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The Impact of Printmaking on 19th-Century Art

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  • 0:01 Effects of Industrialization
  • 2:22 The Royal Academy
  • 3:41 The Rise of Mass Culture
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Delve into the practices of printmaking that gave 19th-century artists the medium to push the boundaries of popular and high art. Learn about significant historical art traditions and innovations as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

Effect of Industrialization

The invention of the printing press in the 15th century made it possible to mass-produce and circulate a growing volume of reading material. It changed the way people read, communicated and stored knowledge.

Advances in image reproduction were equally monumental, but came much later in the course of history. Methods of art reproduction existed before 1800. But the engraving practices were tedious and required a great deal of time and effort to produce a good copy.

As a direct consequence of the Industrial Revolution, advances in mechanical reproduction and printing processes, such as lithography and photography, made it easier to circulate pictures. In the 19th century, printmaking processes dramatically changed the access to art through new methods of circulation. Art was no longer confined to privileged galleries. Pictures that had been shut up in private collections, as well as a surge of new works, became available to the rising middle class.

Art historians turn to the critical theory of Walter Benjamin to explain the significance of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin wrote 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' in 1936, a treatise on the effects of industrialization on art aesthetics, reception and art objects.

Benjamin's critique centered on the political consequences of reproducibility, arguing that once a work of art is reproducible, it loses its unique aura, all that makes it original and specific in space and time. An original painting hanging on a wall in a fine art gallery could once have been appreciated for its solitary uniqueness; that sense of its individuality is lost today since you don't need to travel to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa - you can Google it.

But printmaking as a process of art production is more than just copying. It's an art form of its own, on par with photography. In the 19th century, new mechanical processes, such as lithography and photography, democratized art. But in breaking down the barriers separating high art from amateur or popular art, fine artists and painters reacted with innovations in technique and form. Painters found new appreciation for the visible trace of the artist's hand, evident in the original work of art.

The Royal Academy

The Royal Academy wielded immense power over the French art scene. Established in the mid-17th century, it functioned as a venue for both education and exhibition. The Academy set the standards by which art could be judged and appreciated.

The realist paintings of Manet and Courbet and the popular prints of Toulouse-Lautrec and Mucha challenged the official control of the Academy. As a consequence of printmaking practices, art became more widely disseminated. By the mid-19th century, new public venues were displaying and distributing art: on the street, in cafes, in dance halls. It brought the public face-to-face with art that had before been quarantined in the Salon and judged by the authority of the Academy.

While the Academy upheld the traditional ideal of classical art, new art movements, such as Impressionism and Art Nouveau, conveyed the changing aesthetic. Changes were most perceptible in France, where the Academy held most strongly to traditional standards and innovative artists were concentrated.

Art Nouveau was a style of art that materialized in architecture and the decorative arts between 1890-1910. An international movement and philosophy, it stood for 'New Art,' reinvigorating gothic and romantic styles with the breath of modernism. In visual art, Alphonse Mucha's aesthetic is representative of Art Nouveau.

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