Good old Alois Senefelder. It might be easy to overlook him in the grand sweep of art history. After all, he wasn’t exactly an artist himself, but if it weren’t for him, we might never have seen any of the following works:
All of the images above are lithographs — prints made using limestone. Senefelder devised the process in the early 1790’s while trying to figure out a cheap way of printing off the plays he wrote to make his living. Much easier than etching or engraving, the two most common techniques at the time, lithographic prints became popular as an art form even in Senefelder’s lifetime.
As users of lithography learned more about the process, they were able to increase the accuracy and sharpness of the image and use multiple colours on the finished work.
By the time Senefelder died in 1834, he had patented his invention, published a book on the technique, Vollstandiges Lehrbuch der Steindruckerei (A Complete Course of Lithography), seen the book translated into French and English and been decorated by Maximillian I Joseph of Bavaria, his king.
There are several lovely elements in the early story of lithography.
First is that Senefelder’s local landscape made the whole venture possible. Lithographic limestone must be fine-grained and free of defects, and by happy chance, the limestone around Senefelder’s home was Solnhofen Plattenkalk.
Along with having served as a sculpture material for artist in years past (and having preserved some excellent fossils), this limestone is perfect material for the job of printing. Without his particular geographic placement, who knows if Senefelder would have discovered anything at all.
Second is that the development of lithography was a really interdisciplinary pursuit. In 1796, the author Senefelder began a publishing business. But it wasn’t just for plays, nor was it for art. It was in conjunction with Franz Gleissner, a local composer. At a time when print runs for sheet music were increasing in size and demand, lithography was an ideal form of printing. Lots of copies – far more than ever before – could be made with the new technique. To prepare the print, the stone slab was drawn on with wax, which resisted the water-based ink. The resulting flat stone surface lasted a long time, and could be used again and again.
Lithography and music remained linked for years to come. By the mid-nineteenth century, nearly all sheet music was produced by lithograph, often featuring colourful and distinctive cover images.
And the final piece of the story that makes the whole thing so agreeable is how quickly artists picked it up. Senefelder wasn’t shy about his invention – he pedaled it enthusiastically around Europe – and he was rewarded for his efforts, particularly as the method sharpened and improved. During his lifetime artists including Eugene Delacroix, Theodore Gericault and Francisco Goya would all use the technique to beautiful effect.
He might not be a giant of history, but his invention was good, important and a little whimsical. So wherever you are tonight, give a little thought to Alois Senefelder. It is his birthday after all.