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First Impressions
The early history of lithography–A comparative survey

National Gallery of Australia  3 May – 24 August 2003

Lorenz Quaglio Portrait of Senefelder 1818

Lorenz Quaglio Portrait of Senefelder 1818 lithograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more details

In 1972 — in a move that would establish the cornerstone of its future International Print collection — the National Gallery of Australia acquired the Felix Man Collection, an astonishing array of over a 1,000 prints and hundreds of books which document the history of lithography from its invention in 1798 to the early 1960s. First Impressions, which concentrates on the early history of the process, draws on this seminal material. A group of later works has also been selected to give an indication of the ways in which the process developed.

To properly understand the true impact of lithography however, it would be remiss not to give some account of its origins. Indeed, the short account which follows refers to the pioneering work of Felix Man himself who wrote eloquently on the subject in 150 Years of Artists’ Lithographs, 1952, and the exhibition catalogue, Homage to Senefelder, 1971.

The invention of lithography

Until the beginning of the 19th century there were essentially only two means of printing: relief printing, whereby a raised surface is inked and an image is taken from this surface by placing it in contact with a suitable carrier such as paper or cloth; and the intaglio process, in which lines or marks engraved or etched onto a plate retain the applied ink.What these two processes have in common is that they are purely mechanical — ink either adheres to a raised surface (of a woodblock for example) or is caught in the tiny fissures of an etching plate, and it is this that forms the printed impression.

Lithography, on the other hand, relies on a very simple chemical fact: oil and water do not mix. As Aloys Senefelder, the inventor of lithography, wrote in his Vollständiges Lehrbuch der Steindrukerey [Complete Manual of Lithography], 1818 — a copy of which is displayed in the exhibition:

The chemical process of printing is totally different … Here it does not matter whether the lines be engraved or elevated, but the lines and points to be printed ought to be covered with a liquid [or chalk], to which the ink [for printing], consisting of a homogenous substance, must adhere according to its chemical affinity and the laws of attraction, while at the same time, all those places which are to remain blank, must possess the quality of repelling the colour … All greasy substances … do not unite with any watery liquid. On the contrary, they are inimical to water, and seem to repel it … Upon this experience rests the whole foundation of this new method of printing, which in order to distinguish it from the mechanical methods, is justly called the chemical method; because the reason the ink, prepared of a sebaceous matter, adheres only to the lines drawn on the plate, and is repelled from the rest of the surface, depends on their mutual chemical affinity, and not on mechanical contact alone …

But that was in 1818. Back in 1796, when Senefelder made the initial discovery that was to lead to the invention of lithography, he did so in seemingly the most accidental of ways.

Born in Prague in 1771 to a father of Bavarian descent, Senefelder attended the Gymnasium [high school] in Munich. He was a brilliant student. His passion, however, was for the theatre and by 1792, at the age of 21, he already had a hit at the Court Theatre with his play Die Mädchenkenner. It was his ambition to see his plays more widely disseminated, and with this in mind he set out to find a cheaper way of achieving this than the prohibitively expensive traditional means of printing-press reproduction.

Senefelder’s experiments included a form of relief printing that involved etching a stone surface by using a preparation that resisted the effect of the acid used to etch it, in much the same waysculptorshadbeendoing for centuries to produceinscriptions on headstones. Then, one morning, as he describes in his manual:

I had just ground a stone plate smooth in order to treat it with etching fluid and to pursue on it my practice of reverse writing, when my mother asked me to write a laundry list for her. The laundress was waiting but we could find no paper. My own supply had been used up by pulling proofs. Even the writing-ink was dried up. Without bothering to send for writing materials, I wrote the list hastily on the clean stone with my prepared stone ink of wax, soap and lamp-black …

He then placed the stone in an acid bath to etch it. Or so the story goes. But like so many stories that litter the history of art, when subjected to scrutiny it is full of holes. More perniciously, it obscures what Senefelder’s crucial observation must have been: at some stage he must have noticed that the residue left by the waxy ink resist he was using — a residue that remained embeddedin the porous surface of the stone, even after the stone had been washed — seemed to attract and retain ink by and of itself. And if the stone was still wet when the ink was applied to it, the greasy ink didn’t adhere to this still wetted part. As a consequence there was no need to etch the stone at all. It followed, therefore — and this was lithography’s great advantage — that there was nothing to wear away in the act of printing. In other words, the stone was capable of endlessly replicating whatever image had been fixed within its porous surface. The same principle would apply in the later use of metal plates whose surface may also be microscopically porous. This is, and remains, the essential nature of the lithographic process, and it is this phenomenon that Senefelder must have observed in 1796.

