Colorful Impressions

I saw other copies of these prints in an exhibition at the National Gallery in 2003. These are in the shop right now:

Colorful Impressions: The Printmaking Revolution in Eighteenth-Century France chronicled the development of various color printmaking techniques in (you guessed it) eighteenth-century France. These two prints (the two I saw in Washington DC), "The Milk Woman" and "The Woman ta King Coffee," were made by Louis-Marin Bonnet in 1774.

To understand printmaking as technologies that allowed for the rapid dissemination of images - as well as the availability of art at a reasonable cost - requires a little time travel. Images are everywhere and nowhere today: I can snap a picture on my phone and send it anywhere in the world instantaneously. Pictures are rarely printed today; we view them on electronic devices.

In the early 15th Century, the most advanced technology for creating multiples of a single image was a woodcut print: the image was carved into a block of wood that was then inked up and used somewhat like a stamp to transfer the image to paper. Did you ever make potato prints when you were a kid? Slice a russet in half, carve the image into the flat surface, ink it and press it on the paper. Similar concept.

By the end of the 15th century engraving was the favored method: a copper plate was incised with the image, those incisions serving as tiny valleys holding ink that was then transferred to paper using a press. Engraving allowed for more detail and subtle gradations of light and dark than could be achieved in a woodcut.

Fast-forward to the 18th Century: Louis-Marin Bonnet is well known for his prints executed in the pastel manner. It's just what it sounds like: portraits in oil pastel were popular, so how do you make prints that resemble pastels? Ask Monsieur Bonnet. It is complicated: printing in multiple colors requires several plates, one for each color. As if that were not enough, Bonnet used gold leaf to make the oval frames depicted in the prints look like actual gilded frames.

Problem: the use of gold leaf was highly regulated; certain artisans protected their interests and others were forbidden to gild. A guild for gilt work. Print-makers were forbidden to use gold leaf. Solution: Bonnet claimed his prints were made in London by an English print-maker, and he gave them titles in English

The Bonnet prints I saw in Washington DC were made with gold leaf. The prints in front of me now were not. These are missing the English titles as well, customarily printed below the image. So, were these prints made by Bonnet or are they knock-offs?

I can see the plate mark on the print; that is, the impression made by the copper plate is visible on the paper, telling me that this was not made by modern printing techniques.

Bonnet stopped using gold leaf in 1777. Were these prints made by Bonnet without the gold leaf and titles? Did another print-maker capitalize on the popularity of these prints to make forgeries? Honestly, I don't know.

They are nice prints. And we're offering 20% savings on prints, drawings, and paintings through Sunday, December 23.

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