Accustomed as we are today to seeing color in images in every conceivable medium, color prints hardly seem revolutionary. Color was in fact a regular ingredient in prints from their invention in the early 1400s, but at that time color was always applied by hand. The invention of ways to create realistic-looking printed color took another three hundred years. The breakthrough came in the 1720s when the German artist Jakob Christoffel Le Blon printed the first full-color images with just three basic inks--blue, red, and yellow--printed one on top of the other from separate plates. He later added black to the mix and thus invented a primitive version of the four-color separation printing technique that is still used today for the production of color images.
Le Blon's intention was to produce affordable, full-color reproductions of paintings. In France, where he spent the final years of his life, his efforts led to a remarkable period of invention and innovation. Several new printmaking techniques were devised, all specifically intended to replicate drawings done in chalk, pastel, watercolor, and gouache.
The new color prints enjoyed an enormous commercial success. Advertised as "printed paintings" and "engraved drawings," they allowed the middle classes to show their taste and refinement by hanging on their walls replicas of the works of art that hung in the mansions of aristocrats and members of the royal court. Skilled printmakers catered to this new market, turning out thousands of different images over a period of just a few decades. They depicted themes traditional to painting, such as portraiture, genre, landscape, and allegory, as well as subjects with more popular and practical appeal, including fashion plates, motifs for textiles and wallpapers, maps, and even button covers. Because of the breadth of their imagery, the sheer numbers in which they were produced, and the wide audience for whom they were made, these prints convey the color and spirit of their times (the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XIV and the French Revolution) in a way that no other medium can match.
Multiple-plate, full-color printing continued into the early years of the nineteenth century, but this time-consuming, demanding, and expensive process was already being replaced by simpler, faster hand coloring and à la poupée inking (the technique of applying more than one ink at a time to a single copperplate.) The market for finely crafted "printed paintings" in France had collapsed during the Revolution and was only partially revived under Napoleon. The color printing phenomenon of the eighteenth century in France had been so deeply connected to the taste, culture, and exquisite craftsmanship of the ancien régime that it could not survive much beyond its fall.