History’s Best-Loved Lithographs 

Honoré Daumier - Rue Transnonain. Honoré Daumier - Rue Transnonain. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Lithography, a cost-effective form of printmaking invented in the late 1790s, revolutionized the speed and quality of print reproductions and opened new avenues for artists to transform the scope and scale of their practice. The result was the creation of some of history’s most captivating works. In this article we explore the legacy of the lithograph through the lens of some of history’s most beloved and high-quality examples.

What a (Wax) Relief! The History of the Lithograph

German author Alois Senefelder discovered the printmaking process of lithography in 1796. Seeking a quick and inexpensive means to copy and share his plays, Senefelder learned that writing in a waxy, oily substance on a limestone surface would, when rolled with ink, hold the pigment such that the script could be transferred via printing. As he refined his process in the subsequent years it earned the name lithography (which translates from ancient Greek to “stone writing”). 

Senefelder’s discovery would soon become a leading means for reproducing images. Providing a durable means to make many reliable copies, lithography was also relatively easy to modify (the waxy crayon applied to the surface could be changed more efficiently than a gouged metal plate engraving). So rapid was lithography’s rise that by the 19th and 20th centuries lithography was being used by artists, writers and other creative people for everything from fine art to advertising. 

Ten of the Best-Loved Lithographs in History

From boxing brutes to elegant dancers at the Moulin Rouge, the following lithographs reveal some of the versatility of the medium and artists themselves.

Théodore Géricault’s Boxers (1818)

Théodore Géricault, Boxers.

Théodore Géricault, Boxers. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

A pioneer of Romanticism and its new lens on the modern world, Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) was also a frontrunner in the technique of lithography. Boxers was one of his earliest prints. It reveals a captivating image of two muscular men as they prepare to fight in one of the most popular sports of the era. One man seems to echo the other in a striking compositional balance, yet Géricault has also positioned these brawlers such that we can anticipate the tense blows to come. A close look at Géricault’s technique also reveals how artfully he used modeling both to capture the contrast in both skin tone and bold line contours versus soft tonal washes. 

Eugène Delacroix’s Wild Horse (1828) 

Eugène Delacroix - Wild Horse.

Eugène Delacroix – Wild Horse. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) adopted lithography at the same time as Géricault. His subjects, like Wild Horse however, were often quite different. In this lithograph, Delacroix expresses his fascination with animals and their powerful musculature, a theme he also explored in many of his paintings. Celebrating the unbridled energy of a wild horse, Delacroix created an enlivened vignette that showcases his ability to convey subtle tonal variations equally well. 

Honoré Daumier’s Rue Transnonain (1834) 

See image at top of page. 

One of the 19th century’s most prolific printmakers, Honoré Daumier rarely shied away from cultural critique. Some of his scenes humorously poked fun at the trends sweeping Paris; others, though, like Rue Transonain, le 15 avril 1834 offered a hard-hitting look at the injustices occurring across the city. In this lithograph, Daumier captures the aftermath of a brutal attack on innocent Parisians at the hands of government forces in retaliation from some suspected gunfire. The quietude of corpses scattered across the ground makes Daumier’s somber yet reverential scene an unforgettable one. 

Edouard Manet’s Civil War (1871-1873)

Edouard Manet - Civil War.

Edouard Manet – Civil War. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Upon his return to Paris following the aftermath of Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Edouard Manet (1832-1883) was compelled to create Civil War, a sobering scene that centers on a fallen soldier. Applying thick strokes of his wax crayon, Manet conveyed a depth of shadow that makes the lithograph all the more haunting of a reminder of the loss wrought by wartime. At the same time, the detail of Manet’s line work recalls just how fluent lithography can be in conveying the drawn strokes of the artist. 

Jules Chéret - Les Pays des Fées.

Jules Chéret – Les Pays des Fées. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Jules Chéret’s Les Pays des Fées (1889)

Celebrated for rich washes of color and the balletic women – dubbed “Les Chérettes” – who so often graced his posters, poster artist Jules Chéret (1836-1932) understood the power of a compelling image to draw in the consumer. Such is the case for Les Pays des Fées, a promotional image for the 1889 Exposition Universelle. Set against a Parisian city skyline, Chéret’s young woman seems to float through the scene in a brilliant yellow costume that artfully contrasts with the warm orange and vibrant blue colors behind her.

Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec - Moulin Rouge: La Goulue.

Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec – Moulin Rouge: La Goulue. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge: La Goulue (1891)

While Post-Impressionist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s (1864-1901) paintings and drawings are celebrated in museum collections, some of his most beloved works were those made for advertising. Lithographic posters, like Moulin Rouge: la Goulue, were designed to sell the allure of entertainment venues. The Moulin Rouge, which opened its doors in 1889 along the glamorous Boulevard de Clichy, was one of the most popular cabarets in the city. Toulouse-Lautrec, who was known to frequent the Moulin Rouge, placed one of the venue’s famed cancan dancers Louise Weber, popularly known as “La Goulue” (“The Glutton”), at the center of the poster with fluttering skirts that capture the electric energy of the famed dance hall. 

Edvard Munch - The Scream.

Edvard Munch – The Scream. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1895)

While lithography was growing in popularity in the growing field of advertising art, it also was an increasingly popular means for artists to reproduce and rework ideas in their art. Expressionist Edvard Munch’s (1863-1944) The Scream offers a fantastic example. A subject best known for the painting of the same name, the lithographic version of the incredibly visceral composition nevertheless showcases how Munch’s bold contours and broad lines transform a black and white print into a work as captivating as its colorful, painted cousin. 

Howard Chandler Christy - Americans All!

Howard Chandler Christy – Americans All! Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Howard Chandler Christy’s Americans All! (1919) 

By the 19th century, American illustrators had certainly realized the compelling power of illustration, particularly when it came to supporting the First World War effort. Of course there was James Montgomery Flagg’s (1877-1960) legendary Uncle Sam I Want You poster, designed to recruit young soldiers. But equally convincing was Howard Chandler Christy’s (1873-1952) Americans All!

Christy’s 1919 lithograph aimed to sell war bonds through a cadre of patriotic symbolism centering around a young woman who recalls the Greco-Roman goddess of Fame as she holds out a laurel wreath while standing against a backdrop of the American flag. 

Diego Rivera - Emiliano Zapata and His Horse.

Diego Rivera – Emiliano Zapata and His Horse. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Diego Rivera’s Emiliano Zapata and His Horse (1932) 

Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) was one of the most popular artists working in 1930s America. So popular, in fact, that he began to produce extra lithograph reproductions of his works to meet client demand. Emiliano Zapata and His Horse was one of those works and celebrated one of the revered revolutionary figures Emiliano Zapata. Though he died by assassination in 1919, Zapata had become a celebrated figure of the Mexican Revolution and had already been immortalized by Rivera in one of his colossal murals housed with the Palace of Cortés outside Mexico City. 

Lucas Cranach the Elder - Venus and Cupid.

Lucas Cranach the Elder – Venus and Cupid. Sold for £2,360,000 via Sotheby’s (July 2005).

Pablo Picasso’s Venus and Cupid, after Cranach (1949)

In the mid-1940s, modernist master Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) turned to the art of lithography and began to explore a wide variety of subjects. One was Venus and Cupid, after Cranach, where Picasso borrowed from 16th-century German artist Lucas Cranach’s painting of the same subject. So dedicated was Picasso to his subject that he produced a total of 27 paintings, prints and drawings based on the mythological duo. Using the streamlined style characteristic of Picasso at the time, he produced lithograph plays with only minimal shading, layering into the work heavy zones of deep black that create a rich ground from which the goddess and her associate seemingly emerge.

Looking for Lithography 

Once introduced, lithography proved to be an instantly popular method for artists to explore. Lithographs are equally celebrated among collectors, in part because they offer the opportunity to build a collection of notable names and works at prices far below original paintings or drawings. As our list of best-loved lithographs has shown, this simple form of printmaking also runs the gamut of styles. Whether you’re drawn to the visceral views of Honoré Daumier or the loose, expressive line work of Pablo Picasso, the range of lithography means collectors new to the market can surely build a collection to their liking.