History of Printmaking
Printmaking originated in China after paper
was invented (about A.D. 105). Relief printing first flourished in Europe in
the 15th century, when the process of papermaking was imported from the
East. Since that time, relief printing has been augmented by the various
techniques described earlier, and printmaking has continued to be practiced
as one of the fine arts.
Chinese Stone Rubbings
Stone rubbing actually predates any form of woodcut. To
enable Chinese scholars to study their scriptures, the classic texts and
accompanying holy images were carved onto huge, flat stone slabs. After the
lines were incised, damp paper was pressed and molded on the surface, so that
the paper was held in the incised lines. Ink was applied, and the paper was then
carefully removed. The resulting image appeared as white lines on a black
background. In this technique lies the very conception of printing. The
development of printing continued with the spread of Buddhism from India to
China; images and text were printed on paper from a single block. This method of
combining text and image is called block-book printing.
earliest known Chinese woodcut with text and image combined is a famous Buddhist
scroll, about 5 m (about 17 ft) long, of the Diamond Sutra (ad 868, British
Museum, London). These early devotional prints were reproduced from drawings by
anonymous artisans whose skill varied greatly. The crudeness of the images
indicates that they were reproduced without any thought of artistic
interpretation, but as was to be true in Europe during the 1400's, such early
works of folk art were important in the development of the print.
Toward the end of the Ming dynasty in the 1640s, there appeared a text
called Painting Manual of the Mustard-Seed Garden. This was actually an
encyclopedia of painting, intended for the instruction and inspiration of
artists. Many of its beautiful instructive woodcuts were in color as well as in
black and white. A reprint edition of the Painting Manual was brought to
Japan, and with it came the basic woodcut technique, which Japanese artists
The history of
Japanese prints is inextricably linked with the art history of China and the
relief technique invented there.
Early Japanese Woodcuts
The style of Japanese graphic art that emerged in the middle of
the 18th century is known as the Ukiyo-e, or "pictures of the floating world,"
school. Early Ukiyo-e prints were black and white. Created for a popular
audience, they were the ephemera of the day, akin to postcards. Certain prints
were made for home decoration; others often set the style of the day for fashion
and behavior. Color printing from multiple blocks was soon introduced. Flat,
solid shapes and dramatic color, design, and composition characterize these
later Ukiyo-e prints. The popular theater of Japan, kabuki, helped the Ukiyo-e
print to flourish; portraits of the most famous actors in dramatic roles were
particular favorites. The artist most associated with this period is Tóshûsai
Sharaku (flourished 1790-95). His prints are highly melodramatic, emphasizing
exaggerated facial lines and beautiful costumes.
Ukiyo-e subject was the genre scene. Harunobu concentrated on the beauty of
young women, depicting them with grace and poetic charm. Perhaps the most
outstanding artist to concentrate on the female figure was the inventive
Utamaro, who created imagery that is often intimate and candid in nature, with a
lyrical quality of line, delicate compositional detail, and assured
In the 19th century the emphasis shifted from figurative to
landscape subjects. The unsurpassed masters of landscape imagery were Hokusai
An artist who frequently signed his work, "The Man Mad About Painting,"
Hokusai was preoccupied with landscape. His fascination with every aspect of
nature led him to detail seasonal changes; studies of birds, waterfalls, waves,
insects, fish, trees, and mountains culminated in a famous 13-volume sketchbook
called Hokusai manga (begun 1814).
Hiroshige stressed the
quality of line and also achieved extraordinary effects with color against
color. The gradation from intense coloration to the merest hint of color, along
with a highly stylized form, characterize Hiroshige's astonishing prints. Among
his most notable works are several sets of prints depicting travelers on the
Tokaido Highway (1804) and the Sixty-nine Stations on the Kiso Highway.
By 1856 Hokusai prints had been discovered in Paris, and many others soon
surfaced. The enthusiasm they stirred created a wave of japonisme that
was to last in Paris for the next 40 years and to became a significant influence
on modern art.
