For Immediate Release
February 5, 2021
[Digital images available upon request]
A Change in the Light: The Cliché-verre in Nineteenth-Century France opens February 13
Williamstown, Massachusetts—The Clark Art Institute opens a new exhibition on February 13 that highlights an innovative photographic technique: A Change in the Light: The Cliché-verre in Nineteenth-Century France, presenting forty-four cliché-verre prints from a historic portfolio recently acquired by the Clark. The exhibition presents cliché-verre prints made by five French artists: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Charles-François Daubigny, Eugène Delacroix, Jean-François Millet, and Théodore Rousseau. The exhibition is on view in the Eugene V. Thaw Gallery in the Clark’s Manton Research Center through May 16, 2021.
Cliché-verre is a hybrid process developed in the mid-nineteenth century that combines the techniques of the graphic arts—namely, drawing and printmaking—with those of the then-new medium of photography. The French term derives from early printing terminology and loosely translates as “glass plate,” capturing the notion that the metal plate typically used in traditional printmaking is replaced by one made of glass to create these works. The works presented in A Change in the Light are drawn from Forty Clichés-verre (Quarante Clichés-Glace), a portfolio released in 1921 by the dealer and publisher Maurice Le Garrec (1881–1937) from a set of original cliché-verre plates. The Clark’s portfolio is one of a special edition of just five that includes two variant printings of each work. In addition to displaying a single complete set of the portfolio’s forty compositions, the exhibition features eight pairings of variant prints to demonstrate the range of expressive potential in producing a cliché-verre.
“The collection of prints contained in this exceptional portfolio presents a fascinating look into a technique that is little known today but that once represented a significant advancement in early photography and provides us a rare opportunity to witness the historic intersection of important artists as they explored emerging photographic technology,” said Olivier Meslay, Hardymon Director of the Clark Art Institute. “It will be an exciting opportunity for our visitors to see these rare works.”
Andrew Kensett, a recent graduate of the Williams College/Clark Graduate Program in the History of Art, curated the exhibition. Kensett undertook the research for this project while he was completing his MA degree in the Williams/Clark program. Kensett worked as a curatorial intern in the Clark’s Manton Study Center for Works on Paper under the tutelage of Anne Leonard, the Clark’s Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.
“Although each image in the portfolio is remarkable in itself and speaks to the adventurous experimental spirit of the artists who embraced this hybrid technique, the ability to see expressive variation across double printings is what makes the Quarante Clichés-Glace portfolio—and this exhibition—truly special,” said Leonard. “The rich teaching potential of this work, which has already been amply shown in Andrew Kensett’s impressive curatorial achievement, will continue to pay itself forward for future generations of students and museum visitors.”
A New Technique
To make a cliché-verre, an artist either coated a transparent glass plate with an opaque layer and incised a drawing into it—a process similar to preparing a metal plate for etching—or painted directly onto the plate. The transparent design was then placed in contact with a sheet of light-sensitive paper and exposed to sunlight to create a print. Like a photographic negative, a cliché-verre plate could be reprinted to produce multiple copies of a single image.
In 1853, in the French town of Arras, a version of the cliché-verre process was devised by Adalbert Cuvelier (French, 1812–1871), an amateur photographer, and Jean-Gabriel-Léandre Grandguillaume (French, 1807–1865), a drawing instructor. The two men promoted their invention to France’s leading artists as a direct and portable way of reproducing their drawings in multiples. More efficient methods of image reproduction replaced the cliché-verre process before it ever achieved widespread popularity, but during the two decades when it was in use, it offered France’s artists a unique visual vocabulary of atmospheric blur, luminous tone, and vibratory mark-making. Cliché-verre combined established convention with modern innovation. The prints on view, in which historical scenes and pastoral idylls commingle with landscapes bearing traces of urbanization and industrialization, display daring formal and stylistic experimentation, made possible through the cliché-verre process.
“The cliché-verre emerged out of a period of technological innovation in the arts, marked by the introduction of new mass-circulating printmaking processes, the industrial manufacture of artists’ materials, and the invention of photography,” said Kensett, the exhibition’s curator. “The process enjoyed a moment of popularity in France because of the collective efforts of an enterprising group of artists—including photographers, printmakers, and painters—who were determined to explore the creative possibilities offered by these new developments. A Change in the Light celebrates this exploration and investigates the intertwining of process, materiality, and meaning in the artworks that resulted.”
