The Belfond Prints: Whistler’s Ambition for Colour Lithography

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A student blog by Chenxiao Jin, 3rd year student of History of Art at the University of Glasgow, who has recently completed a work placement with The Hunterian and Archives & Special Collections. 

When I first saw the American artist James McNeill Whistler’s work in colour lithography, I thought I cannot be looking at a finished piece of work. As a part of my University of Glasgow work-placement at The Hunterian and Archives & Special Collections, I hoped to find out Whistler’s intention behind the sketchy quality of his colour lithographs, which appear more like rough drawings rather than printed images, in relation to the context of contemporary artistic experiments in colour lithography.

Whistler had created only seven colour lithographs throughout his entire career and six of those were produced in collaboration with the Paris-based printer Henry Belfond during 1891 to late 1893. In this post, I will use Draped Figure, Standing (Figure 1; GLAHA 49199), which is one of the most complex colour prints he made, as an example of Whistler’s experiment with colour lithography in the 1890s.  explore the ways in which Whistler made sure his unconventional colour lithographs would stand out from the keen competition in Paris during the period known as ‘lithography renaissance1.

Figure 1. James McNeill Whistler, Draped Figure, Standing, 1891 (GLAHA 49199). Colour lithograph, 29.2 x 20cm. The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

But first, why did Whistler go to the trouble of traveling across the Channel to experiment with printing in color, when he had been working with the English printer Thomas Way for years?

Besides immediate technical problems, Martha Tedeschi2 suggested that the English print market was proving unsatisfactory for the artist over the years. On the one hand, Whistler profited little from the lucrative trade of reproductive printmaking which prospered alongside the changed social climate after the Industrial Revolution. The burgeoning middle-class audience was eager to purchase reproductive prints after contemporary paintings, which offered them access to the ‘high art’ at a more affordable price in comparison to paintings or even original prints such as etchings. However, the publishers preferred to reproduce paintings by the artists whose popularity had been tested. For the English dealers, Whistler’s paintings such as the Nocturnes, one of which led to his infamous libel case in 1878 against John Ruskin that eventually bankrupted the artist, had no chance of becoming a financial success in the market.

On the other hand, the proliferation of photo-mechanical prints that were mass produced by innovative technologies such as photogravure confused the contemporary audience’s perception of original prints. One of Whistler’s original lithographs was mistaken as a mechanically reproduced print that was doomed to a lower status and hence a lower price. Frustrated by the market-imposed limit on his artistic ambition and eager to alter the trend of graphic art, Whistler decided to “make lithographs of his pastels” and left England for France to achieve this goal3.

In Paris, Whistler found a kindred spirit in the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who shared his aesthetic for an artistic language that transcends its physical description. The newly formed friendship prompted Whistler to explore the expressive qualities of color lithography, and he strived to capture the essence of the subject with minimal evidence of labor 4. This was enhanced by the industrially produced transfer paper, known as papier végétal. In June 1891, Whistler wrote to his wife, Beatrix, exclaiming,

“I have bought nearly three pounds worth of the most wonderful transparent lithograph paper! such as old Way never dreamed of! – and such as I suppose I should never have seen in London.” (GUW 06594)

This passage suggests that Whistler delighted greatly in the new opportunities offered by the type of transfer paper available in Paris. The smooth-textured papier végétal allowed Whistler to draw with his lithographic crayon freely without having his strokes being interrupted by grains that are inherent in papier viennois, the transfer paper Whistler had used with Way5a. Whistler’s attitude towards the transfer paper indicates that technical experiments with new materials and methods were as significant a part as stylistic innovations in Whistler’s works in colour lithography. Instead of following the traditional method of drawing directly onto the stone, Whistler preferred transfer lithography which allowed him to create the image spontaneously as if he were actually drawing on paper with pastels.

Paris offered not only the materials but also an avant-garde circle that was congenial to Whistler’s artistic vision and in which his ambition could be better fulfilled. This context helps us to understand the unconventional formal quality of Draped Figure, Standing. It represents one of Whistler’s favourite subjects, that of a nude girl draped with a thin veil5b. It was Whistler’s conscious choice to use light colours and spontaneous strokes to depict the interplay between the transparent veil and the model’s flesh. Whistler produced a suggestive image that floats on the paper, subtly evoking a poetic ideal rather than delineating a straightforward material form.

Whistler’s correspondence reveals that the artist spent a considerable amount of time in Belfond’s press and worked with the stones himself in order to obtain this effect (GUW 06601; GUW 06602). In fact, the Draped Figure, Standing we have seen at the top is the product of a long process of experiments with colours and stones and it is preceded by three earlier states (figures 2-4).


The juxtaposition of proofs of the earlier states of Draped Figure, Standing illustrates Whistler’s particular concern with the modelling of form with colours, which was thoroughly explored by the artist’s repetitive rework of existing stones and introduction of new colour stones when necessary5c. As a result, Draped Figure, Standing developed from a black-and-white image to an embodiment of ethereal delicacy.

Whistler’s friend and biographer Joseph Pennell recalled Whistler’s use of each colour stone as ‘a mosaic’, a remark which highlights the artist’s integral role in the process of printing6. Working alongside Belfond, Whistler was closely involved in inking each stone by hand, and therefore the proofs were rarely identical. Although the printer Bolton Brown criticized Whistler’s transfer lithography as a convenient way of disseminating a single drawing, the subtle tonal variation between each proof attests to Whistler’s notion that each colour lithograph is an independent drawing in its own right5d.

