Printmaking in Europe 19th century

The 19th century can be described as the century of the picture. The improvements of two new techniques that appeared at the end of the 18th century – lithography and wood engraving – help to increase the number of printed pictures and of copies that circulate Thanks to new techniques, the public is expanding and the art of printmaking is increasingly attracting artists for whom it is a full-fledged medium of expression.

Printmaking as an original creation – as seen in the majority of works – first embraces lithography, which also marks the triumph of romanticism, then, after 1860, etching, which allows a free black and white writing, while we see over the last decades that the colour gradually takes the place of the black. At the end of the century, printmaker artists start to sign and number their prints.

At the same time, scientific discoveries follow one another. With photography and the successive methods invented, photoengraving marks the beginning of a new era in the history of illustrated books and the big printmaking workshops specialised in the reproduction of paintings gradually abandon the burin and the simple line etching to perfect various industrial techniques which produce high precision matrices for relief printing and intaglio printing. However, the prints are no longer the result of the printmaker’s work. Soon, the world of publications leaves behind the reproductive printmaking for a reproduction without printmaking.

Napoleon’s legend, first in France and then all over Europe, fascinates the artists of romanticism and appears in literature, painting and printmaking – as a dominant mean of disseminating the image in that era – offering to all social classes scenes from the modern epic. Popular printmaking embraces it and integrates it into its subjects. 

Since the 15th century, printmaking has been offering all over Europe cheap printed pictures, black and white woodcuts first, monochrome or coloured, as well as intaglio prints since the 18th century, before the triumph of co-loured lithography in the second half of the 19th century. Pictures of saints and religious scenes, accompanied by prayers for pilgrims and the poor, pictures with moral and historical content as a propaganda tool of the political regime, with local mythical heroes and folk literature, satires of society, instructive and fun pictures with aspects of distant lands, images of the everyday life of the ordinary people.

Aloys Senefelder’s invention, lithography, revolutionises printmaking. Litho-graphers keep perfecting this technique during the whole century, from monochrome prints (that could be coloured) to colour prints, on stone and rapidly on zinc, and with photographically transferred representation. Lithography dominates as a mean of expression for painters since it offers easy tonal transitions, a rich range of colours, and does not require the difficult technique of relief or intaglio printing. Financially, it is cost-efficient since it allows a high number of copies. Sketch artists and editorial cartoonists adopt this technique in the Press or in albums, famous artists draw posters on stone or on zinc. Skilful lithographers replicate old paintings or paintings of their time with remarkable vivacity. 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec creates his first lithographs in 1891 and in the same year he becomes famous for his poster La Goulue lithographed for Moulin-Rouge. He is considered the official illustrator of the nightlife at that time in the Parisian cabarets. His works are characterized by strong lines and intense colours with a limited range. He is also considered one of the pioneers in the poster design. 

His last poster is Au bal des étudiants, «Composition inédite de Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec». Even though he was making his drawings into lithographs, he did not have time to do it: he spent the winter of 1900-1901, ill, in Bordeaux. Local art dealer and framer Imberti lent the artist a studio where he lived from October to April. In this studio, he painted portraits and made some drawings, including this composition. This was the last creation of the painterprintmaker. It is drawn with colour pencils, as he did after his stay in a psychiatric institution in 1899, and the image is applied to the stone with crayon (except the colours). As it is often the case, emphasis is given to one person and this is increased by the fact that Toulouse-Lautrec made the draft of the work only. An elegantly dressed couple goes to the ball but the first look of the spectator grabs only the masked lady and in particular her big breasts that the deep décolleté of her dress leaves naked. Then the eye goes into the details of her dress and then into the guy who accompanies her. While he is only sketched with the hat, the tailcoat and the waistcoat, the tall collar and the gloves, which form the traditional costume for nightlife in social events, at the end of the 19th century, his face stands out with the red colour. Like being drunk, he walks with the wide smile of complacency. Let’s notice that the faces drawn by Toulouse-Lautrec look like caricatures, just like the face of the disheveled student – typically a bohe-mian figure – disguised himself as a clown, and that of the rich man on the right. Disfigured and hard characteristics, intense life with a lot of movement make the poster highly expressive. At the end, the eye reaches the background where the orchestra with its conductor appears. The poster is an interesting evidence of the social life of the “Belle époque” in France (at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, before World War I). It also evidences the stern look of the resentful, alcoholic and very sick artist... while collectors detach for themselves his works from the Parisian walls.

Thomas Bewick, an English printmaker, was the first one to use wood engraving systematically in his book A General History of Quadrupeds, published in 1790. With this technique relief printing is reborn for books illustration. It combines the ease of printing with the text, the high strength of the block that can withstand many printings and the detailed rendering of the image, similar to engraving. Born in England, this technique is spread all over Europe, the blocks are circulated everywhere, magnificent images illustrate both the Press and literary and scientific books. Up to the 20th century there are printmakers that choose wood engraving, due to the quality of the rendering of the details, despite the fact that this technique is extremely demanding. 

After 1840, brothers George and Edward Dalziel, leading printmakers and publishers of the 19th century in England, cooperate with all famous designers of their country for the illustration of books with wood engravings. Their artistic prints decorate among others Shakespeare’s plays, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.

Frenchman Gustave Doré’s creations have no limits: designer, editorial cartoonist, illustrator, painter, printmaker (lithographs and etchings) and sculptor, creating from the smallest sketch to monumental works, ranging from religion to satire. Globally well known for his illustrations – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge, Paradise lost by Milton, The Bible, Hell from The Divine Comedy by Dante – he does not engrave himself but he cooperates with the best wood engravers of his time, particularly with Héliodore Pisan, Paul Jonnard and François Pannemaker.