The Artists and the Cliché-verre
A Change in the Light presents a remarkable selection of cliché-verre prints made by some of the most important artists working in nineteenth-century France. Included in the exhibition are:
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (French, 1796–1875) was trained in the Neoclassical tradition of landscape painting, which held that the most artistically significant landscapes were those populated by historical, mythological, or Biblical figures. Throughout his career, Corot favored these mythical scenes and pastoral idylls, even as his contemporaries turned increasingly to the depiction of modern life. He developed a style that infused his conservative subject matter with the improvisational quality of his outdoor sketches, creating landscapes at once transitory and timeless.
Corot’s exposure to cliché-verre came at a pivotal moment in his career, when he was turning away from the stylistic constraints of Neoclassical painting. His clichés-verre, in which he fluidly interpreted the themes and compositions of his paintings, are experiments in gestural freedom. Corot became a lifelong adherent to the technique, producing sixty-six plates over two decades.
According to accounts of Corot’s working process in cliché-verre, the artist probably adapted existing drawings rather than working his plates en plein air. However, Corot’s clichés-verre preserve the spontaneity of his open-air sketches. The gestural marks of Lunch in the Clearing (Un déjeuner dans la clairière) (1857, printed 1921) imply the mass and character of the figure group without describing detail.
In The Dreamer (Le songeur) (1854, printed 1921), Millet presents a solitary figure, lost in reverie, and absorbed by the landscape, a surrogate for the artist himself. Here, distorted perspective gives the picture its sense of dreamlike unreality, as the ground swells like a rough sea. Corot produced the image’s misty atmosphere by painting directly onto his plate in oils and then scratching into the paint with the end of a paintbrush or a sharpened stick to outline the figure and the tangled weave of branches above.
The variation in the two printings of The Little Shepherd (Le petit berger) (1855, printed 1921) that are presented in the exhibition results from a change in the orientation of the printing plate to the paper surface. The first print was created drawing-side-up, resulting in a crisp print, with each line clearly delineated and every stroke of Corot’s drawing visible. In the second print, the glass plate was printed in contact with the light-sensitive paper, drawing-side-down, creating a “halo” effect around each line due to the diffusion of light through the glass, leaving many of Corot’s marks to merge into shadows and dark masses.
Charles-François Daubigny (French, 1817–1878) made his reputation as a graphic artist, mastering the etching process and taking commissions to illustrate printed publications in order to support his academic training. On canvas, Daubigny’s subject was the French landscape, which he depicted full of light and free from encroachments by iron or steam. As the anxieties of urban life multiplied and the natural world came to be regarded as a refuge from the city, Daubigny achieved fame as a painter whose landscapes inspired, in the words of one critic, “the physical feeling of well-being.”
Daubigny’s engagement with the novel process of cliché-verre was brief but intense. He produced seventeen plates in a single year, and, unlike many of his fellow artists, was actively involved in printing them. His training as a graphic artist is apparent in his clichés-verre—his plates are drawn in the confident style of his etchings and pen-and-ink illustrations, and he produced close variations of several compositions in other print media.
This expertise is apparent in his two prints of Deer (Les cerfs) (1862, printed 1921) that are presented in the exhibition. The motif of deer drinking at the water’s edge first appeared in Daubigny’s graphic work in an illustration for the 1843 songbook Popular French Songs and Ballads (Chants et chansons populaires de la France). That earlier illustration depicts a castle looming in the middle distance, conjuring associations with the deer hunts of the aristocracy. In these later prints, there is no trace of human presence. The deer form part of an ecological community, nourished by light, air, and water, which Daubigny renders palpable with fluid hatching and rays of line. The different color casts of these two prints may have been produced either by printing them on differently colored paper or by using different chemical solutions to tone the prints during development.
Another set of two prints by Daubigny, Brook in a Clearing (Le ruisseau dans la clairière) (1862, printed 1921), provide an interesting opportunity to consider the impact of different toning solutions used after exposure. During toning, the print is immersed in a chemical bath that releases a quantity of the light-sensitive silver particles that form the image and replaces them with particles of a noble metal, such as gold or platinum, which are more resistant to fading over time. One print was most likely toned with a platinum solution, which yields a pure black tone, while the warm tone of the other print was probably achieved with a solution of gold.
