volume is covered with a thin tissue cover on which is printed the details of the vase or plate or cup that is illustrated.

      It seems likely that the material discovered at the Walters was not part of the original run of 500, as those would have been bound or set into portfolios for sale or distribution. But, on a project of this size, it is not at all unusual for there to be considerable overage in the production, and those sheets may have been delivered to the Walters family.

      For any further clarification, we suggest that you contact the Walters Gallery directly. They may have more detailed information in their archives.

      1. Lauren: Thanks. That information fits with what I recollect being told when I purchased the lithographs (price…$10 each, by the way). I can’t recollect exactly when they were purchased, but I know it was between 1978 and 1982.
        One bit of information about them that you may not be aware of: The original paintings were, as you say done in situ at the Walters’ home, now the Walters Art Museum, on Charles Street in the Mount Vernon section of Baltimore. Each was painted, exactly as the artist saw them, including reflections of nearby windows and the views through those windows. As a result, if you look closely at many of the lithographs, you can see reflections of, for example, Baltimore’s Washington Monument, a block away from the Walters’ home. Really cool!

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