Original printmaking faced an uncertain time in fin-de-siècle France. Popular tastes ran to reproductions of famous paintings, which commercial processes could print at low cost by the thousands. The taste for fine handmade prints seemed to belong to an earlier, less industrialized era. Yet the appeal of the print as an original work of art endured among artists who valued the expressive potential of printmaking and by connoisseurs and collectors who appreciated the nuanced visual language of the graphic arts.
Of the numerous attempts by artists, critics, and publishers to revitalize original printmaking, the lavishly produced series L'Estampe originale (The Original Print) was among the most successful. Between 1893 and 1895, French publisher André Marty commissioned 95 limited-edition prints in a range of mediums by both prominent and lesser known artists and illustrators. Among the contributors were Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, Émile Bernard, Henri Rivière, Eugène Grasset, Félix Bracquemond, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jules Chéret, Paul Ranson, Camille Pissarro, Odilon Redon, Paul Sérusier, Eugène Carrière, Charles Shannon, Joseph Pennell, and many others. Besides restoring the status of the uniquely individual print—limited in number, signed by the artist, and expressive of immediate artistic concerns—Marty's project marks a confluence of contemporary trends and theories on art, from the visually appealing designs of Art Nouveau and Japonisme to the philosophical concerns of the Symbolists and Nabis. Marty's prescient print albums may be most famous, however, for their precocious use of color lithography. As this exhibition demonstrates, L'Estampe originale embodies an artistic fervor that is surprising even today.