Charles-François Daubigny, The Goat Herder (La gardeuse de chèvres), 1862.

Revivals and Modernity: The Printed Image in Nineteenth-Century France, Part 2

February 16, 2016
– By Cynthia Burlingham, deputy director, curatorial affairs

The following is the second of three excerpts from Cynthia Burlingham's essay in Noir: The Romance of Black in 19th-Century French Drawings and Prints, Edited by Lee Hendrix (Getty Publications, 2016). Read the first excerpt.

The Getty Museum's exhibition Noir: The Romance of Black in 19th-Century French Drawings and Prints—which includes several works from the Hammer Museum's Grunwald Center Collection—is on view from February 9–May 15, 2016.

Charles-François Daubigny, The Goat Herder (La gardeuse de chèvres), 1862.
The Goat Herder (La gardeuse de chèvres)

Around 1860 growing critical favoritism toward etching paved the way for the so-called etching revival, which would flourish in France and England throughout the 1860s and 1870s. The Parisian publisher Alfred Cadart (1828–1875) founded the Société des aquafortistes (Society of Etchers) in 1862 (5). Employing the talents of the artists Bracquemond, Maxime Lalanne (1827–1886), Édouard Manet (1832–1883), and others, with Delâtre as printer, the Société des aquafortistes launched the series Eaux-fortes modernes: Publication d’oeuvres originales et inédites (Modern etchings: Original and unpublished works) in 1862. The series, which would continue until 1867, featured sixty new etchings annually, with five prints by five different artists each month, as well as earlier prints by artists such as Delacroix. Its first issue contained etchings by Bracquemond, Lalanne, and Manet, with subsequent editions including prints by the landscape painters Adolphe Appian (1818–1898), Corot, Daubigny, and Jacque. By this time photography had replaced reproductive engraving as the premier medium for reproducing an original work of art. Simultaneously, Cadart and his collaborators declared that among the print media etching was the most direct manifestation of the artist’s creative temperament because it was unmediated by mechanical and industrial processes. Extolling Rembrandt as etching’s greatest practitioner, they proclaimed the etching medium to be the most like drawing. Directly connected to the hand of the artist, it was therefore the print medium best suited to painters.

Enthusiastic critical support and promotion were essential to the success of Cadart’s endeavors and to the entire etching revival. Cadart engaged prominent critics to write introductory texts for each issue of Eaux-fortes modernes in support of his claims for etching’s superiority. In the first issue Théophile Gautier proclaimed the originality of the etching medium, noting that “every etching is an original drawing” and citing the prints of Rembrandt as the epitome of the etcher’s art. (6)  In the second issue Jules Janvin detailed etching’s superiority to photography. And in a preface to the third issue, Théophile Thoré-Bürger promoted etching as “the analogue of printing and the press, which multiply written thought.” (7) Other literary figures also supported the primacy of etching, declaring it comparable to the written text in its capacity to disseminate a private artistic expression to a wide audience using the materials of paper and ink. (8)

The most influential critic was the poet Baudelaire, who, in his 1862 essay “Peintres et aquafortistes” (Painters and etchers), praised etching as a means of direct communication with the artist himself, noting that the medium made it difficult for the artist not to describe his most intimate personality. (9) Rejecting etching’s potential to become a popular medium, Baudelaire characterized the technique as too personal, and therefore too aristocratic, to interest a larger public beyond a close circle of knowledgeable amateurs. (10)  His claims for the intimacy of etching, and his belief in its limited audience, were in direct conflict with Cadart’s advocacy of the etching as a popular vehicle. The success of Cadart’s endeavor depended heavily upon the successful replication of images and their subsequent distribution to a wide audience. To that end Cadart worked with the printer Delâtre on a new method of steel-facing the plates in order to preserve them and increase the number of impressions produced. The importance of the discerning collector and the question of limited editions would become a focus of debate in the ensuing decade, when Cadart’s promotion of etching as a replicable medium diverged from the approach of collectors who favored the unique qualities of individual impressions. 