Whatever the case, by 1798 the full process had been invented and, on 3 September 1799, Senefelder was granted an exclusive licence for what he called Chemical Printing for Bavaria and the Electorate. Later that month he signed an agreement with Johann Anton André, a well-known music publisher from Offenbach, to set up a number of presses there and elsewhere to exploit the process. The following year Senefelder accompanied Johann Anton’s brother, Philipp, to London to establish presses there. In 1802 Frédéric André took the process to France where Senefelder’s cumbersome and somewhat misleadingname of Chemical Printing was replaced with the name ‘lithographie’, meaning ‘writing on stone’. So universal did this name become that the inscription on Lorenz Quaglio’s famous 1818 portrait of Senefelder reads ‘Aloys Senefelder: Erfinder der Lithographie and der Chemischen Druckerey’ [Aloys Senefelder: Inventor of Lithography and Chemical Printing]. The stage was thus set for lithography to become the most pervasive image-making process of all time.

image: Benjamin West 'The Angel of the Resurrection' 180 from 'Specimens of Polyautography' 1803 lithograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

Benjamin West The Angel of the Resurrection 1801 from Specimens of Polyautography 1801 lithograph
Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
more details

The early works

While Johann Anton André was interested in the commercial possibilities of the process, his brother Philipp was more alert to its artistic potential. Immediately upon setting up his presses in London, Philipp approached as many artists as he could in an effort to arouse their interest. Such was the response that in 1803 he was able to publish the first collection of drawings made on stone under the title Specimens of Polyautography. The album included works by Benjamin West, Richard Cooper, Richard Corbould, Henry Fuseli, Thomas Barker, Thomas Stothard and Conrad Gessner — all of which are on display in the exhibition. Most deserve individual comment.

Benjamin West’s The Angel of the Resurrection 1801, for example, generally considered to be ‘the first lithograph of artistic merit ever done in any country’, is noteworthy for its symbolic apposition of light and dark. Although clearly derived from an engraving technique, even today this pen drawing on stone has a bravura directness. In an interesting aside, Study of a tree 1802 by West’s son, Raphael Lamar West, was included in the second series of Specimens of Polyautography, published in 1806 by G.J. Vollweiler, who had taken over the André presses the year before.

On a more secular note, Fuseli’s A woman sitting by a window 1802 shows a young woman, her breasts exposed, her face turned away from us, peering out through a half-parted curtain into the unknown. The inscription in reverse in Greek, which reads ‘Evening thou bringest all’, is as deliberately ambiguous as the young woman’s posture — is she leaning towards the window with longing as her languid left arm indicates; or, as her tensed right arm with its splayed fingers and her forward thrusting left leg suggest, is she about to flee in fear? The underlying erotic psychology of much of Fuseli’s work suggests both interpretations. This is a brilliantly enigmatic image perfectly realised by a process astonishingly still in its infancy.

image: Henry Fuseli ''A woman sitting by a window' 1802 from 'Specimens of Polyautography 1803 180 lithograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

Henry Fuseli A woman sitting by a window 1802 from Specimens of Polyautography 1803 lithograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more details

Of another order altogether is Conrad Gessner’s Cavalry charging 1801. Much has been made of the great ‘energy’ of this work. Its charm however resides in the fact that this is essentially a doodle done as a lithograph, a boys-own adventure typical of the imagery generated by the military campaigns of the time. As a notebook drawing it would be completely dismissable. As an example of early lithography, however, it is charming — charming because it conveys so readily the immediacy of effect that this new technique offered to those brave enough to try it.

Gessner worked closely with Senefelder in London helping Philipp André establish his presses. His Cavalry charging, like all the images in the first album of Specimens of Polyautography, is drawn in pen. These images are, as a consequence, largely imitative of other printmaking techniques, while some of the images in the second volume  are done in the ‘chalk’ manner.  One such is Gessner’s Horses at a cottage door c.1804. This is a marvellous print, clearly demonstrating what Senefelder had claimed for the process right from the start — that it is able to capture like no other print process before it the exact nuance of the very act of drawing itself, and to replicate it faithfully ad infinitum. The bucolic, understated nature of Horses at a cottage door — a man, with his small son awkwardly astride a horse, responds to the unseen greetings of a passerby (note the wonderfully observed alert, but otherwise immobile posture of the dog) — is perfectly captured by the subtly articulated shadings of what one would still swear was an actual pencil drawing. The effect at the time, so unlike anything that had preceded it, must have been sensational.

