French Lithography in the Nineteenth Century

Jules Chéret_Bal au Moulin Rouge, 1889_Color lithograph on paper_Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers_Museum Purchase_Photo Jack Abraham

[Image: Jules Chéret, Bal au Moulin Rouge (1889), color lithograph on paper, Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, Museum Purchase, photo: Jack Abraham]

The invention of lithography by Bavarian chemist Alois Senefelder in 1796 revolutionised printing. His system of fixing a drawn design on to a stone surface in a new printing process would increase the speed of design, rate of printing and longevity of the design matrix, allowing prints to made faster, cheaper and more plentiful than ever before. Lithography was originally used to print sheet music more efficiently but its potential in every area of printing was soon recognised and by the second decade of the Nineteenth Century a lithography boom had begun. It was used to print sheet music, newspaper illustrations, posters, maps, timetables, menus, book plates, labels, forms, stationery letterheads and a huge range of other material featuring text and images. Lithography became a large, specialised and profitable industry. The variant of offset lithography is still the standard means of mass printing to this day.

The current exhibition Set in Stone: Lithography in Paris, 1815-1900 held at Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey (20 January-20 July 2018) contains many lithographs from this boom, with exhibited items taken from its expansive permanent collection. This review is of the exhibition catalogue. The survey of French lithography ranges from the Napoleonic era to the dawn of the Twentieth Century and the advent of High Modernism.

The technology of lithography advanced over the Nineteenth Century. The use of zinc plates meant that larger sheets could be printed – a key step towards the development of large posters in the 1860s. Registration was improved, allowing the production of three- and four-colour prints. The use of motorisation allowed the automated production of prints, superseding hand-cranking of presses. The ease of use and widespread availability of lithography drove reproduction engraving and etching to near extinction, where etching lived on as an artistic rather than industrial process. Transfer lithography was the development of sheets which could be drawn on before being transferred to the plate in the studio. This meant that artists did not need to come to the studio to draw directly on stones or plates.

Although not intended as an artist’s medium, fine artists were quick to explore the potential of the new medium. Unlike etching and engraving, the process was a simple one. The artist could simply draw on a stone or plate in wax crayon or ink and leave all other stages to master printmakers; however, full-time professional lithograph artists did become technically proficient in all aspects of the printing process. Print-sellers began to encourage and promote lithography as an artist’s medium and cultivate collectors.

The catalogue essays by Christine Giviskos are informative and wide ranging. Exhibited items include examples of art, book illustrations, lettering, reproduction prints, satirical images and posters, some in colour. Art styles covered in this catalogue cover Romanticism, Classicism, Pointillism, Post-Impressionism and the Nabis. Reproduction prints could act as transcriptions of paintings, drawings or prints and became the principal means of becoming familiar with the Old Masters.

Social history looms large in this selection. The after effects of the Napoleonic wars dominated public discourse in the 1810s and 1820s and caused seismic political divisions in the French population. Workless vagrant veterans from the Napoleonic campaigns were a constant reminder of France’s lost glory and ignominious defeats. Veterans were idolised as heroes but also feared as dangerous criminal vagabonds. The plight of soldiers in war and afterwards were presented in lithographs by Horace and Carle Vernet, Hyacinthe Aubry-Lecomte, Nicolas-Toussaint Charlet and Théodore Géricault. Also included are some of Géricault’s equine lithographs, some executed from scenes the artist encountered in London.

Théodore Géricault_The English Farrier, 1821_Lithograph on paper_Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers_Museum Purchase_Photo Peter Jacobs

[Image: Théodore Géricault, The English Farrier (1821), lithograph on paper, Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, Museum Purchase, photo: Peter Jacobs]

The most influential humorous lithographer was Honoré Daumier. His social commentaries and satires had widespread popular appeal and commanded respect from critics and fellow artists alike. He moved fluidly between modes of approach and mediums. His satirical work is to the fore in this selection. Other prominent satirists (including JJ Grandville, LL Boilly) are included in the exhibition and discussed briefly in the catalogue.

Jules Chéret (1836-1932) was the star of French colour posters. His blend of strong colour, stylised figural rendering and dramatic lettering produced pieces such as the exhibited Bal au Moulin Rouge (1889). Other posters are classics by Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Maurou and others. There is a copy of Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s famous Chat Noir poster of 1896. Included is a Steinlen poster and the original stone that he drew on, allowing viewers to understand the process. The drawing includes the motif, some lettering and registration marks. The final version has extra elements and more lettering.

Painters such as Théodore Chassériau used lithography to make reproduction prints of paintings exhibited at the Autumn Salon, such as Venus Anadyomene (c. 1844). Henri Fantin-Latour developed a painterly approach to lithography, using a scraper to scratch dashes of light into shaded areas. The grainy, dark quality of lithography was ideal for Odilon Redon’s sfumato fantasies. Oddities in this selection include two lithographs by Eugène Carrière (1849-1906), who was famous for his chiaroscuro – nearly monochrome – oil paintings and charcoal drawings. The lithographs of a woman resting her head and a foundry scene are very mannered and suave, lacking the gravitas and melancholy of his paintings. Constant Meunier, the Belgian artist who specialised in scenes of industrial work, may have inspired Carrière’s foundry scene.

Édouard Manet created some lithographs illustrating Poe’s The Raven. His Le Polichinelle (1874) colour lithograph was intended to be an insert in newspaper Le Temps, however it was suppressed, perhaps due to political pressure. Manet seemed to be mocking a senior statesman and the police may have ordered the proofs to be destroyed. Only a few copies of the print survive. His Raven illustrations feature drawing in ink, showing how painterly lithography could be.

Late in the boom the journal La Revue blanche (1893-4) capitalised on aficionado appreciation for lithographs among dedicated collectors. It commissioned covers and posters by prominent artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec and some of the new generation, including Félix Vallotton, a young Bonnard and other Nabis.

Apart from the design decision to allow illustrations to cover two pages – thus obscuring the centre in shadow – this title is flawless. It forms an excellent introduction to the diversity of pictorial lithography in France during the first century of the technology. Readers are recommended to visit the exhibition.

 

Christine Giviskos, Set in Stone: Lithography in Paris, 1815-1900, Hirmer/Zimmerli Art Museum/Rutgers University, hardback, 184pp, 130 col. illus., $45, ISBN 978 3777 429946

Other reviews on printmaking in the Nineteenth Century

Prints in Colour, France 1880-1900: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2018/01/25/prints-in-colour-france-1880-1900/

Prints in Paris, 1900: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/prints-in-paris-1900/

© 2018 Alexander Adams

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