With the establishment
of paper mills in several areas of Germany, France, and Italy in the 15th
century, the first woodcuts were made in the Western world. The earliest Gothic
images were crudely cut from blocks of wood, inked, and printed. The first
prints were made to be used as playing cards, then a popular means of
entertainment; they were sold for pennies and could be produced in large
quantity. Because much of Gothic life centered around the church, the clergy
used prints for devotional purposes and distributed them among the people. The
images consisted mostly of saints and depictions of the life of Christ and of
the Virgin Mary; they also illustrated numerous Bible stories. With the
development of movable type, block books became popular, and illustrations could
be combined with text. Once a good and inexpensive paper was manufactured, the
quality of printing improved, and many editions of illustrated books were
illustrious artist of the Renaissance in northern Europe was Albrecht Dürer.
Born in Nuremberg and trained as a goldsmith, he became the first great graphic
master. His phenomenal versatility with the graver and woodcut knife, along with
his keen observation of nature and his devotion to prints, brought him success
and the admiration of his contemporaries. Of particular note are his numerous
series of religious prints and such magnificent single prints as Knight,
Death, and the Devil (1513).
The Dutch engraver Lucas van
Leyden (1494-1533), greatly influenced by Dürer and by the classical style of
his Italian contemporaries, gently depicted Dutch landscape and interior scenes.
They are important as the foundation of the Dutch school of painting in the
following century. The Italian graphic masters Andrea Mantegna, better known for
his paintings, and Marcantonio Raimondi created classical images with a
distinctive sense of composition, detail, and sensitivity. Engraving in France
and Spain during this time was negligible.
By the mid-l6th century, prints had become very popular. They were used for
all manner of illustrations, including topographical survey, and for
Baroque artists of
the 17th century felt that an image could be more than just the depiction of
reality; it could have a powerful emotional impact. Gesture could become highly
characterized, exaggerated even to a point of being grotesque.
Seventeenth-century French engraving and etching are most notably represented
by the work of two artists from vastly different schools. Robert Nanteuil
(1625?-78) produced distinguished court portraits; these highly popular
engravings brought greater attention to the sculptural, molded quality and
delicate strokes that could be produced in this medium.
Quite different was Jacques Callot, from the province of Lorraine, who was
the first major artist to develop the potential of the etching medium. He
discovered that various additional bitings of a plate could create perspective
in a print, giving the image a foreground, middleground, and background. His
experimentation in special grounds made it possible for work of intense detail
to be etched into a tiny plate. With this technical proficiency, Callot created
extraordinary imagery in a wide variety of subjects. Kings of France and Spain
commissioned Callot to document various historical events. From his wartime
etchings Callot issued his own bitter and devastating series of prints,
Miseries of War (1633).
For a time Callot joined a band of
gypsies, resulting in his Commedia dell' arte (1618) and Gobbi
(1622) series of prints. Here he captured the grotesque, often humorous images
of dwarfs and beggars in a variety of costumes and poses. Many print
connoisseurs consider Callot's views of cities and country fairs to be among his
best work. Among these is the print Fair at Impruneta (1620); in this one
large-scale image, Callot captured more than 1,000 figures.
Callot did much for the advancement of the medium, but Rembrandt stands out
as the baroque graphic master. Accomplished in rendering a wide range of
subjects from portraits and religious scenes to landscapes, Rembrandt produced
prints of both power and subtlety, such as Self-Portrait of the Artist
Leaning on a Stone Sill (1639).
The Dutch school of graphic
artists flourished with portraits, landscapes, interior studies, and scenes of
daily life. Ferdinand Bol (1616-80), Adriaen van Ostade (1610-85), and Anthony
Waterloo (1609?-76?) pictured Dutch life in etchings. Bol made many fine
portraits; van Ostade was noted for his depictions of Dutch peasant life; and
Waterloo created beautiful landscapes.
The Antwerp workshop of
the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens was very active. From the pages of the
master's sketch books and drawings, various artists produced a veritable flood
of prints. Anthony van Dyck, Rubens's most talented pupil, settled (1632) in
England as the court painter to Charles I.
Van Dyck undertook, with artist collaborators, to
etch 128 portraits of the mosst famous men of his day. The Iconography (circa 1634-41), as it is
called, is marked by sparseness of line and technical excellence.
At the turn of the 18th century, Paris was the artistic center of
Europe. Such artists as François Boucher and Jean Honore Fragonard documented
court life in drawings and sketches; influential publishers then had these made
into engravings, which proved extremely popular.
