Prints in Colour, France 1880-1900

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Laurence Schmidlin (ed.), Enraptured by Color: Printmaking in Late 19th-Century France/Vertige de la couleur: L’estampe en France à la fin de XIXe siècle, Scheidegger & Spiess (in co-operation with Musée Jenisch Vevey), 2017, 248pp, 217 col. illus., paperback, English/French text, €48, ISBN 978 3 85881 798 3

 

Coloured prints have existed for as long as printmaking itself. The earliest woodcuts were made in the expectation that that they would be coloured by hand, usually in aqueous medium, and some prints seemed to have been designed accordingly. The print designer and cutter – often different individuals – had little control over how that colouring was done. The exact extent of the practice is unknown. The vast majority of prints – not just proofs but all proofs of certain designs – have been lost. The attrition rate for prints is very high and for the majority of history, prints were not considered valuable or even worthy of collection. They were little more than newspapers or posters, roughly tacked to walls or pasted to furniture.

Chiaroscuro woodcuts (mainly Northern Italian) were developed using multiple plates – generally not more than three per image. True colour printing, using interaction of three colour plates which overlaid colour to build a range of other colours, was developed by Joseph Christoph Le Blon around 1710. The red- yellow-blue system was expanded to include one for black, which allowed tonal gradation.

This exhibition catalogue covers forms of colour printmaking from the late Nineteenth Century up to 1900, concentrating on French printmakers. The final decades of the Nineteenth Century saw a boom in colour printing in France, primarily Paris. The introduction of colour lithography led to a proliferation of colour-printed images including periodicals, posters, maps, packaging and other commercial products, which transformed the streets of major cities with splashes of vivid eye-catching colour. This change was not welcomed by many art critics and art connoisseurs, who found the colour to be garish and vulgar. This view permeated attitudes within the artist communities. The Bracquemond Pictorialist strand of art – characterised by the heavy inking of monochrome etching – was the dominant approach in printmaking. So alarmed was the Société des artistes français by the uptake of colour printing by fine artists, that it stipulated in 1891 that “no work in colour will be admitted” to the society’s exhibitions of prints.

The Impressionists did relatively little colour printmaking. Mary Cassatt and Pierre-Auguste Renoir were the artists who spent most time in the area. Paul Cézanne’s brief forays into colour etching are shown here also.

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[Image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Le chapeau épinglé, first plate (1897), lithograph in nine colours on laid paper, 600 × 492 / 794 × 572 mm (image / support), private collection]

 

It was younger artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec who felt a kinship with commercial artists such as Jules Chéret (who made posters using colour lithography) who embraced colour printmaking. In 1887 Toulouse-Lautrec made his first colour poster and broke with the monochrome aesthetic and blurred the boundary between commercial applied art and fine art. Other artists soon followed. The transfer was also in the other direction, with commercial posters being taken up as fashionable decoration and appreciated for their aesthetic quality. (For further discussion, see my “Prints in Paris, 1900” article.) Examples of posters by Toulouse-Lautrec, Chéret, Henri-Gabriel Ibels and James Ensor are included. The large size and areas of ungraduated tone present within poster-printing led artists to explore the depiction of space by the use of flat colour. That is an aberration in the development of post-Renaissance art, which developed artistic methods and conventions directed towards naturalism (albeit tempered by idealism).

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[Image: Paul Signac (1863–1935), Saint-Tropez – Le port, plank for L’Album d’estampes originales de la Galerie Vollard (never published) (1897–1898), lithograph in six colours on wove paper, 435 × 330 / 520 × 405 mm (image / support), Private collection.]

 

More complex conceptions of colour were investigated by the Neo-Impressionists. The Neo-Impressionists (a definition which overlaps to a degree with Divisionism and Pointillism) who most worked in colour printmaking were Paul Signac and Maximilien Luce. (Seurat did not make prints.) Félix Féneon was the critic who provided a theoretical underpinning for ideas of broken colour, complementary colour, colour circles, juxtaposition and so forth, drawing upon the writings of chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, who had pioneered scientific analysis of colour. Artists have always had mixed approaches to theory, generally relying relatively less on theory than is often assumed. When confronted with clear choices, artists usually opt for the artistically satisfying course rather than the theoretically pure course. Printmaker Auguste Delâtre assisted painters in translating their art into colour etchings.

Test proofs with artist’s instructions to the master printmaker demonstrate how much adjustment and compromise was involved in the process of making satisfying products. On trial sheets Paul Signac notes for the attention of the master printmaker faults concerning colour separation and registration. Such working material is not commonly preserved, so these are illuminating documents.

The influence of Japanese prints encouraged new views on colour use and composition. Most Japanese art was transmitted to the West in the form of colour woodcut prints employing elaborate inking techniques. Some French artists went beyond taking aesthetic inspiration from these prints and actually began to make their own colour woodcuts with multiple blocks in the Japanese manner. Examples of prints by these artists – Henri Rivière, Henri Guérard and Auguste Lepère – are discussed by Valérie Sueur-Hermel. One print by Rivière is composed of 18 colours from eight blocks. While some of these prints are effective, none are as striking or flawless as the Japanese master printmakers, understandably so considering their lack of apprenticeship and lack of understanding of the art form’s unique skills and methods. The sheer difficulty and hard work required to produce these prints defeated even the most committed practitioners. Colour woodcuts did not become a widespread printmaking form in Europe. The woodcuts of Edvard Munch, Paul Gauguin and the German Expressionists drew on non-Japanese sources and left a more lasting mark on Western printmakers.

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[Image: Edouard Vuillard (1868–1940), Intérieur aux tentures roses II, plate 6 of the serie Paysages et intérieurs (1899) (1898–1899), lithograph in five colours on China paper, 340 × 270 / 393 × 309 mm (image / support), Musée Jenisch Vevey – Cabinet cantonal des estampes, collection de la Ville de Vevey]

 

The Nabis were a group of young Post-Impressionist artists interested in domestic subjects and scenes of everyday life, which they depicted in colour and with areas of pattern and decoration, influenced by posters, commercial art and Japanese woodcuts. The catalogue includes colour prints and posters by painter-printmakers Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Félix Vallotton and Maurice Denis. Author Gilles Genty notes that between 1894 and 1900 no fewer than 57 group shows including Nabi prints were held. The Nabis were encouraged – and their colour printmaking – was financed by publishers and dealers such as Ambroise Vollard, whose speciality was the publication of illustrated books and print portfolios. By 1900 most artist attention was turning from posters to small prints for portfolios and books.

There are many curious and little-known pieces included in this catalogue. Théophile Alexandre Steinlen used rudimentary colour lithography for covers of the journal Gil Blas. Charles Maurin’s drypoint in two colours (depicting a woman washing an infant) is particularly beautiful and an example of the power and effectiveness of restraint in colouring and the effect of colour drawing.

This book – which includes an extensive glossary of technical terms – supplies useful information, introduces surprising ideas and presents a wide variety of colour prints.

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