To celebrate the bicentennial of the invention of lithography, the Grolier Club in 1996 exhibited some 70 distinguished portraits by such leading artists as Goya and Delacroix, as well as works by accomplished, lesser-known artists who also worked during the medium's earliest years.
Lithography was developed in Munich by the Bavarian writer Alois Senefelder during the years 1796-98. A chemical method of printing, rather than a mechanical method like woodcut or engraving, lithography relies on the mutual antagonism of water and grease. Once a stone's surface is sealed with a solution of gum arabic, it can be drenched with water and then rolled with printer's ink, which adheres to the greasy drawing, but is repelled from wet areas.
The process allows the artist to draw directly and freely on a smooth stone and, since the design remains intact, a virtually limitless number of impressions may be printed. As a result, this new medium was favored by 19th-century artists for the production of multiple images, particularly in the realm of portraiture, and, to a degree, supplanted the painted miniature portrait. Often the subject -- Napoleon, Goethe, Byron, Beethoven, Gericault and Kamehameha (King of the Sandwich Islands), all of whom are represented in the Grolier exhibition -- would distribute these finely drawn portraits to associates and friends.
A majority of the works displayed were produced during lithography's infancy, between 1796 and 1825. With the introduction of the daguerreotype in the 1840s and, later, the carte-de-visite, the allure of the lithographed portrait declined, but the medium continued to flourish in the popular press, particularly in caricature.
Lithography as a fine art, however, did not become extinct. Following its heyday in the 1820s and 30s, it has attracted many great artists gifted with a talent for drawing, among them Daumier, Degas, Whistler, Redon, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Matisse and a host of contemporary painters. In the 1890s color lithography was widely used for posters and collectors' prints. It was later used in the 1930s by America's WPA artists, and from the 1960s to the present during the modern art boom.
One hundred years ago, in 1896, the Grolier Club observed lithography's centennial with work by 160 European and American artists, some of whom are included in this bicentennial. The exhibition has been organized by Colta Ives, Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The lithographs were taken largely from the Museum's collection, supplemented by the Grolier Club's portrait holdings and loans from private collectors.