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The beginnings of Lithography – ‘Polyautographs’
(Pen Lithographs)

The Munich actor and playright, Alois Senefelder (1771-1834) was seeking an economical method of duplicating plays and sheet music when he discovered lithography (from the Greek lithos and graphos, 'stone writing'), a method of ‘Chemical Printing’, in 1798. His system was based on exploiting the simple chemical fact of the mutual repellence of grease and water. Senefelder (see illustration below) quickly appreciated that the technique would be equally ideal for creating artists’ printed drawings.

While briefly in partnership with the music publisher Johann Anton André, Senefelder visited London to acquire the English patent, though he sold out to André and it was André’s son, Philipp André, who became the patentee.

Alois Senefelder, working on a lithographic stone. An anonymous early 19th century crayon lithograph.
Alois Senefelder, working on a lithographic stone.  An anonymous early 19th century
crayon lithograph.

André was especially interested in the technique as a new graphic art and sent the necessary materials to artists inviting them to experiment. In 1803 he published in London the first ever artists’ original lithographs, under the title SPECIMENS OF POLYAUTOGRAPHY. The initial twelve contributing artists included Benjamin West, the president of the Royal Academy, Henry Fuseli, James Barry and Thomas Barker (see above right).

These rare English incunabula of lithography were all drawn with the pen. The artist drew on a porous limestone block with pen and greasy lithographic ink, known later as tusche, composed of wax, soap and lampblack. When the treated stone was inked up for printing the ink adhered only to the areas of the original greasy drawing and the resulting impression bore a remarkable resemblance to an original pen drawing.

After 1810, later artists have only rarely used the pen for lithography. Their productions are usually termed ‘pen lithographs’ to distinguish them from the more usual crayon lithography, 'polyautograph' being reserved for the very early examples.

Crayon Lithography

It was on his London visit in 1800 that Senefelder perfected the chalk (or crayon) manner of lithography, which has subsequently had the largest following amongst artists. In crayon lithography, the artist draws with a greasy lithographic crayon and the resulting printed impressions have the character of chalk drawings. Depending on the pressure and thickness of his line in drawing with the crayon the artist can achieve a range of tones from silvery grey to intense black. ‘White’ areas are either undrawn or created with the scraper (see right, the illustration of Gavarni’s self-portrait in his studio). Where the greasy drawing is scraped away the ink will not adhere in the printing.  For greater range of tone artists sometimes work with crayon and tusche together.


Another variation, also first adopted by Senefelder for ‘tinted’ lithography and later called lithotint was adapted by Whistler to a tonal monochrome technique. In lithotint the artist draws with brush and tusche washes variously diluted with water according to the desired tonal effect (see to the right, below, Lunois’ brush lithograph of “La Guitariste”). Lithography is unique in this versatility of being both a linear and a tonal technique.

Lithographic Process and Printing

Imprimerie Lemercier, rue de Seine, Paris. Lithograph, c1845.

"Imprimerie Lemercier, rue de Seine, Paris". Lithograph, c1845
One of the leading lithographic printing firms in 19th century France.

Senefelder also invented the lithographic press for printing lithographs (see illustration right). Preparing lithographic stones for printing is a complex and laborious process, which is generally carried out by a professional lithographic printer working in close collaboration with the artist. The lithographic matrix traditionally was limestone, from the Solenhofen district in Bavaria, near Munich, which was particularly porous and had an affinity for grease. The lithographic crayon allows the artist to draw freely and readily on the stone (see right). The greasy drawing material seeps into the pores of the stone. The stone is painted with gum-etch (gum arabic dissolved in water with nitric acid) to increase the porosity of the undrawn areas so they hold water when dampened with a sponge, whereas it is rejected by those areas which have absorbed the greasy drawing. Conversely, these areas accept the ink when it is rolled over while it is repelled by the damp areas. Paper is laid over the stone and the image is transferred as the stone is moved laterally through the press beneath a scraper or roller.

The development and spread of Lithography

After the initial period of experimentation lithography was slow to be taken up by artists in England (an early exception is James Ward). From the 1830’s it increasingly superseded aquatint for topography and decorative prints but it was not till the 1890’s that British artists once more took it up as an original expression, which was fostered and promoted by the founding of the Senefelder Club in 1908.

