Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Print in the Nineteenth Century

The production of pictures (like the population and most goods and services) increased exponentially in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Images printed in multiples by a variety of processes were circulated in newspapers, journals, magazines, and books that proliferated at an astounding rate. Where eighteenth-century publications had been illustrated usually with copperplate etchings and engravings, in the nineteenth century a broad array of new techniques was introduced that included wood engraving, lithography, and a range of photomechanical means of reproduction that steadily took over the field as the century advanced. But as publishers became more and more adept at reproducing images rapidly and in large numbers for the mass media, many artists, seemingly looking backwards, reexamined the special qualities of prints made by hand, particularly those in the etching process, and adopted the technique in order to make fine prints available to a new and growing audience of art collectors.

The invention of lithography around 1800 made it possible to produce an extraordinarily large edition of prints from a single drawing executed on a block of limestone. The novelty of lithography, its easy production, and its dramatic, fluid effects attracted young Romantic artists like Eugène Delacroix (67.630.7), and its commercial possibilities were quickly recognized by the popular press. In journals such as the Parisian Charivari, which promised its readers “a new drawing every day,” the great caricaturist Honoré Daumier (20.60.5) presented the comedies and tragedies of contemporary life to as many as 2,000 subscribers. At the end of the century, technological advances that allowed lithographs to be printed in very large sizes and in multiple colors jump-started the industry of advertising and the production of eye-catching posters by such artists as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (32.88.12).

Wood engravings, made from endgrain woodblocks carved in relief, frequently illustrated newspapers and books since they could be inked and printed easily with letterpress type. Literary classics lavishly illustrated with wood engravings by Gustave Doré (21.36.133) set the standard for the picture books of the day.

However, as if to revolt against the mass production of pictures, many artists participated in an revival of etching, taking inspiration from the expressive prints of Rembrandt and Goya. The virtues of finely drawn and carefully printed etchings were promoted by landscape painters of the Barbizon School and the American expatriate James McNeill Whistler (17.3.85). Although the graphic arts, in the labored precision of their production, were generally viewed as antithetical to the Impressionists’ aims to produce fugitive, atmospheric effects, Édouard Manet (1980.1077.1), Edgar Degas (19.29.2), and Camille Pissarro (21.46.1) extended their reach by exploring the possibilities of etching, aquatint, and lithography. Degas, the finest draftsman of these three painters, experimented in making monotypes by printing onto paper images he had worked up in ink on sheets of glass or metal.

Many Impressionists and Post-Impressionists felt the impact of exotic prints that arrived in Europe from Japan after trade routes were reestablished in 1854. The techniques, compositions, and day-to-day subjects characteristic of ukiyo-e woodcuts figure in the color drypoints of Mary Cassatt (16.2.5), the Philadelphian who made her home in Paris, and in the carved block prints of Paul Gauguin (36.6.4) the Parisian who sailed the South Seas.