Cliché-verre, a hybrid process developed in the mid-nineteenth century, combined the techniques of the graphic arts—namely drawing and printmaking—with those of the new medium of photography. To make a cliché-verre, an artist either coated a transparent glass plate with an opaque ground 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, a version of the cliché-verre process was devised by an amateur photographer and a drawing instructor working in the French town of Arras. 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 before it ever achieved widespread popularity, but during the two decades when it was in use, the process offered France’s artists a unique visual vocabulary of atmospheric blur, luminous tone, and vibratory mark-making. Located between conventional printmaking and novel photography, the hybrid technique combined tradition and modernity. The same is true of the prints on view, in which historical scenes and pastoral idylls commingle with landscapes bearing traces of urbanization and industrialization.
This exhibition presents clichés-verre by five French artists—Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Charles-François Daubigny, Eugène Delacroix, Jean-François Millet, and Théodore Rousseau. The works are drawn from a historic portfolio recently acquired by the Clark. Printed in 1921 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 plate. In addition to displaying a single complete set of plates, the exhibition will feature a number of pairings of variant prints to demonstrate the range of expressive potential in printing a cliché-verre.
A Change in the Light: The Cliché-Verre in Nineteenth Century France is organized by the Clark Art Institute and curated by Andrew Kensett, a 2020 graduate of the Williams Graduate Program in the History of Art.
Generous support for this exhibition is provided by Denise Littlefield Sobel, with additional support from the Troob Family Foundation.