National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS
Prints Abound

22 October 2000 - 25 February 2001

Overview | Multi-artist Albums | Single Artist Albums | Color Lithography
Illustrated Books and Ephemera | Music Illustration


Paris witnessed an explosion of printed imagery in the 1890s. Painters such as Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec delved into printmaking, creating original prints for posters, albums, books, periodicals, music primers, song sheets, and even folding screens.

By 1890 the official Salon, organizer of state-sponsored exhibitions since 1667, had become an outmoded institution, unreceptive to the work of avant-garde artists. Frustrated by their exclusion from the conservative Salon, painters sought new outlets for their work. Many turned to printmaking, especially color lithography, to gain access to a wider audience. Pierre Bonnard's first poster, a color-lithographic promotion for France-Champagne, appeared on walls throughout Paris. Le Figaro and other newspapers also commissioned color lithographs, as did publishers of illustrated periodicals such as La Revue blanche. Seemingly at once, original prints by avant-garde artists were surfacing everywhere.

Prints Abound celebrates an extraordinary gift and promise to the National Gallery from Virginia and Ira Jackson. Over the course of thirty-five years, the Jacksons have collected prints and related works by late nineteenth-century French artists, particularly Pierre Bonnard and his Nabi colleagues, artists who drew inspiration from Paul Gauguin. The Jackson collection comprises nearly eight hundred remarkable drawings, watercolors, prints, and illustrated books, a fraction of which is on view in this exhibition. The collection, now intended for the National Gallery, adds exceptional strength and refinement to the Gallery's holdings of nineteenth-century French art.

Multi-artist Albums

Lively interest in the artist's print spurred the production of numerous albums in the 1890s. These collections of prints took various forms. Some focused on a single artist or theme, while others contained prints by several artists. Selections from three multi-artist albums are on view in this gallery. Together they offer a sweeping overview of French printmaking at the close of the nineteenth century.

L'Estampe originale (The Original Print), a series of nine albums, was published by André Marty. In keeping with Marty's aim to "bring together recognized masters with bold creators, neglected and blasphemed," it includes prints by both established and emerging artists. Although the range of styles is diverse, most of the prints reflect the influence of Japanese aesthetics and art nouveau design.

L'Epreuve (The Proof), twelve albums in various media, including lithography, etching, woodcut, and photomechanical processes, was published by the artist Maurice Dumont. Along with the regular editions, fifteen deluxe albums were issued. These were printed on a range of papers and included two or even three proof impressions of almost all the prints.

The celebrated dealer Ambroise Vollard published both the Album des peintres-graveurs (Album of Painter-Printmakers) and the Album d'estampes originales de la Galerie Vollard (Album of Prints from the Vollard Gallery). Vollard was a key promoter of color lithography and enticed renowned painters such as Paul Cézanne and Edvard Munch to try their hand at the medium.

Single Artist Albums

Numerous albums focused on prints by a single artist, and many of these were commissioned, published, and promoted by Ambroise Vollard. Instead of contracting traditional printmakers, Vollard turned to vanguard artists who were painters by training. Under the direction of master printers such as Edouard Ancourt and Auguste Clot, these artists, known as "peintres-graveurs" (painter-printmakers), brought renewed creativity to the medium.

Color Lithography

At the end of the nineteenth century there was a phenomenal rise in the popularity of the color lithograph. Early attempts at the medium date back to 1817, and its use was widespread by the late 1830s. Not until the second half of the century, however, did the color lithograph attract wide public attention with the eye-catching posters of Jules Chéret. The advent of impressionism and an influx of brightly colored Japanese woodcuts to the art scene inspired artists to apply color to prints in new ways. In the 1890s lithography offered the most direct means of creating color prints: artists could draw or paint directly onto a lithographic stone as freely as they could on paper or canvas, leaving the complex chemical treatment of the stone and printing to a master printer. The veritable explosion of color lithographs prompted the critic André Mellerio to write in 1897: "There is no one who has not made them, who is not making them, or who will not make them."

Illustrated Books and Ephemera

Parisian artists in the 1890s were actively involved in illustration--of books, journals, and ephemeral publications such as sheet music, theater programs, menus, even birth announcements. Boundaries between high and low art were dissolving at the time, and collaboration between the arts was on the rise. Interaction between visual artists, writers, musicians, and entertainers fostered a climate of openness and cross-fertilization in the art world.

The decade saw a proliferation of superb and innovative artist-illustrated books. Maurice Denis and André Gide sought to balance imagery and text in Le Voyage d'Urien. In a bid to give imagery priority over text, József Rippl-Rónai's lithographs for Les Vierges (The Virgins) and James Pitcairn-Knowles' woodcuts for Les Tombeaux (The Tombstones) were designed in advance of the text, leaving the author to "illustrate" the pictures. Pierre Bonnard's designs for Parallèlement, a collection of verses by Paul Verlaine, are groundbreaking in their seamless integration of text and image. In contrast to traditional book illustration, in which prints are either inserted as separate pages or images are printed onto a page within a framing border, Bonnard's designs sprawl over the text, at times in a continuous action from one page to another.

Music Illustration

Bonnard collaborated with his brother-in-law, the composer Claude Terrasse, to produce a delightful album of sheet music, Petites scènes familières, and a witty music primer for children, Petit solfège illustré. For the solfège he adopted a deliberately childlike mode unlike the sinuous style of his earliest works. This and other collaborations extended Bonnard's range, directing him away from traditional realism into a quasi-abstract style.