History of lithography: the making of a fine art medium

History of lithography: the making of a fine art medium

Lithography was invented in 1796 in Germany by Senefelder, who was searching for a cheaper and more convenient method to print out plays. The success of the method that he discovered, which relied printing on limestone led him to refine the method over the following years. His seminal 1818 book Manual of lithography was first published in Paris and London in 1818 and had a strong effect on the printers of the French capital. With books appearing in various langages in the early XIXth century, lithography as an art medium gained more general appeal. L’art de la lithographie, published in 1819 in Paris brought to wider audiences a medium which had already seduced an important part of the printing community.  Gabriel Peignot wrote dès 1819 un Essai Historique sur la lithographie, a voluminous and thorough treatise, which gave theory . The nephew of the inventor of lithography moved to Paris in 1818 and opened his first lithograph studio rue de Lisles and chose to live north of Paris, in the L’isle-Adam. 

Alois Senefelder Lithograph Blackstamp Editions

France became a particular fertile country for lithography and immediately seduced the artists of the time. The lithographs of Géricault were amongst the first by famous painters and showed a profound attention to common life and details. The lithographic works of Delaroix reflect the lithograph of his time. These black and white works weren’t used to deal with autonomous subjecs, but to illustrate the classics of literature. Delacroix’s lithograph of Faust and Hamlet capture both the extreme mastery of the painter and the poetry of the original work. Painters like Horace vernet and Bergeret soon followed in producing series of lithographs. With this widespread use of lithographs by artists came institutional recognition. In 1820, the lithographs of Engelmann were even exposed in the most prestigious art fair of the time in Paris, le Salon.

At the time, lithography managed to bridge the gap between mass production and art. Alphonse Mucha achieved widespread celebrity with his art nouveau lithographs, which featured products of the time. In possession of his own lithograph studio, Alphonse Mucha was a prolific lithographer

L’Ecole des Beaux Arts de Paris, an elite institution training the artists of the area, owned their very own lithograph studios, in which aspiring young French painters could learn to master the art of lithograph drawing, which proved a catalyst to the widespread introduction of lithograph in the traditional artistic circles. Also Lithograph spread from paris to the rest of France, Paris continued to be both the artistic center of France and thus most lithograph press remained in the Paris area.

With technological progress, lithography evolved into chromolithography in 1837. The Traité de Lithographie published by Godefroi Engelmann in 1840 was instrumental in giving a fully fledged artistic status to lithographic works. This vast treatise was as much an history of lithography up to that point as it was a treatise on M. Engelmann’s own practice. The success of Parisian lithographs was however certain, and its exportations ranged from Spain to the United-States.

One of the biggest breakthroughs came in 1867 with Frenchman Hippolyte Auguste Marinoni’s invention of the Marinoni press. Although it has hence been refined by Henri Voirin in 1879 , the original mechanism is the same. The Marinoni machine was instrumental in opening new possibilities for artists, as it saw a wide commercialization quickly after its invention. The Maronini machine had much success in the native country of its inventor, and Paris became one of the capitals of both printing and art printing. In the turn of the century, artists further experimented with the possibilities of lithography. Henri Toulouse Lautrec was one of the first painters to use lithography to produce rather than to reproduce works, as was Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.

The turn of the century saw a rapid increase in the technology used for printing, and thus a widening of the gap between artistic editions and mass editions. The necessity that at first drove artists to use  traditional Marinoni-Voirin machines soon became a personal choice. As new ways of easily reproducing artwork became more widespread, a select group of artists chose to pursue on lithograph machine for their stunning quality. Picasso, in his later years, became avidly fond of lithograph, and made some unique works in Paris.

Although lithography as an industrial printing process fell into oblivion, it became an artistic medium. Nowadays, lithographs in Paris are used by artists all around the world who appreciate their unique qualities. European artists are especially fond of them, between Phillippe Cognée, Francis Bacon, JR, but also Chinese masters, as Yue Minjun or Zhang Xiao Gang Americans have also been delighted, and Keith Haring as much as William Kentridge. The artistic history of paris, the aesthetic wealth of its studios, as well as the city itself with a teeming cultural life, continue to attract artists loving authenticity, tradition and sophistication.  

Useful reading

Great Lithographs by Toulouse Lautrec

Theodore B Donson Marvel M. Griepp

De Géricault à Delacroix Knecht  l’invention de la lithographie 1800-1830 , Editions Somogy