Until the 18th
century England had not developed great strength in the graphic arts. Academic
paintings of the nobility and aristocracy were popular, and these images were
reproduced beautifully through the mezzotint medium. While the portraitist Sir
Joshua Reynolds continued to dignify academic tradition, a triumvirate of
English satirists headed by William Hogarth worked against this tradition. James
Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, and Hogarth used engraving to satirize almost every
aspect of 18th-century England. In tone, they ranged from gentle moralizing to
savage commentary and occasional bawdiness.
During the 18th
century the graphic arts once again flourished in Italy, as exemplified in the
work of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Antonio Canale, known as Canaletto, and
Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Tiepolo is noted for his delicacy of line and the
spacious quality achieved through economy of line and detail. Canaletto's solid
draftsmanship, coupled with a lightness of line, enabled him to capture the
courtyards, canals, and beautiful architecture of 18th-century Venice. With an
architect's background and his expertise with the graver, Piranesi found a
channel for interpreting his passion for Roman antiquities. He created several
thousand prints, but of particular note is the series Carceri
d'Invenzione (1745; 2d ed. 1760). These are large-scale views of imaginary
prisons in spectacular architectural detail, combining the eeriness of a
dungeon with huge vaulted ceilings, endless staircases, and massive interior
In the 19th century, leading artists produced an extraordinary
range of prints. Spain's Francisco de Goya, for example, combined aquatint with
etching to produce bluntly truthful visions of the follies of humankind and the
heinous acts of war. Goya's highly individualistic style comes across most
characteristically in the print series Los caprichos (The Caprices, 1797-99), in
which he is almost ferocious in his attacks on the clergy and on the government
for its wealth, corruption, and hypocrisy. During the French occupation of Spain
in the Peninsular War (1808-14), Goya created his second most famous series of
prints, Desastres de La guerra (Disasters of War, 1810), horrifying
images of the hideous fate of people caught in war.
In Paris, lithography provided the inexpensive means to reproduce images on a
large scale in the form of prints, periodicals, and book illustrations. Honoré
Daumier was the true voice of the middle class; his particular gift was for
political satire and social commentary, and the corrupt reign of Charles X was
perfect fuel for his powerful wit. Periodicals such as Le Charivari
carried his acute, biting observations on government, the legal profession, and
the upper classes and their many foibles.
A strong school of
romantic landscape painting developed in England during the early decades of the
century, with Joseph Turner and John Constable as its most notable artists. In
this milieu, William Blake produced several books of mystical verse with his own
unique and strange illustrations. Blake's masterpieces are his illustrations for
the Book of Job (1826).
Prominent among mid-l9th century
French artists was the melancholic figure of Charles Méryon. More important than
Méryon's technical acumen in etching was the manner in which he saw his adored
city of Paris, in particular the oldest sections slated for demolition. He
portrayed the charm and elegance of these old buildings in a highly dramatic
From the 1860's to the end of the century, the Japanese
print exerted an enormous influence on the art and artists of the time.
According to tradition, the Parisian artist Felix Braquemond (1833-1914)
received a set of porcelain from Japan, and found that the plates had been
wrapped with the prints of Hokusai. Braquemond enthusiastically showed the
prints to his impressionist artist friends, who were intrigued by their flat,
bold, asymmetrical composition. Edgar Degas' lithographic scenes of women
bathing and dressing are reminiscent of the Japanese style. Henri de
Toulouse-Lautrec was perhaps the most striking and original exponent of
japonisme. Employing the subtle to brilliant coloration and the cropping
of images characteristic of Japanese prints, he designed posters that capture
the essence of charm and elegance.
Through the influence of the
poster artist Jules Chéret (1836-1932), color lithography grew in popularity.
The beautiful color lithographs of Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard portray
Parisian scenes as well as the intimacies of family life. Along with Chéret's
work, that of Théophile Steinlen (1859-1923) and Toulouse-Lautrec made posters
powerful mediums for advertising. The Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, in his
stylish posters, emphasized the sensuous line and the decorative quality that
was characteristic of the turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau movement.