This nuanced method of printing slight, tonal images makes clear that Whistler had in mind a select audience consisted of connoisseurs of refined taste for his exquisite colour lithographs. By the 1890s, Jules Chéret had revolutionized the status of popular art with his lithographic posters, which initiated a vogue for colour lithographs7. The large and intensely hued poster La Loïe Fuller (figure 5; GLAHA 17681), although representing a similar subject matter, contrasts sharply with Whistler’s Draped Figure, Standing in almost every possible way.

Figure 5. Jules Chéret, La Loïe Fuller, 1893 (GLAHA 17681). Colour lithograph, 124x 84cm. The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

While Chéret and his successors, notably Toulouse-Lautrec, produced exuberant works specifically for the popular entertainment and targeted at a mass readership, Whistler considered such ostentatious lithographs for overt commercialism a vulgarity8. Convinced that original printmaking was at stake, Whistler strongly opposed to such democratizing colour lithographs and was determined to market his works with an elitist strategy.

To start with, Whistler asked for prices that were thought ridiculously high at the time for colour lithographs, which seemed not to demand much labour. The prices effectively excluded most consumers of colour prints in the 1890s from Whistler’s clientele. Consequently, both Whistler’s New York and London dealers felted pressured to appeal to the artist to lower the prices to enable them to ‘push the colour lithographs in the trade’(GUW 05792).

Whistler, however, believed his demand justified and rejected the dealers’ appeals even though the sales had not turned out as well as had hoped. Since Whistler saw his colour lithographs as drawings, he preferred printing them on high-quality Japanese paper or old Dutch paper. When Way opposed his choice of paper, he indignantly replied, ‘I don’t know what you mean by finding the paper dreadfully stained – I like it’ (GUW 03341). Whistler’s insistence on using rare paper manifested his attempt to subvert the contemporary association of lithography with mass reproductions and to promote its hand-crafted, original status that legitimized the value of his prints.

Financial imperative was undeniably essential in Whistler’s marketing, but his artistic ambition for lithography prevailed. It is worth quoting at length the letter to his New York dealer Kennedy, in which Whistler defended his color lithographs’ claim to higher prices by drawing an analogy between prints and drawings:

“You say that the prices of some of these proofs is excessive – Now O K. this all depends upon the way in which you look at it – If it be that lithographs are supposed to represent cheapness in art, or, let us say, production, well then I agree with you – Perhaps indeed this notion may have been further fostered unconsciously by yourself… –
But if these drawings – whether done on paper – stone or copper, are to be considered as drawings & art works as compared with others by the same man, well then I would point out that collectors must learn to pay for them as they would do were they adding to their etchings – or in short increasing their collection of choice work – and not as if they were acquiring cheap “articles” of the nature of “reproduction” – or popular “process” – voila!” (GUW 09745)

Clearly, Whistler was aware that his colour lithographs had little attraction to the popular market and he accordingly marketed his prints by emphasizing their exclusivity9. The artist was delighted to present his works in periodicals such as L’estampe originale alongside renowned French artists, but he also made sure his colour lithographs were always printed in limited editions so the buyers would find the print worthy of its price that deserved a place in their collections.

In the context where colour lithographs by artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec pervaded the Parisian lives and habituated the customers of prints to the notion that lithography was a type of accessible popular art, Whistler aspired to translate drawings into prints in order to emphasize the originality and value of colour lithography as a form of high art. It was exactly the drawing-like quality which confused me at first that Whistler sought after, because it distinguished his colour lithographs from those of his contemporaries and elevated the artistic status of colour lithography.

References

  1. Christine Giviskos, Set in Stones: Lithography in Paris, 1815-1900 (Munich: Hirmer Publishers, 2018), 71.
  2. Martha Tedeschi, ‘Whistler and the English Print Market,’ Print Quarterly 14, no.1 (March 1997), 16-20.
  3. Whistler’s decision is recorded in the English publisher and dealer Alan Cole’s Diary, 12 October 1891, LCPC.
  4. Douglas W. Druick, ‘Art from Industry: James McNeill Whistler and the Revival of Lithography’, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 24, no.1 (1998), 8.
  5. Harriet K. Stratis and Martha Tedeschi, eds., The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler: The Digital Edition, digital ed. overseen by Jay A. Clarke and Sarah Kelly Oehler, 2 vols. (note that this is a large publication which may take some time to open. Once opened, use the digital navigation to find the following articles):
    5a. Nicholas Smale, ‘Whistler’s Lithographic Techniques: Beauty and Business,’ in The Lithograph of James McNeil Whistler, vol.2, eds. Harriet K. Stratis and Martha Tedeschi (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1998), 204.
    5b. Katharine Lochnan, ‘1887-1894: Return to Lithography,’ in The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler, eds. Stratis and Tedeschi, 108.
    5c. Stratis and Tedeschi eds., The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler, 112, 174.
    5d. Katharine Lochnan, ‘Whistler and the Transfer Lithograph: A Lithograph with a Verdict,’ The Print Collector’s Newsletter 12, no.5 (November-December 1981), 134. In The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler.
  6. Joseph Pennell, ‘Whistler as Etcher and Lithographer’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 3, no.8 (November 1903), 168.
  7. Bradford R. Collins, ‘The Poster as Art: Jules Chéret and the Struggle for the Equality of the Arts in the Late Nineteenth-Century France,’ Design Issues 2, no,1 (Spring 1985), 41-5.
  8. Colta Ives, ‘French Prints in the Era of Impressionism and Symbolism,’ The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 46, no.1 (Summer 1988), 52.
  9. Druick, ‘Art from Industry’, 15-6. (item 4 above).

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