While Monet was painting his famous water-lillies in obscurity in the country setting of Giverny, artists such as Jules Cheret, Toulous-Lautrec and Pierre Bonnard were producing brightly colored posters using massive lithographic stones in four colors to the delight of the entire metropolis. Inspired by poster production in London, Cheret took the genre to new heights, inspiring a whole generation of young artists. Even the old man of Impressionism, Camille Pissaro lamented in 1897 that "No one pays attention nowadays to anything but prints: it's a rage, the young generation produces nothing else."
Despite the technology of lithography, including color lithography, being around for over 60 years with the production of exceptional fine art prints, by the end of the 19th century the academy continued to define "high" art as the medium of oil on canvas and graphic works as "low" art. But the tide was changing in the art world with a new generation of artists finding the academy increasingly irrelevant (both conceptually and financially) looking to graphic media for new creative possibilities (and new commercial possibilities) using bright, vivid color on paper with perceptive gallery owners and collectors paying attention with their wallets.
Several pivotal factors came together like a perfect storm at the same time and would be game changers for this new color print revolution. The first was exposure to Japanese prints (more on the specifics of this below), the second factor connected to the first was a new appreciation for chromolithography or color lithography by a new generation of young artists.The third factor was an intimate connection between image and word using color lithography (more on this below), the fourth factor was the emergence of the "original" print as a legitimate art medium with a slew of new patrons with both a keen interest in collecting these hot off the press color prints and the money to pay for them (connected to this was a new appreciation for fine art paper by printers and artists to create their limited edition prints). And finally and very important for the time was the invention of an efficient way of transferring artists lithographic images to relief zinc plates that could be printed at minimal cost on letterpress by Charles Gillot (very significant for the production of affordable weekly journals, such as, Le Courrier Francais and Gil Blas). Later this technology was adapted to include photographs of an artists' drawing or lithograph to be inexpensively printed with text, to produce books and journals with superb accompanying illustrations (more on this later).
The flat composition, bright colors and strong contours of Japanese prints coupled with unusual vantage points and diagonals that were never seen before in Western art, fascinated everyone from Renoir and Matisse to fine artists who worked extensively in color print lithography, such as, Cheret, Grasset, Bonnard, Vuillard, Toulous-Lautrec and others. Photography had completely dominated as the prime reproductive medium, leaving lithography to concentrate on pure art and entertainment, with printmakers formally organizing themselves to print and sign limited editions specifically for the fine art print market.
The clever printers and printmaker artists quickly perfected a simple but very powerful method to produce complex color lithographs by just using a separate stone for the three primary colors and then simply adding a black stone (all carefully aligned) to produce stunning images. This is exemplified in this exhibit with the color (red, yellow and blue) and black proofs created by Eugene Grassett to produce the extremely rare Joan of Arc four color lithograph published in 1896 in the most important reference work in poster art history Les Affiches Illustrees. It shows how both printer and artist using just their own artistic eye separated each color into its component parts, anticipating combinations that frequently surprised them to produce outstanding creations.
These fledgling young artists now saw infinite opportunities to use color in novel new ways that in the poignant words of Bonnard "could really articulate everything...without the need to add relief and texture".
Several artists specifically, Jules Cheret, the father of the poster, Pierre Bonnard one of the original founders of the famous Nabi artists and Toulouse-Lautrec lead the way in this revolution of color. This exhibit includes numerous examples of their innovations in lithography, including the immensely popular color posters they created for metropolitan consumption (their posters advertising everything from theater performances and the Moulin-Rouge to the covers of art and literature journals, such as Le Revue Blanch, were seen all over Paris) and their fine lithographs for deluxe books (for Bonnard this production effort spanned decades - see in this exhibit his innovative illustrations for Ambroise Vollard's text of Saint Monique produced in 1930).