Printmaking and the Populace

With the discovery of photography in the mid 19th century, lithography took a back seat as a reproductive print technology, in particular its use for creating affordable portraits (which were very popular at the time). Unlike the photograph, lithographs still required the hand of a skilled artist and printer.

Ironically, at the very time when lithography was losing its popular appeal, fine artists the likes of Manet, Whistler, Munch and Degas were discovering its unique properties to produce high quality original prints.  After the war of 1871, artists no longer had the financial support of the traditional Salon so they looked to commercial opportunities to support themselves. They were also freed from the dogma of the academy, exploring and expressing through their art both issues of the day and their own concerns.

Popular journals such as La Chat noir, Le Courrier francais and Gil Blas illustre  (printed using a novel and rapid new transfer technique) provided a visual window on the ever evolving urban metropolis. Artists, entertainers, poets and the public looked to these publications for entertainment, inspiration and ideas. Even the young Pablo Picasso (in far away Barcelona) and George Braque looked forward with excitement to the innovative lithographs created each week by Steinlen, Cheret, Lunel, Toulouse-Lautrec, Willet and Mucha, who used their printmaking skills to not only mirror contemporary life and advertise their client's products but to showcase their own creative work at the same time. In this exhibit are rare and important examples from Le Courrier francais and Gil Blas, demonstrating the unique innovations of these intrepid artists.

While the prints of Daumier in the first half of the 19th century addressed the social and political issues of the day, for the first time, prints were attracting the attention of a serious art market. Artists combined to create a formal society of fine art printmakers and limited editions on high quality paper signed by the artist were formalized, adding credibility to the notion of an "original" print and subsequent commercial value. One of the best examples from this period are the complex and innovative black and white series of lithographs produced by Toulouse-Lautrec of the famous entertainer Yvette Guilbert. In Lautrec's massive series of 28 portrait lithographs is perhaps the most probing and innovative portrayal of character and personality in fine art printmaking ever produced. This exhibit includes all 28 Yvette Guilbert lithographs.