Eugène Delacroix’s (French, 1798–1863) output in cliché-verre was limited to a single quickly sketched plate: Tiger at Bay (Tigre en arrêt) (1854, printed 1921). A favorite subject, Delacroix invested tigers with multi-layered symbolism, regarding them as embodiments of the ferocious and amoral power of the natural world as well as an analog for humanity’s own cruelty. He abandoned the cliché-verre process after this solo attempt, declaring that he was too busy to waste his time making any more “rough sketches and hasty, careless ‘almost-theres.’”
Jean-François Millet (French, 1814–1875) was born in the rural agricultural region of Normandy but was classically trained as a painter in Paris. In 1849 Millet moved to the rural community of Barbizon, thirty miles south of Paris, where he made works that mixed observed details of village life with memories of his Norman childhood and references to Classical mythology, the Bible, and artistic tradition gleaned from his academic training. Despite being recognized by his peers as being among the most cultivated of his artistic circle at Barbizon, Millet affected a persona of rustic simplicity, touting his provincial upbringing.
Millet’s two efforts in cliché-verre date to 1862, the same year as those of his close friends Théodore Rousseau and Charles-François Daubigny. Both of his works are presented in the exhibition, including his Woman Emptying a Bucket (Femme vidant un seau) (1862, printed 1921), in which Millet refers to the biblical archetype of a woman drawing water from a well as well as his own birthplace in Normandy. In the upper reversed printing of this plate, Millet’s lines appear bolder. His darkest masses of hatching solidify into shadow, heightening the composition’s sense of volume and space.
Théodore Rousseau (French, 1812–1867) frequently sought out marginal, unremarkable sites for his works, preferring to make meaning out of scenes of little obvious visual interest—at least according to the established conventions of the landscape genre. His affinity for remote, humble, and neglected landscapes drew him to work in France’s remote provinces, where he spent periods of solitude. Rousseau first encountered the cliché-verre process when he left Paris in 1848 and settled with other artists in the village of Barbizon.
Rousseau’s output in cliché-verre was limited to two plates, likely owing to his devotion to painting and a general lack of enthusiasm for print media. In The Plain at Plante-à-Biau (La plaine de la Plante à Biau) (1862, printed 1921), a depiction of a plain near Barbizon, he uses a favorite compositional device, making the horizon slightly elliptical, rather than flat, creating an effect that suggests a global unity greater than the sum of his subject’s parts. Cherry Tree at Plante-à-Biau (Le cerisier de la Plante à Biau) (1862, printed 1921) demonstrates the inspiration Rousseau found in trees as well as his animistic belief in the power of trees to feel, think, and communicate. In this work, he uses minute strokes of varying density to give his cherry tree both dimension and a sense of vibratory motion. The print’s diffuse atmospheric effect was achieved by placing the plate drawing-side-up rather than in direct contact with the photographic paper during printing, creating a “halo” effect around the linework, as in the variant printing of The Little Shepherd by Corot.
Support for this exhibition is provided by the Troob Family Foundation.
ABOUT THE CLARK
The Clark Art Institute, located in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, is one of a small number of institutions globally that is both an art museum and a center for research, critical discussion, and higher education in the visual arts. Opened in 1955, the Clark houses exceptional European and American paintings and sculpture, extensive collections of master prints and drawings, English silver, and early photography. Acting as convener through its Research and Academic Program, the Clark gathers an international community of scholars to participate in a lively program of conferences, colloquia, and workshops on topics of vital importance to the visual arts. The Clark library, consisting of more than 275,000 volumes, is one of the nation’s premier art history libraries. The Clark also houses and co-sponsors the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art.
The Clark, which has a three-star rating in the Michelin Green Guide, is located at 225 South Street in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Its 140-acre campus includes miles of hiking and walking trails through woodlands and meadows, providing an exceptional experience of art in nature. Galleries are open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm. Admission is $20; free year-round for Clark members, children 18 and younger, and students with valid ID. Free admission is available through several programs, including First Sundays Free; a local library pass program; and EBT Card to Culture. For more information on these programs and more, visit clarkart.edu or call 413 458 2303.
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