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Unique Prints

The museum collection contains a wealth of monotypes, unique one-off prints that embody creative exploration
August 9, 2016
Bastille Day

Jane Glaubinger Curator of Prints

Bastille Day 1892. Maurice Prendergast (American, 1858–1924). Monotype; 17.4 x 13.1 cm. Gift of the Print Club of Cleveland 1954.337


A monotype is a unique work of art. The artist creates a design with ink or paint on a nonabsorbent flat, smooth surface, covers it with a sheet of paper, and runs it through a press or prints it by hand. While capturing the spontaneity of the artist’s first impulse, a monotype produces a result that is somewhat unpredictable. The pressure of transferring the design blurs it to a degree, creating softened edges, and certain factors are variable, such as the texture and absorbency of the paper and the consistency and thickness of the medium used to draw the design.

It seems likely that the first monotypes were created in the 17th century by the Flemish artist Anthonie Sallaert (about 1590–1650), a painter and designer of tapestries and prints. Sallaert was first and foremost a draftsman, one of the most brilliant masters of the oil sketch, creating freely executed works in monochromatic shades of brown. He obtained the same expressiveness and fluidity with monotype, using similar brown ink, as in the museum’s example, A Scene from Classical Mythology. Sallaert brushed bold, tapering lines on the printing surface, with the added freedom of being able to alter the drawn design before printing it on paper.

Only a few practitioners sporadically executed monotypes until the mid 19th century when French artists, with Rembrandt as a model, started to manipulate ink on the printing plate. Rembrandt used the etched matrix as the scaffolding for an enormous range of effects achieved by varying the inking and wiping of the plate for each impression. Many French printmakers experimented similarly with painterly effects, since the belle epreuve, or unique impression, was highly valued at the time. The etched lines gradually lost their importance so that in 1863 Adolphe Appian began to examine the dramatic effects of light and dark and the rich tonalities that could be obtained by wiping and brushing ink across a blank plate and then printing the result. The monotype, now reinvented, was taken up by Vicomte Ludovic Napoléon Lepic, who acted as a technical advisor for Degas’s first attempt at the medium in about 1874–75, The Ballet Master, which is signed by both artists.


In the Salon

In the Salon about 1880. Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Monotype; 11.9 x 16 cm. Andrew R. and Martha Holden Jennings Fund 1977.44 


Degas, who thoroughly explored the expressive potential of monotype, produced about 450 examples in a little more than 15 years. Like his work in other media, his monotypes recorded his interest in modern urban life: café-concerts, theaters, brothels, and women at their toilette. In the Salon, one of over 50 monotypesof brothel scenes,reflects the popularity of the prostitute theme in novels of the era. The unattractive figures, one of whom reaches out to beckon an unseen visitor, await clients in the harsh artificial light of the chandelier, which creates strong contrasts between bright highlights and deep shadows. Degas applied the ink with a brush, but fingerprints are also visible where he coaxed the ink to create a more three-dimensional space and to model the figures. Ink smeared with a fingertip, for instance, dissolves the face of the middle seated woman, blending it with the murky haze of the room.

Another great master of monotype was the American Maurice Prendergast, who went to Paris to study in 1891. His first dated work in this medium is Bastille Day, a magical evocation of a July 14 celebration, France’s Independence Day, executed in 1892 (shown at the beginning of the article). Unusual for the time, Prendergast worked in color, creating forms with flat areas of paint and making white lines and highlights by wiping away ink with the tip of his brush handle. Although Prendergast was influenced by ukiyo-e prints (Japanese color woodcuts) in the flattening of space, using a monogram reminiscent of Japanese seals, and exploiting the lanterns to create a decorative pattern across the surface of the print, his monotypes are distinctive and extremely original.

During the summer of 1898 Prendergast left for a 16-month tour of Italy. Impressed by the intense color of Tintoretto’s and Carpaccio’s paintings, the brilliant sunlight, and the colorful festivals and piazzas of Venice, Prendergast heightened the intensity of color to an almost jewel-like brilliance. The Spanish Steps (1898–99)is his supreme achievement among his Italian monotypes. Selecting a classic Roman tourist site, theatrical with its sweeping curves, he depicted three dozen red-robed Catholic seminarians flowing down the carefully delineated monumental staircase.


The Theatre

The Theatre 1909. John Sloan (American, 1871–1951). Monotype with drawn line; 19.1 x 22.8 cm. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph L. Wilson in memory of Anna Elizabeth Wilson 1961.162


John Sloan, a committed printmaker, began to make monotypes in the early years of the 20th century and produced a significant group over a period of at least nine years. For The Theatre Sloan exploited the inherent luminosity of monotype to record the darkened interior during a performance. He used green ink to delineate the brilliantly lit stage that contrasts dramatically with the darkened theater. The effect of light reflected across the space was created by covering the plate with ink and then wiping it away to obtain dazzling highlights. The work records the artist’s first experience with opera. Although Sloan and his wife, Dolly, enjoyed attending the theater and music halls, the well-dressed people in the audience probably refer to the two operas he attended in February 1909, Tannhäuser and Louise. Theexperience, which he called “Grand Opera fever,” elicited favorable comments in his diary.

Artists have continued to make monotypes while sometimes experimenting with the technique in new ways. Robert Mangold, for instance, used a wood block shaped like a trapezoid for Untitled, printing the left side in yellow and the right side in bright blue. Next he drew the loopy line that connects both sections of the work, and then printed the block again in thin layers of gray and dark blue, partially exposing the yellow and bright blue underneath. Both the grain of the wood block and the rough pebbly surface of the thick handmade paper add texture and pattern to the background, in contrast to the smoothly flowing calligraphic design.



Untitled 1994. Robert Mangold (American, b. 1937). Monotype; 35.9 x 51 cm. Gift of Garner H. Tullis 1994.55. © Robert Mangold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Mangold’s reductivist aesthetic of bold, flat, hard-edged, simplified shapes may seem rigidly geometric,
but unexpected nuances and subtle arrangements enliven the composition. The mottled effect of the yellow section creates the illusion of shallow depth, but the space is flattened, producing a visual tension when the line, which touches the edges of the trapezoid four times and so sits on the picture plane, passes into two-dimensional blue territory.

Monotype holds practically limitless possibilities for personal expression as artists vary the types of pigments—oil paints, printers’ inks, watercolors, and so on—and kinds of papers. The press or hand-printing also affects the result, allowing for an extraordinary diversity of results. Like any other printmaking technique, however, the monotype is no more than an instrument in the service of its master. As print curator William M. Ivins Jr. explained, “What makes a medium artistically important is not any quality of the medium itself but the qualities of mind and hand its users bring to it.”  


Cleveland Art, May/June 2015