The passionate and masterly Norwegian artist Edvard Munch created woodcuts
and lithographs marked by powerful, highly personal imagery. His women are often
lush and sensuous, while other images, including his men, are fraught with
anxieties and inner tension.
The many art movements that have coursed through this century are
unusual in their diversity and number, and also in their rapid development. They
include Fauvism, cubism, expressionism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, op
art, pop art, and superrealism. Printmakers have played a part in all these
At the turn of this century Paris still reigned as the center of Western art
and printmaking. A group of Postimpressionist exhibited their paintings at the
1905 Salon d'Automne, among them Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault, and André
Derain. Critics called them Fauves (also Fauvist and Fauvism), literally "wild beasts." These youthful artists
sought to use color in a totally unrestrained fashion, which, with the exception
of Matisse's graphic works, carried over into their prints. Matisse's most
important prints, however, are black-and-white lithographs. In his many
odalisques (models posed as harem beauties), Matisse chose a highly decorative
background filled with a patterned design, while his model was dressed in an
exotic Persian-style costume. This rich, opulent atmosphere suggests, in black
and white, the intensity of vivid color.
which translated the realistic image into
abstract form by dissolving it into cubic elements and by crisscrossing shapes
and planes, was the joint achievement of the French artist Georges Braque and
the Spaniard Pablo Picasso, who worked together beginning in 1909. Founded on
the qualities of superb draftsmanship, Picasso's earliest prints (1904) speak of
directness and compassion, and evoke a somber and sentimental nature. In 1930 he
was commissioned by the publisher Ambroise Vollard (1865-1939) to issue a series
of 100 prints, the famous Vollard Suite (pub. 1937), one of the artist's
greatest graphic achievements. The subject matter of these etchings and
aquatints ranges from the artist's studio and model to sensuous and emotional
depictions of Minotaur, and to portraits of Vollard himself. Other artists who
produced important cubist prints were Braque, Jacques Villon (1875-1963), Juan
Gris, and Louis Marcoussis (1883-1941). Each worked to achieve a warm and
harmonious relationship between the etched line and overall tonal quality.
which sought imagery that welled up
from the unconscious and from dreams, produced a number of famous printmakers,
exemplified in the work of the Spaniard Joan
Miró, whose color lithographs have a delightfully whimsical quality. A
similar whimsicality, with bizarre overtones, is found in works by André Masson
(1896-1987) and Yves Tanguy. In 1910 Marc Chagall came to Paris from Russia.
Throughout a long career Chagall distinguished himself as a painter and
printmaker, combining a folkloric, naive charm with rich, dreamlike imagery.
Chagall's major graphic achievements are the early series My Life (1922),
the 105 etchings illustrating the Bible (1956), and the 100 etchings (1948) for
the novel Dead Souls by the Russian writer Nikolay Gogol.
At the turn of the century, German artists developed expressionism, a style emphasizing subjective emotions
and responses to the external world, in reaction against French impressionism
and postimpressionism. As in the Gothic tradition, the immediacy and boldness of
the woodcut made it a perfect medium. One group of Dresden-based artists was
called Die Brücke ("The Bridge"), which consisted of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl
Schmidt-Rottluff, Erich Heckel (1883-1970), and Otto Mueller (1874-1930). Their
styles varied from striking contrasts of sections of roughly gouged wood, in
Schmidt-Rottluff's cartoon like prints and Heckel's harsh portraits, to
Mueller's lyrical composition of female figures.
another group, Der Blaue Reiter ("The Blue Rider"), emerged, led by the
Russian-born Wassily Kandinsky. Together with the Swiss artist Paul Klee, Der
Blaue Reiter artists developed a refined abstraction, in which rhythm of line
and a dramatic sense of color dominated, with an absence of representational
objects. Klee, a unique genius, soon chose to work alone in Switzerland; he used
images with seemingly childlike, naive qualities to create highly sophisticated
personal statements with universal implications in the guise of fantasy.
Early American Prints
colonial America the decorative arts rather than the graphic arts flourished.
