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Topic: Impressions of France: French prints 1850-1900

This selection of etchings, drypoints, lithographs, and woodcuts from Te Papa’s permanent collection illustrates the revival of printmaking that occurred in France in the second half of the 19th century.

The prints represent a diverse range of styles and techniques and include works by members of the Barbizon school, and the impressionist and post-impressionist movements. The display offers an opportunity to see work in another medium by artists who are better known as painters, such as Corot, Manet, and Renoir, as well as works by master printmakers such as Legros and Bracquemond. Japanese woodcuts are also included to represent the significant influence of these prints on French artists of the time.

By far the most significant development in French printmaking was the rediscovery of etching as a medium for creative expression. In the early 19th century etching was seen mainly as a means of reproducing paintings and drawings, but later, landscape painters began to see it as a viable medium for making original images.

Both the artists of the Barbizon school and the impressionists were attracted to etching, as it allowed for spontaneous, sketchy lines and hatchings, and for the use of the white paper to capture effects of light on the landscape. Copper plates could also be taken out-of-doors to record the variety of nature on the spot.  A superb example of this use of the medium is Jean Baptiste Camille Corot’s etching Souvenir d’Italie.

The impressionists in particular explored less common techniques such as drypoint and softground etching as they sought to express emotional realism of a subject. This is illustrated in Berthe Morisot’s drypoint, La leçon de dessin.

 French artists became aware of Japanese woodcuts (ukiyo-e) in the late 1850s. Apparently printmaker Félix Bracquemond came upon a copy of the sketchbook Hokusai Manga at his printer’s workshop in 1856; they had accompanied a consignment of porcelain.

Artists such as Manet, Pissarro, Renoir, Cassatt, and Toulouse-Lautrec were interested in the asymmetry and irregularity of Japanese prints. Japanese images consisted of off-centered compositions with no perspective, light with no shadows, and vibrant colors on plane surfaces. These elements were in direct contrast to European art and were enthusiastically taken up by 19th century artists, who believed they freed art from academic conventions.

Henri Toulouse Lautrec introduced the flat stylized areas of colour, expressive line and the extension of the composition beyond the picture area of Japanese woodcuts into his lithographs, such as Le coiffeur.

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