Issue Number: 94
Drawing the line
Although Monet largely rejected printmaking, he made a little- known series of prints, now on display at the RA. Here, Scott Reyburn looks at Monet’s lithographs and, overleaf, he considers prints by Monet’s contemporaries – whose work is on offer at the London Original Print Fair this spring
William Thornley, Three Fishing Boats, c.1894. After Claude Monet
Paris in the 1890s was the capital of printmaking and modern art. Thanks to technological advances in poster printing, using lithographic stones, artists began to work in a medium that allowed them to create an almost limitless number of colour images without any loss of expressive power or quality. Art had embraced the age of mechanical reproduction. What Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst would come to know as the ‘multiple’ had been invented.
In 1891, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec produced his first colour lithographic poster for the Moulin Rouge. Degas, already a master of black and white lithography, quickly adopted and adapted the new medium and, by the mid-1890s, virtually every major Parisian artist was in the grip of chromolithomania. The dealer and publisher, Ambroise Vollard, cannily grasping the financial potential of the newly created market for artists’ limited-edition prints, persuaded Renoir, Pissarro, Cézanne, Bonnard, Vuillard and Gauguin to contribute lithographs to his 1896 Album des Peintres Graveurs, issued in 100 copies.
Curiously, the only major artist who rejected the medium was Claude Monet. In December 1898, the Société Libre des Gens des Lettres asked France’s most famous landscape painter to contribute to their own group album of photographs. Monet replied, ‘I have never made a lithograph and so I am incapable of producing anything that would be the least bit appropriate for the album you are planning.’
But why was Monet so indifferent to a medium that offered other artists so many creative possibilities? For James Ganz, curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, and contributor to the catalogue for the RA’s exhibition, ‘The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings’, Monet’s ambivalent attitude towards drawing holds the key to a new understanding of the artist.
‘This exhibition shows that Monet made drawings throughout his career, but always denied that drawing had any role in his life as an artist. That’s why it’s called “The Unknown Monet”,’ says Ganz. ‘Monet wanted to construct an image of himself as an anti-draughtsman. So, whenever he was photographed, he was always shown with a palette or a cigarette in his hand, never a pencil or a sketchbook.’
During the 1890s, artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard and Degas were producing lithographs by drawing with special inks and crayons directly on to the printing stone. At the same time, Monet was busily cultivating the myth that he was a painter who only painted, a plein-air painter of such purity and intensity of focus that he couldn’t or wouldn’t draw. Monet wanted to be perceived as the Caravaggio of the cornfields.
Significantly, when Monet finally did become involved with a lithographic project in the mid-1890s, he was not directly responsible for the drawings. Around 1892–4, the Anglo-French painter and printmaker, William Thornley, produced an album of reproductive colour lithographs after twenty of Monet’s most characteristic paintings, a selection of which are included in ‘The Unknown Monet’ exhibition. Just 25 copies of this album were produced and it failed to attract the notice of any critics.
There are also no known references to the project in Monet’s correspondence. Thornley was a highly skilled lithographer – Three Fishing Boats (above), which used four different printing stones, is a particularly effective work – but Monet’s lack of hands-on involvement resulted in the project becoming little more than an obscure, if fascinating, footnote in the history of Impressionism.
‘Monet realises that drawing complicates the picture of himself,’ explains Ganz. ‘People love Monet because he’s easy to understand. His art is sensual and direct. Drawing complicates the story. And so he edits it out of his self-image. ‘The Unknown Monet’ is an exhibition of drawings and prints that were meant to be a secret,’ says Ganz. ‘The irony is that by trying to edit out drawing – and by extension lithography – from his own story, Monet emerges as a much more complicated artist. And a more interesting one.’
'Artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard and Degas were producing lithographs by drawing with special inks directly on to the printing stone. At the same time, Monet was busily cultivating the myth that he was a painter who only painted'
HENRI DE TOULOUSE-LAUTREC
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is the greatest colour lithographer of the nineteenth century and the 1896 album, Elles, is his masterpiece. Eleven out of twelve Elles prints are poignantly observed glimpses of the routine, all-too-human life in Parisian brothels. The only print that isn’t set in the maisons closes is La Clownesse Assise, a haunting snapshot of the Moulin Rouge’s resident female clown and acrobat, Cha-u-Ka-o, caught in an unguarded moment of pensive introspection.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Clownesse Assise, 1896. COURTESY FREDERICK MULDER.
Toulouse-Lautrec printed the lithograph using three different stones for the black, pink and yellow areas, making free use of his trademark crachis technique of spattering spots of ink across the image. ‘I’ve always loved this subject,’ says London dealer, Frederick Mulder, who is offering this example at the fair. ‘The directness of Cha-u-Ka-o’s posture and gaze, the vividness of the blocks of colour used for her feathery top and the bench on which she sits, set against the delicacy of the spatter technique used for the background, all combine to give it great presence and complexity. I never tire of it.’
One of the 100 impressions published in the only edition of Elles, the rarity and quality of La Clownesse Assise is reflected in its price: £270,000.
Lithography, unlike the intaglio processes of etching or engraving, is a surface-printing technique that can produce numerous images with virtually no depreciation in quality. Rarity has to be artificially imposed on the prints by issuing them in numbered editions. The legendary Parisian dealer, Ambroise Vollard, was one of the first publishers of limited-edition prints, making three albums of lithographs by leading artists in a restricted print run of 100 copies. Vollard’s third Album des Peintres Graveurs, 1897, was never completed, but it included this Pierre Bonnard study of his sister’s eldest child, L’Enfant à la Lampe.
Forward-looking in his use of flat expanses of colour, Bonnard, like Toulouse-Lautrec, was much influenced by Japanese printmakers and he, in turn, influenced European printmakers during the 1950s. This finely preserved example of one of Bonnard’s two most admired prints is offered by the London dealer William Weston for £20,000.
Weston believes this lithograph represents the quintessence of what Bonnard is about as an artist. ‘The unheroic, personalised emotion of this scene typifies the intimiste concerns of the Nabis artists. It sums up all the ideas about flatness and colour that Bonnard took from Japanese art and Gauguin,’ he says.
‘Bonnard is interpreting these ideas by exploiting the medium of lithography for its own qualities rather than thinking just as a painter. All these factors make this a masterpiece by Bonnard, which also happens to be a lithograph.’
Elizabeth Harvey-Lee, a print dealer from North Aston, Oxfordshire, is bringing Henri-Edmond Cross’s neo-impressionist, 1898, five-colour lithograph Aux Champs-Elysées to the London Original Print Fair, priced at £1,000. The price is considerably lower for this print, as it was issued unsigned and unnumbered in an edition of the German art magazine, Pan. However, this scene of a young girl and her nanny sitting in the Champs-Elysées is one of only two lithographs that Cross ever produced.
Born Henri-Edmond Delacroix, Cross adopted his Anglicised surname to avoid confusion with the more illustrious Eugène Delacroix and to acknowledge that his mother was English. He joined Signac, Luce and other members of the neo-impressionist movement in 1891, the year in which its founder, Georges Seurat, died.
As Harvey-Lee points out, the multiple-stone technique of colour lithography ideally suited Cross and other followers of the pointillist Seurat. ‘The use of separate stones for printing each colour in lithography seems particularly apposite for an artist like Cross who believed in the juxtaposition of pure colours rather than pre-mixing them on the palette.’
The London Original Print Fair, Burlington Gardens, Royal Academy of Arts (020 7439 2000; www.londonprintfair.com
), 25–29 April; The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings
, Sackler Wing, Royal Academy of Arts (020 7300 8000), 17 March–10 June
Buy tickets online or call +44(0)870 8488484
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