Photography transformed the practice of art history. Before the development of good reproduction photography, scholars relied on copies (search for Lippi’s Madonna and Child, and you will find numerous painted copies, some in oil, others in watercolors), or prints. This chromolithograph print was commissioned by the Arundel Society, a group founded in London in 1848 with “the aim to promote a greater knowledge of art through the publication of literary works and reproductions.”
To create this print, an artist first made a copy of the painting (probably in watercolor). The printer then translated the watercolor copy into a chromolithograph print. It was a laborious process, as Victoria Button, a conservator at the V&A Museum, explains: “Each colour was given a lithographic stone for printing – sometimes up to 20 stones were used. The outline version of the image was drawn in a red chalk. This was non-receptive to grease, and therefore non-printing, and the outline was transferred to each of the stones – one for each colour. The 1860s saw more sophisticated colour theories come to fruition, and hence more realistic effects emerged using a linear image coloured by stipple combinations of yellow, blue and red with the extra flesh-type tints for hands and faces.”
It is interesting to compare Lippi’s original, executed in tempera on panel, with the V&A’s chromolithograph reproduction. When placed side by side, we can quickly see the benefits–and drawbacks–of the chromolithography medium.
Although Storch tried really hard to convey the richness, and subtlety, of color in Lippi’s original–think of the number of lithograph stones the printers had to create in order to make this print!–a chromolithograph will never equal the original’s tempera painting’s richness and transparency. The chromolithographic medium has limits.
It is also interesting to see where the reproduction follows–and reproduces–the original, and where it falls short. The copyist has clearly concentrated their attention on the most important parts of the composition–the figures in the foreground. Look closely at the landscape in the background of the copy, how the copyist treats the geologic formations, and you will see what I mean.
Not all reproductions were good. Some, in addition to being wooden, or poorly painted, or exhibiting subpar draftsmanship, were also inaccurate in egregious ways. The copyist who painted this nineteenth-century copy after Lippi’s Madonna and Two Angels deleted one of the angels.
This copy retained only the Madonna.
Did the audiences for these reproduction copies know that they were being offered inaccurate copies? In an age when travel was difficult–or, sometimes, due to war, impossible–and when information was harder to access, perhaps copyists and print publishers could rely on a bit more latitude? Perhaps the demand for precision and accuracy was not quite there? Or, perhaps, without a reproductive technology like photography, memories were hazier? For those who could not simply walk over and examine the object with their own eyes, “the object” was really an approximation, a thing known through notes and writings (one’s own and those of others), sketches, drawings, prints, and, if one was lucky, and had seen the object at least once, the hazy residue of personal memory.