We are accustomed today to seeing copies of color images: posters of Jessica Alba or The Strokes on our dorm-room walls, images in books and magazines and the annoying little handouts we are given outside Cutler’s. The idea hardly seems radical. But color prints were once revolutionary and the printmakers, pioneers.
The exhibition, “Colorful Impressions: The Printmaking Revolution in Eighteenth-Century France,” is housed on the fourth floor of the Yale University Art Gallery. The room is painted deep red and dimly lit — creating a dramatic atmosphere for the delicate prints. The collection is rather daunting with over a hundred works, many of which are presented in multiple impressions or beside their corresponding drawings.
About two-thirds of the objects belong to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The rest are from the family collection of Ivan E. Phillips ’56.
Prints have been around since the early 1400s, but color had to be painted on by hand. The breakthrough only came 300 years later when engraving and etching methods were combined with newly invented ways of printing a single image from multiple plates. German artist Jakob Christoffel Le Blon printed the first full-color images with just three basic inks: blue, red, yellow and, later, black. This innovative technique is still used today.
Color printmaking was devised with the specific intention of replicating something that had already been created in chalk, pastel or paint. The idea was to produce inexpensive and accessible reproductions of paintings that would otherwise only hang on the walls of the aristocratic elite. New printmaking techniques made “masterpieces” affordable; advertised as “printed paintings,” they were hugely successful and caused an explosive growth of a commercial art industry.
The artists whose paintings were reproduced are among some of the most famous names of the 18th century: Boucher, Watteau, Fragonard and Boilly, among others. But the names of the printmakers who pioneered these techniques — Bonnet, Demarteau, Janinet, Descourtis and Debucourt, to name a few — have been virtually forgotten. This exhibition honors these printmakers. But why at Yale?
“The idea to show the exhibition at Yale was first broached, in fact, by Mr. Phillips, during the time (2003-2004) it was on view at the National Gallery, and I immediately thought it was a terrific idea,” said Suzanne Boorsch, Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at the gallery. “Prints from 18th-century France are not well represented in the gallery’s [permanent collection], so to be able to exhibit such a broad sampling of this material is an opportunity that simply will not come our way again.”
Typical of the rococo style of 18th-century France, the prints are dominated by delicate colors and curving forms. They illustrate a flighty world of lace and ruffles: translucent, aristocratic complexions and very-nearly-overflowing bodices.
While most of the works capture the frivolous spirit of the times (the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI), the exhibition also suggests a gradually changing attitude during the advent of the revolution. The works depict scenes of quiet gaiety — aristocratic people walking their aristocratic dogs through the gardens of the aristocracy or slightly naughty scenes of married ladies flirting with overzealous male lovers — all in tiny detail and pretty pastel colors. But the later works are not quite as perky; there are more sinister undercurrents to the content and style.
One of the most impressive works — if only because of its contrast to the rest — is Jacques-Fabien Gautier Dagoty’s six-foot-long “Skeleton,” printed with multiple plates on three sheets trimmed and glued together. The piece is beautiful as well as technically impressive. It was used as an illustration in a medical text about human anatomy and shows just how much these prints did for art in service of science and medicine.
Nearly all the prints are exquisite, dream-like. Light dances off the lustrous fabric of a pearly gown, and the pale complexions of the landed gentry seem to glow through the ink — but how much does that have to do with the printmaker? The artist (Boucher or Wattea or Boilly) painted these masterpieces with careful deliberation and delicate brushwork only for them to be multiplied for the masses. Is the printmaker even an artist or just an under-appreciated artsy engineer? Are these prints really anything more than glorified photocopies? The exhibition seems to willfully ignore the question of originality in favor of a kind of forced equality that treats both the original and the copy as works of similar merit.
The paintings reproduced are impressive, and the techniques mind-blowing for the time. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that these prints comprise nothing more than an artistic Limewire of the 18th century.