Honoré Daumier (1808–1879): Comment à Chaillot!… Lithograph 1839. (240 x 189 mm)

Honoré Daumier (1808–1879): "Comment à Chaillot!…" 
Lithograph 1839.  (240 x 189 mm)

An unhappy customer on a dark rainy night has taken the last ‘bus’
in the wrong direction and it being midnight the service is finished. 
Daumier has scratched into the surface of the stone to create the
‘white’ lines of the rain.

French artists were more receptive to the new technique.  The rich blacks, the tonal subtleties and the spontaneity of drawing particularly appealed to the great Romantic artists such as Géricault and Delacroix. Goya, in exile in Bordeaux at the end of his life took up lithography in 1825 at the age of seventy-nine. Books and political periodicals exploited lithography for original illustrations and caricatures (see Daumier immediately above, and Gavarni, above right).

Camille Pissarro (1830–1903): Théorie de Baigneuses

Camille Pissarro (1830–1903): "Théorie de Baigneuses".
Lithograph, c1894–97.  (130 x 200 mm)

(This example from the posthumous edition of six, printed on blue-green
paper. Stamped with the artist’s initials and numbered in pencil.)

From the 1850’s there is a hiatus, followed by a flowering throughout Europe in the 1890’s, of lithography for artists’ original prints, particularly as a colour technique. The technique has continued to be popular with modern artists such as Matisse (see right) and Picasso.

Transfer Lithography

James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)
James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)
"The Smith’s Yard, Lyme Regis".
Transfer lithograph, 1895
Issued in ‘The Studio’ 1897.  (200 x 140 mm)

Lithographic stones being unwieldy to handle and nigh on impossible to take outside to work directly on a motif from nature, artists sometimes made use of lithographic transfer paper on which to make their lithographic drawings. Senefelder had also instigated this method at the inception of lithography.

Lithographic transfer paper has the advantage that the image is reversed in being transferred to the stone so that the print reads in the same direction as the original drawing; however the impressions are generally more delicate and with less tonal contrast than is possible when the artists draws directly onto the stone. Compare the Whistler and Daumier lithographs above: Daumier drew onto the stone; Whistler used transfer paper.

Transfer lithographs were the cause of a celebrated law suit in 1897 between Sickert and Joseph Pennell. Sickert’s assertion that Pennell’s prints were not original lithographs because they were drawn on transfer paper, was thrown out of court.

Thomas Barker of Bath (1769–1847)

Thomas Barker of Bath (1769–1847)
"Young Boy seated".  Polyautograph, 1803.
(220 x 198 mm)

One of the series of ‘Specimens of Polyautography’,
pen lithographs issued by Philipp André, 1803. 



Francis Sydney Unwin (1885–1925): The Potting Shed

Francis Sydney Unwin (1885–1925):
"The Potting Shed".
Pen lithograph, 1919.  (223 x 311 mm)



Paul Gavarni (1804–1866)

Paul Gavarni (1804–1866)
(L’Atelier du Lithographe) – “Comme c’est leger!”
Lithograph, 1840.  (212 x 170 mm)

Gavarni’s studio, where the artist is struggling under the physical weight of the lithographic stone, while the visiting connoisseur obliviously comments how “lightweight it is”, in reference to the frivolity of the drawing carried out on the stone.



A lithographic Press

"A lithographic Press". 
Pen lithograph, c1820, drawn and published
by Rudolf Ackermann, leading publisher and
printseller in Regency London.




A lithographic stone with a lithographic drawing on its surface

A lithographic stone with a lithographic drawing on its surface by Albert Belleroche (1864–1944).  (The stone is resting on a wooden support for display)







Alex Lunois (1863–1916): La Guitariste 

Alex Lunois (1863–1916): "La Guitariste".
Lithotint.  (236 x 175 mm)

The darker areas of the composition were created by painting on the stone with brush and tusche.




Henri Matisee (1869–1954): Le Repos du Modèle

Henri Matisee (1869–1954): "Le Repos du Modèle".
Lithograph, 1922.  (221 x 298 mm)










See also :


Colour Lithography


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