In the beginning, before the printing press, printmaking was not considered an art form, rather a medium of communication. It was not till the 18th century that art prints began to be considered originals and not till the 19th that artists began to produce limited editions and to sign their prints along with the technical information necessary to authenticate the work.
Engraving goes back to cave art, executed on stones, bones and cave walls. The duplication of engraved images goes back some 3,000 years to the Sumerians who engraved designs on stone cylinder seals. Academics think that the Chinese produced a primitive form of print, the rubbing, as far back as the 2nd century AD. The Japanese made the first authenticated prints, wood-block rubbings of of Buddhist charms, in the late-middle eighth century.
Printmaking in Europe
European printmaking began with textile printing as early as the sixth century, while printing on paper had to wait a bit longer for the arrival of paper technology from the Far East. The first paper produced in Europe was in Játiva in Spain in 1151. The first woodcuts printed on paper were playing cards produced in Germany at the beginning of the 15th century. It was only slightly before this that the first royal seals and stamps appeared in the England of Henry VI.
Printing from a metal engraving was introduced a few decades after the woodcut, and greatly refined the results. Restricted at first to goldsmiths and armorers, it soon became the most popular form of serial reproduction. The earliest dated printed engraving is a German print dated 1446, “The Flagellation,” and it was in Germany that early intaglio printing developed before passing to Italy (Mantegna, Raimondi, Ghisi) and the Low Countries (Lucas van Leyden, Goltzius, Claesz, Matsys). From makers of playing cards the metal engraving technique passed to artists where it probably reached its apex in the hands of Albrecht Dürer in the 16th century.
Dürer represented a watershed in the history of printmaking, and, since he travelled to Italy, his influence was felt there in a direct way.
The seventeenth century saw a flowering of ornamental and portrait work all over Europe, with Rubens and Van Dyck leading the way in Flanders. By this time most intaglio work was acid etched, as contemporary artists considered this a less commercial, more creative, nobler technique. Though Italy was a hotbed of etching, ironically the leading etchers there were foreigners: Jaques Callot and Claude Lorrain from France and the Spaniard, José de la Ribera. The leading figure in the Netherlands at this time was, of course, Rembrandt, who left to posterity a monumental benchmark both in terms of quantity and quality. His approximately 300 plates represent virtually every aspect of human endeavor.
Europe’s printmaking center of gravity moved to Italy in the 18th century, beginning with Tiepolo who, it is said, exercised a significant influence on Goya. Then came Canaletto, the chronicler of Venice and Piranesi, allegedly the most important architectural printmaker of all time with some 3,000 large arquitectural etchings.
The tradition of distinguished English printmaking dates only from Hogarth in the 18th century, but he was quickly followed by the satirical Rowlandson and then William Blake, the crown jewel among British printmakers. Blake’s contemporary in Spain was Francisco Goya, who stretched the limits of printmaking to new heights and depths. The nineteenth-century saw printmaking follow the same turbulent trail as the rest of the visual arts. In France the active printmakers at this time included Ingres, Delacroix, the Barbizon School (Daubigny, Theodore Rousseau and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot) and the political satirist Honoré Daumier, who made more than 4,000 lithographs, mainly for newspaper illustrations. The most important printmakers among the Impressionists were Manet and Degas, the former mainly in lithographs.
Though we have barely touched upon Japanese printmaking here, special mention must be made of the master of woodcut, Katsushika Hokusai, who in the last half of the 17th century and the first half of the 18th produced some 35,000 drawings and prints, many of them recognized masterpieces, many of which were to exert an important influences on European printmakers.
Nineteenth century English printmaking highlights an Englishman, Francis Seymour Hayden, and an American, James McNeil Whistler. The other notable American printmaker at this time, though more in terms of natural science than art, was James Audubon.
Twentieth Century Printmaking
Printmaking, like everything else in the art world, exploded in the first half of the 20th century. First and foremost was Pablo Picasso, the Spanish lad from Málaga who made more than 1,000 prints including etchings, engravings, drypoints, woodcuts, lithographs and lino cuts. Picasso almost single handedly returned printmaking’s center of gravity to France. Then came Braque, Matisse, Rouault, Chagal, Joan Miró, Max Ernst, Jan Arp, Salvador Dalí and others. In Germany it was the time of the Expressionists, Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann (who taught in the U.S.A. after the Second World War), George Grosz, Ernst Barlach, Erich Heckel, Oskar Kokoschka and others. Hot on the heels of Expressionism in Germany came the Bauhaus, where artists like Kandinsky and Paul Klee produced seminal work.
In England Henry Moore, besides working in sculpture, also created a powerful series of lithographs, and Graham Sutherland did noteworthy work as well, along with Anthony Gross. In the United States in the 20th century the tradition of distinguished printmakers includes George Wesley Bellows in lithography, John Sloan and Reginald Marsh in etching and Milton Avery in drypoint. But perhaps the most noteworthy of American painter/printmakers of this period are Edward Hopper with his excellent and highly personal work and Ben Shahn, who excelled in a variety of print media.