The 1890s in Paris, forever popularized as the time of the can-can and cabaret, was a period of unparalleled printmaking activity. This exhibition of approximately 200 works, drawn from the Museum's collection and augmented with loans from New York collections, focuses on the private and public aspects of printmaking during this pivotal stage in the history of the modern print.
In the last decade of the nineteenth century, Impressionism had been overshadowed by various manifestations of Post-Impressionismfrom the work of Gauguin and Cézanne to that of Pointillists Seurat and Signac. The fashion for things Japanese was widespread; the sinuous curvilinearity of Art Nouveau was a powerful new force, as was Symbolism.
Printmaking in the 1890s reflected these diverse artistic impulses, adding to them several recent technical innovations in color lithography. Prints were created as objects of private contemplation for the homes of a new generation of bourgeois collectors, but they also appeared in new venues throughout the public arena. Lively posters filled the sidewalks; theater programs and sheet music were decorated and adorned; even menus, personal invitations, and birth announcements became sites for printed art. In addition, newspapers, journals, and broadsides provided an array of illustrations provoked by social and political events of the day.
Innovative publishers, who both helped create and seized upon the new interest in prints, published portfolios containing numerous works. Among the most important projects of this kind was L'Estampe originale (The Original Print), a series of nine portfolios sold by subscription, which together contained ninety-five prints by seventy-four artists.
Specialized journals supporting this high level of print-collecting activity flourished. Not only including valuable information for the private collector, these journals also commissioned and printed original artwork within their pages. A number of literary works were also embellished with original prints. In 1894 publisher André Marty commissioned Toulouse-Lautrec to illustrate journalist Gustave Geffoy's text on the popular cabaret performer Yvette Guilbert; the resulting collaboration was arguably the first modern illustrated book.
Posters, too, were sought by the private collector, and because they were produced in editions of thousands they were less costly than prints. The most desirable examples were those printed before the addition of the advertising text. But posters had their greatest influence in the public realm, where they became the "visual signature of the epoch." Several factors contributed to the popularity of the poster in 1890s Paris: laws for posting bills had been relaxed, and designs were no longer subject to complex legal regulations and time-consuming approvals; advances in lithography printing allowed for brighter colors and larger formats; advertising, which helped created broader markets, was a new development in a burgeoning capitalist economy; and Paris, at the time, was a center for avant-garde artists, many of whom needed the income and desired the recognition that poster commissions would bring.
All in all, the variety of printmaking activity in 1890s Paris constituted what could be called a "print boom." The proliferation of different kinds of printed art, the wide range of publishers and collectors, and even the supporting apparatus of a print worldspecialized exhibitions and journalsgave the medium an extraordinary energy and level of creativity that mark the period as a high point. As prints entered not only the world of the private collector but also the public world of the street, they began to affect the sensibilities of a broad public. In so doing, printmaking in all its manifestations contributed in a fundamental way to the vitality of modern life at the dawn of the twentieth century.
The preceding text by Deborah Wye and Audrey Isselbacher is excerpted from The Exuberant Prints of Fin-de-Siècle Paris, published in the Summer 1997 issue of MoMA Magazine.
ParisThe 1890s was organized by Deborah Wye, Chief Curator, and Audrey Isselbacher, Associate Curator, Department of Prints and Illustrated Books
©1997 The Museum of Modern Art, New York