In Berlin, spurred on by the London publications of Specimens of Polyautography, Wilhelm Reuter, professor at the Berlin Academy, decided to produce his own equivalent, Polyautographische Zeichnungen vorzüglicher Berliner Künstler [Polyautographic Drawings by Outstanding Berlin Artists]. Reuter had travelled extensively, to Offenbach and to Paris, in order to increase his expertise in this new art form. His own unselfconscious experiments, often on scraps of paper — see his Naked boy standing 1805 — are idiosyncratically appealing in their own right. But his Pluto’s Rape of Persephone 1803 and Karl Friedrich Hampe’s Cain slaying Abel 1804, the latter from Polyautographische Zeichnungen, show that the Berlin works were often less technically successful than their London counterparts, perhaps because — at least in the case of the Hampe image — they were drawn on marble rather than on the Solnhofen limestone so favoured by Senefelder.

image: Th�odore G�ricault Mameluke defending a wounded trumpeter 1818

Théodore Géricault ''Mameluke defending a wounded trumpeter' 1818 chalk lithograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
click to enlarge

Neither the London nor Berlin albums were successful commercially and the initial enthusiasm for the process in Britain and Germany gave way to a development which was slower and less spectacular. The same situation applied in France. Nevertheless, technical advances followed quickly. Tint stones, for example, in which an initial stone is used to provide a background colour, sometimes with areas scraped back to reveal highlights, appeared early — see for example, Johann Strixner’s Crucifixion with donor’s family c.1806. These methods were eventually to lead to full colour lithography, a wonderful early example of which is Joseph Lanzedelly’s Masquerade of 1820. There were also early examples, such as Samuel Prout’s Ruins of a windmill 1818, which showed the successful use of transfer paper — a means by which an initial drawing executed on specially prepared paper is transferred to stone, thus avoiding the tiresome need to ‘draw in reverse’. Strixner was also quick to realise lithography’s reproductive potential — see his stunning Christ and the adulteress 1819 after a painting by Lucas Cranach (the elder).

From about 1820, however, the future of the process really lay in the hands of individual practitioners who, for whatever reason, had a particular affinity for it. Théodore Géricault produced a number of astonishingly powerful lithographs — Mameluke defending a wounded trumpeter 1818, for example, and The Flemish farrier 1821 (which was so admired by others that it was used as the model for a number of painted copies), and Lion devouring a horse 1820, produced while Géricault was in London and for which he used a specially prepared board invented by Senefelder as a substitute for stone. Similarly Nicholas-Toussaint Charlet, a close friend of Géricault, executed almost 1,000 lithographs, some of which are highly technically accomplished. His Man from the Orient 1828, for example, uses a mezzotint-like process of scraping back highlights from a uniformly inked stone. In 1825 the exiled and ageing Francisco Goya produced The division of the arena, one of four images from the series Los Toros de Burdeos [The Bulls of Bordeaux]. This image has since become one of the great masterpieces of printmaking. A meditation on life and death, Los Toros, with its ironic, nostalgic title (these are bulls of the imagination, for there were never any bullfights in Bordeaux), and its convention-defying composition was also destined to become a powerful influence on the later work of Pablo Picasso.

Thus, by 1820, the future was set. And while this often recalcitrant process had its ups and downs, there was no turning back. Within a decade of its invention, remarkably accomplished works had been produced in Germany, France and England. By the 1820s lithographic workshops had been established in America and as far afield as Australia. As a phenomenon, its commercial impact was enormous — it was, in a sense, the Microsoft of its time.

image: Roger Soubie, Lolita 1962 Roger Soubie Lolita 1962
offset lithography Collection of the National Gallery of Australia.
click image to enlarge

Later developments

While the exhibition is primarily concerned with the early history of lithography, this history did not follow a linear narrative. By way of contrast, a number of works from the later period have been included to demonstrate directions taken with the technique. There are four works by Honoré Daumier from the 1830s to the 1850s which show how quickly the process was taken up by the ‘mass’ media; there is Jules Chéret’s poster from 1897 done for the Folies-Bergère; and Leonetto Cappiello’s fabulous example of commercial offset-lithography Nitrolian from 1929.

Also included is Picasso’s lithographic masterpiece Woman in an armchair no.1 1948, depicting his then mistress Françoise Gilot in her sumptuous Polish coat; Roger Soubie’s memorable poster for Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita 1962; and James Rosenquist’s monumental Where the water goes from 1989. And there are others.

First Impressions highlights once again the extraordinary depth of the National Gallery of Australia’s International Print collection. What it demonstrates is that, even in its infancy, lithography as a process saw the advent of works of exceptional beauty, while in its maturity it was to become the dominant image-making process of the 20th century. In this context, lithography has helped to shape our visual culture, particularly over the last century, producing an enormous variety of images in an enormous variety of contexts, from high art limited editions by some of the greatest artists of our, or their, times, to mass produced items which show an equally extraordinary attention to design and execution. As such, it is a tribute to humble beginnings, astonishing ends, and the power of first impressions.


Mark Henshaw
Curator, International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books

first published in Artonview, Issue No. 33 Autumn 2003, p. 33-38