In 1866 Lalanne, an artist known for his etched city views as well as his landscape drawings, published his influential Le traité de la gravure à l’eau-forte (Treatise on etching). It was the period’s most important and comprehensive discussion of the etching medium, with a second French edition in 1878 and subsequent editions in English. (11) Both Lalanne’s treatise and his own prints embodied the tenets of the 1860s etching revival. He exhorted artists to maintain the purity of the medium by respecting the integrity of the etched line, and thus refraining from using aquatint and other tonal methods. He also encouraged artists to do their own printing. Eschewing such prescriptions, however, a number of etchers gravitated toward experimental and tonal techniques. In 1876 the Maison Cadart, managed by Cadart’s widow after his death in 1875, published Eaux-fortes de Lepic, an album of etchings by the artist Ludovic Lepic. In the preface Lepic declared that he would “make prints like a painter, not like a printmaker.” (12) He differentiated his impressions by creatively inking and wiping his plates, rather than making changes to the plates themselves, thereby producing a series of unique impressions from the same plate. Lepic’s dramatic effects intentionally hark back to Rembrandt’s vari ations in inking and wiping and to his use of papers of different textures and tones. Other French artists such as Appian, and printers such as Delâtre, also experimented with different inkings and techniques, including retroussage, and these variations increasingly attracted the support of etchers during the 1870s. The production of individualized impressions required the full commitment of the artist to the printing process and precluded extended editioning and broad distribution. As a natural extension of this interest in unique impressions, various artists were drawn to the monotype process. Edgar Degas (1834–1917) had worked with virtually every graphic medium but rarely editioned his prints; he instead used various printmaking techniques, particularly etching, experimentally and pulled proofs in various stages. (13) Introduced to the monotype technique by Lepic, he produced a range of monoprints that often involved extensive reworking and additions by hand in pastel and other media. 

In the year of Cadart’s death, the critic Philippe Burty wrote an article titled “La belle épreuve” (The beautiful impression), in which he designated the first print off the press an “artist’s proof.” (14) The suggestion that one individual impression was somehow most closely identified with the artist led to the creation of a variety of designations directed primarily at the collector who valued the unique impression over the uniform printed edition. A decade earlier Burty had advanced the idea of limiting editions and destroying the plates after printing, to the dismay of some artists and publishers. Enthusiasts of the belle épreuve promoted the use of distinguishing features in impressions or limited editions rather than relying on the natural potential of the etching medium to produce a uniformly replicated suite of images. The elaborate etchings of Félix-Hilaire Buhot (1847–1898) were of particular interest to collectors who valued specific features that distinguished an individual print or series of prints from others, such as proofs on special paper, detailed recording of states, special stamps, signatures, and remarques. (15)

5. See Janine Bailly-Herzberg, L’eau-forte de peintre au dix-neuvième siècle: La Société des aquafortistes, 1862–1867, 2 vols. (Paris: L. Laget, 1972).

6. Quoted in Douglas Druick and Peter Zegers, “Degas and the Printed Image, 1856–1914,” in Sue Welsh Reed and Barbara Stern Shapiro, Edgar Degas: The Painter as Printmaker, exh. cat. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1984), xxiii.

7. For a discussion of the relationship between etching and literature, see Anna Arnar, “Seduced by the Etcher’s Needle: French Writers and the Graphic Arts in Nineteenth-Century France,” in Elizabeth Helsinger et al., The “Writing” of Modern Life: The Etching Revival in France, Britain, and the U.S., 1850–1940, exh. cat. (Chicago: Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 2008), 40.

8. Martha Tedeschi, “The New Language of Etching in Nineteenth- Century England,” in Helsinger, The “Writing” of Modern Life, 25–55; Arnar, “Seduced by the Etcher’s Needle,” 39.

9. Charles Baudelaire, Art in Paris, 1845–1862: Salons and Other Exhibitions, trans. and ed. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1965), 217–22.

10. See Peter Parshall, “A Darker Side of Light: Prints, Privacy, and Possession,” in Peter Parshall et al., The Darker Side of Light: Arts of Privacy, 1850–1900, exh. cat. (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2009), 7.

11. Maxime Lalanne, The Technique of Etching, ed. Jay M. Fisher, trans. S. R. Koehler (New York: Dover Publications, 1981).

12. See Melot, The Impressionist Print, 128.

13. See Reed and Shapiro, Edgar Degas.

14. See Allison Morehead, “Interlude: Bracquemond and Buhot,” in Helsinger, The “Writing” of Modern Life, 58.

15. Burty, who was himself a collector, had first put forth the idea in 1863, and in 1869 insisted on the destruction of a plate by Millet after 350 copies had been printed. See Michel Melot, “The Nature and Role of the Print,” in Michel Melot et al., Prints: History of an Art (Geneva: Skira; New York: Rizzoli, 1981), 111.