The Fine Art Print
A Print is, in essence, a pictorial image produced by a process that allows it to be multiplied. Engravings, etchings, lithographs, woodcuts and offset lithographs are all types of prints. Of importance here is to distinguish modern offset lithographs, or photomechanical prints, from what have become known as “original” antique or antiquarian prints. We call these “fine art” prints.
Since Gutenberg first invented the moveable type printing press in the 1400’s, man has strived to improve the means used to illustrate printed materials. Today’s photomechanical printing processes have made obsolete all previous methods for creating multiple image prints. The prints derived from these old methods are what Beaux Arts and others consider fine art prints because of the amount of effort and artistry require to produce them.
Of further interest is to understand why these prints came about. It is almost impossible for our modern society to fully understand how limited the market was for printed books in the 16th through 19th centuries. There was almost no middle class anywhere in the world until the 19th century. Wealth and literacy was confined to the royal families, the nobility and the few scientists and chosen intellectuals. It was of little consequence to printers anyway since an illustrated book edition of as few as 200 copies was a gargantuan effort. (One large copper plate engraved illustration could take two or three months for an artisan to complete.)
Illustrated books were usually confined to the arts and sciences. These included natural history (birds, animals, fish, botany, etc.), travel and archaeology, architecture, medicine and art. The text was printed as one endeavor with lavish illustrations produced separately, then both were bound together in book form. The buyers were men of learning, wealthy patrons, royalty and nobility, government institutions and museums.
Because this era occurred when it did, virtually all of the great illustrated books were produced in the wealthy nations of Europe. One fabulous exception was America’s own Birds of North America by John James Audubon though even this book was eventually taken from the American printers and shipped to England for the completion of most of the plates.
Today, modern technology has given us advanced photomechanical techniques that are used for virtually all printed and illustrated materials. Even if craftsmen could be gathered together to create engraved, etched or lithographed illustrations, the cost would be astronomical. These gorgeous old prints that have miraculously survived the centuries are truly rare!
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