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A Brief History of Lithography Prints
A closer look 17 Oct 2022

A Brief History of Lithography Prints

lithography print
Mark Kostabi, The Big Picture, 2002, available on Artsper

Lithography printmaking revolutionized the world of printing and art in the early 1800s. As a technique that allowed both the creation of an original work and its reproduction, lithographic printing seduced many artists. But who invented it, when and in what country? And how did it become the means of artistic expression that we know today? Artsper will answer all these questions in a brief history of lithography print!

A brief definition of lithography print

The word lithography combines two Greek words lithos, meaning stone and graphein, meaning writing. Like its name, lithography is a printing technique that uses stone to engrave texts, illustrations or drawings on a flat limestone . A revolutionary process for its time, lithography print became the most efficient reproduction technique at the beginning of the 19th century.

Regina Gimenez, Sunrays 1, 2019
Regina Gimenez, Sunrays 1, 2019, available on Artsper

Aloys Senefelder, the inventor of lithography printmaking

The first attempts dating back to 1796 were made by the German actor and writer Aloys Senefelder. Wishing to distribute his poems, he could not find a publisher and lacked the money to publish them by conventional methods.  So he decided to create his own printing technique. It would prove difficult for Senefelder who suffered many failures before reaching the final chemical process that worked. He first made all sorts of experiments using copper. Then he invented the typographic stereotype, using metal plates, until he discovered limestone from Solnhofen, a town in southern Germany. This revolutionized the process. After years of research using Solnhofen limestone, the first lithographic prints were produced, the result of great effort and determination. In 1799, Aloys Senefelder finally patented his invention and this was the birth of lithography print.

lithography print
André Masson, Figures in Landscape, 1960, available on Artsper

A technique that quickly converted printers

Following this, a drawing teacher named Mitterer took up Senefelder’s idea and added the reel press. He produced remarkable reproductions of pencil drawings. Soon, several lithography workshops opened in Munich and many printers preferred this new technique. Easier and less expensive than classical stone engraving, lithographic printing became ever more popular.

Jaime Hayón, The human animal dance 1
Jaime Hayón, The human animal dance 1, 2021, available on Artsper

The French influence in the diffusion of lithography printmaking

It would take only a short time for the invention to spread around Europe. As early as 1801, it became known in London and Paris. In France, it was Louis-François Lejeune, Frédéric André and Aloys Senefelder’s nephew, Édouard Knecht, who made it famous. The Parisian printer Charles Philibert de Lasteyrie also played an important role in its development.  It was in France where they started calling the process “lithographie”, a name which will forever remain set in stone!

lithography print
Chéri Samba, Paris est propre, 1989, available on Artsper

The entry of lithography in the art world

Following several technical improvements around 1825, the printing company Godefroy Engelmann would finish establishing the popularity of lithographic printing. It is by the means of illustrations of voyages that it started to make a place as an artistic medium.  Seducing not only the Impressionists, the illustrators in vogue, as well as the romantic painters, many artists seized it. And this only increased when Engelmann invented color lithography in 1837.  From Manet to Braque, Matisse, Miro and Mucha, the 19th century marked the reign of lithographic art.

lithography print
Henri Matisse, La chevelure, 1952, available on Artsper

The lithography print: low cost and high creative potential

If many technical advances have been made since then, lithography printmaking remains a low-cost yet very creative process. Combining authenticity and printing, it allows artists to create a handmade and reproducible work of art. For this reason, it also offers to any art lover the possibility of buying an original work at an affordable price. A quality that makes printmaking an art form in its own right, just like painting or sculpture!