Thomas Primeau, Director of Conservation and Paper Conservator
The early 19th century was a turbulent time, both politically and socially, for the citizens of post-revolutionary France. Advances in scientific and industrial technologies were changing the way people lived, worked, and communicated. An innovation in printing technology that had a significant impact on the politics and social lives of people at this time was the introduction of lithography, which allowed for the mass production and circulation of finely detailed images.
Lithography was developed in Germany around 1798 and was well established in France by 1818. Unlike earlier printing processes such as woodcut or engraving, lithography is a planographic process, meaning that the ink design is impressed on paper from a flat surface that has been chemically altered rather than from an incised, carved, or otherwise irregular surface. The process is based upon the physical incompatibility of oil and water. To make a lithograph, an artist draws with oil-based crayons and inks on the smooth porous surface of a limestone block. The stone is then sent to a printer who chemically prepares it in order to hold ink on the drawn lines and repel it in non-image areas. Printing a lithograph requires a special flat-bed press that forces the paper in contact with the inked stone at high, even pressure. One significant advantage that lithography had over other printing processes at the time was that nearly 3000 impressions could be made of each image.
A successfully printed lithograph conveys the line, texture, and immediacy of a chalk or crayon drawing and, in Paris at this time, no artist was more adept at using the process than Honoré Daumier (1808 -1879). Daumier was an expressive painter, as well as an accomplished sculptor. However, his most notable artistic achievements were his observant and exuberantly drafted lithographs, which were printed in the popular journals of the day. Throughout his career, Daumier created thousands of lithographs that affectionately satirized the domestic lives of French society; he also drew scathing caricatures that ridiculed the excesses and hypocrisies of government officials. In 1832, he was imprisoned and fined on the charge of “contempt for the King’s government” after publishing the lithograph Gargantua, which depicted King Louis-Philippe as a monstrous glutton devouring the wages of the working class.
Daumier’s most important lithograph was also his most somber, the print Rue Transnonain, 15 April 1834, is neither whimsical nor sarcastic, rather, it is an unsettling illustration showing the aftermath of a brutal massacre in Paris. The atrocity occurred after rioters, protesting the suppression of a cloth workers revolt, confronted the National Guard. A regiment of soldiers, in search of a sniper, charged into the house at No. 12 Rue Transnonain and killed 11 innocent residents, including a child. Daumier’s portrayal of the incident is not an eye-witness account – the print was not published until months after the event – but a carefully composed and precisely drawn indictment on the cruelty of the military and the indifference of the monarchy for the lives of the public. He presents the senseless violence of the event through a solemn commemoration of the victims, imagining how they would have appeared as dawn broke on the scene. Highlighted in the foreground, a man in his blood-stained night shirt lies on the floor, legs splayed and his head bent awkwardly against his bed. He is framed by other bodies and blood spills from the head of a small child that somehow became trapped beneath him.
Daumier’s figures have presence, weight, and volume that he created through an advanced understanding of anatomy and control of light and shade in the drawing. Close examination of the print reveals that after Daumier drew his image in black crayon, he added texture and modulated highlights and shadows by scraping the surface of the lithographic stone with a needle or a knife. In this print – an image that would have been seen throughout Paris and is still preserved in many surviving impressions – Daumier’s masterful technique and humane sensibilities combined to produce one of the most powerful and compelling images of modern life.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.