There was, however, an interest in portraiture; the first mezzotint in America,
dated 1728, is a portrait of the noted clergyman Cotton Mather by Peter Pelham
After the American Revolution, more diversified
subject matter developed. Engravings were made to commemorate famous battles, to
depict historical events, and to honor generals and noted statesmen. Perhaps the
best-known American historical print of this period is the silversmith Paul
Revere's Boston Massacre (1770). Most early American prints were made
by professional engravers who almost always relied on paintings for their
subject matter. Prints also became a vehicle for the spread of political and
By the 1800s the first truly American printmaking movement had
come into being. Topographical imagery was popular, as were genre scenes of
American farm and city life. The most outstanding prints created during the
1820's and '30s were the remarkable engravings by Robert Havell, Jr.
(1793-1878), for John James Audubon's folios of American birds (pub. 1827-38).
Because they were less costly to produce, lithographs soon became
more popular than engravings.The first private American concern to sell prints
was founded by Nathaniel Currier (1813-88). He and his partner, James Ives
(1824-95), became "printmakers to the American people."
Winslow Homer began his career as a magazine illustrator for Harper's Weekly.
He eventually created two masterful engravings, Eight Bells (1887) and
Perils of the Sea (1888), based on two of his best-known canvases. The
most important American printmaker of the last half of the 19th century was
James Abbott McNeill Whistler. He learned etching technique at the U.S. Coastal
Survey in Washington, D.C. About 1860 Whistler moved to England, where he soon
began creating his famous series of prints of London, Paris, and Venice. His
experimentation with technique and refinement of compositional details earned
Whistler a high position in printmaking.
Mary Cassatt, an artist
from Philadelphia, went to study in Paris and settled there. An early
impressionist, she developed expert technique in drypoint, etching, and
aquatint. She further expanded her oeuvre by endeavoring to re-create the
quality of the Japanese woodblock print in a series of color aquatints in which
areas of soft color are combined with decorative patterning; these rank among
her most famous prints.
Childe Hassam and Maurice Prendergast
were Americans important impressionists. Hassam concentrated on etching, using
short staccato strokes within a firm design. Prendergast for a short time
produced monotypes. His subtle and refined palette was well suited to this
spontaneous and demanding method of printmaking.
The Ashcan school was America'ss
first art movement to break away from European styles. The etchings of John
Sloan and Edward Hopper and the lithographs of George Bellows were the first
American prints to catch the vitality of urban life in all its aspects, from
squalor to grandeur.
The Armory Show exhibition of 1913 brought
modernism to American printmakers; the repercussions of the show influenced
American artists for many years to follow. John Mann's Brooklyn Bridge
Swaying (1913) is one of the earliest American prints to break away from
traditionalism. In this work, the vibrancy and swerving energy of the etched
line and the semidistortion express the artist's moods and the emotions aroused
during the work's creation. Lyonel Feininger, through the boldness of the
woodcut medium, also created abstract patterns that convey his intense personal
The English artist Stanley William Hayter (1901-88) established and ran,
from 1927 to 1940, a Paris workshop called Atelier 17 to teach etching and
engraving. Atelier 17 was transferred to New York in 1940 and remained in
operation for 15 more years, becoming the mecca for creative intaglio
printmaking. The technical innovations that later came from such artists as
Mauricio Lasansky (1914- ), Antonio Frasconi 1919- ), and Gabor Peterdi
(1915- ) were a direct result of Hayter's inspiration.
In the 1960s the specialized workshop for the graphic artist became
important. The most influential was the studio run by Tatyana Grosman
(1904-82) on Long Island, where major artists gathered to make prints. This
arrangement was so successful that a close working relationship between
master printer and artist developed in several other studios. The Tamarind
Lithography Workshop, founded in California by June Wayne (1918- ) and now
located in New Mexico, became an important creative center for graphic
artists. Many of the best contemporary artists have been drawn to such
centers, including Larry Rivers, Josef Albers, and such abstract
expressionists as Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and
Jim Dine (1935- ). Printmaking workshops are now spread across the country,
mostly located at major colleges and universities.
Drawing away from the vision of the abstract expressionists were young
artists of the pop culture (Pop Art). Here material from the mass media
magazines, newspapers, films, and photographs were combined impersonally and
repetitively, often resulting in imaginative imagery. Through the use of
advertisements and other mundane images, artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy
Lichtenstein, and Robert Indiana (1928- ) set out to challenge graphic