Exploring the Life of Lithographs

By Travis H. Brown

This month, I noticed that the Milwaukee Art Museum is featuring their “Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec and His Contemporaries” special exhibition from June 1st until September 9th, 2012.  I am not aware if this collection will be coming to the Saint Louis Art Museum, but I would certainly lobby hard to have it there.

Several years ago, I negotiated the purchase of a few antique lithograph posters used for advertising from the 1890’s into the early 1900’s.  I find these advertising posters intriguing because their widespread European use helped modernize mass marketing campaigns during the industrial revolution.

The art techniques behind lithography is also a bit of a lost art, since it usually starts with oil and water cast over large limestone tablets.  One of my posters is from the famed Italian Leonetta Cappiello, celebrating another favorite sommelier topic – absinthe.    Cappiello’s use of black for large contrasts may have helped spread the popularity of his style since they were often easier to scan from a distance.

While some lithographs are still used, it seems to take more effort to find it today.  The Smithsonian Associates Art Collectors Program has a few examples that I like, such as this commissioning of the National Air & Space Museum “History of Flight” tribute.

To find more historical works in Saint Louis, Missouri, it is always worth a look at the Missouri History Museum’s  Guide to the Photographs and Prints Collection of the Missouri Historical Society.  Southeast Missouri State University also has some lithograph works in Cape Girardeau, but I have yet to view those in person.

Even the famed Missourian Thomas Hart Benton has a few lithographs on displays, which have been featured in my hometown of Ste. Genevieve in past years.  The next time you see a reproducted print as a poster, think about whether a lithographer helped bring this image to life.