Drawn to Art Reproduction

By Sarah Mirseyedi
June 26, 2019
Index Magazine

Drawn to Art Reproduction

A black ink drawing depicting a woman with a parasol atop her shoulder, likely produced by the gillotage technique.
Edouard Manet’s drawing Jeanne (Spring), based on his 1881 oil painting of the same name, was likely made for the express purpose of being reproduced by the technique of gillotage, a 19th-century photomechanical reproduction process. The drawing was the inspiration for a recent Materials Lab workshop exploring 19th-century art reproductions for the mass press, led by Sarah Mirseyedi.

During my first semester as a graduate student at Harvard, a professor told me about a strange drawing made by Edouard Manet in the Harvard Art Museums collections.

Based on the artist’s 1881 oil painting Jeanne (Spring), the drawing consists of a delicate tracing in pen and ink of a photographic image of the work printed on the reverse side of the paper. As one might expect to find in a 19th-century photograph, this paper is coated in albumen, an egg-white solution used in historical photographic processes to suspend photosensitive silver salts on the surface of paper. In this instance, however, the albumen coating is not on the side of the paper with the photographic image, but on the side upon which Manet copied this image in ink. As a result, the ink pooled and beaded away from the surface, having been prevented by the impermeable albumen coating from seeping fully into the paper’s fibers.[1]

I came to Harvard with an interest in the relationships among 19th-century media, and I was immediately drawn to the curious mix of artistic media, materials, and techniques on display in this work. I began researching the drawing for the 2017 exhibition Drawing: The Invention of a Modern Medium and crystallized my ideas into a dissertation topic. Now, nearly six years after first encountering Jeanne, I am not only still thinking about this drawing, but I have been trying to replicate it at the material and technical level. 

As a Materials Lab graduate intern last year, I developed a public workshop centered around the relationship between this drawing, as well as others from the museums’ collections, and the 19th-century photomechanical reproduction technique known as gillotage. 

First patented by the French printer Firmin Gillot in 1850, gillotage involved the mechanical transfer of drawings—using methods developed within the field of lithography—onto zinc plates. These could then be etched in relief for typographic compatibility. By the end of the 1870s, Gillot’s son had adapted his father’s invention to the use of photographic technologies. But unlike straight photography or intaglio photomechanical processes like photogravure, this relief process could not reproduce gradations of tone but only discrete black marks, and thus did not look photographic in the ways one might expect. Gillotage was uniquely limited to the visual language of drawing, and artists were constrained as well, in that they needed to use specific methods, materials, and procedures in their drawings if they wanted to reproduce them by gillotage. 

Nearly six years after first encountering Jeanne, I am not only still thinking about this drawing, but I have been trying to replicate it at the material and technical level.

For my workshop in the Materials Lab, I wanted to lead participants in exploring this experience of artistic constraint. While considering other drawings, I decided to focus in particular on two drawings from the museums’ collections made specifically to be reproduced by the gillotage process: Manet’s Jeanne and Claude Monet’s Two Men Fishing, a chalk drawing executed on special paper manufactured by the Gillot firm expressly for the gillotage process. Over the course of my research, I had hypothesized that a number of Jeanne’s idiosyncrasies, such as Manet’s choice to draw directly onto an albumen-coated surface, may in fact have been a deliberate decision made with the demands of gillotage in mind. In the Materials Lab, I hoped to test this hypothesis on both the Manet and the Monet. 

The paper used by Monet, often referred to commercially as “Gillot paper,” was typically coated with gesso or clay and then scored with evenly spaced, parallel lines to create a textured surface.[2] When drawn on in chalk, this texture would then break up the drawn line into the discrete dots of black required of photomechanical relief printing.[3] The printed reproduction of Monet’s drawing on Gillot paper appeared in the April 1883 issue of L’Art Moderne.[4]

The two drawings, as individual objects, could not be more different from one another materially, and I knew going into the workshop preparation that juggling such a vast array of materials, from ink and albumen to lithographic chalk and Conté crayon, would be an enormous challenge.

For most of my time as a graduate student at Harvard, I had approached the concept of intermediality in the abstract. Working in the Materials Lab in the weeks leading up the workshop, I was able finally to see that concept come to life. Over the course of a single day, I might mix up historical recipes for photographic albumen and then use printmaking tools to score clay boards in imitation of the unique surface of Gillot paper.  

Another gratifying moment was being able to arrange for two volumes of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts from the Fine Arts Library and one volume of Scribner’s Magazine from Widener Library to travel to the Harvard Art Museums for the workshop.[5] Being able to view these 19th-century periodicals side by side with drawings made specifically for those periodicals was not only a highlight for me as a researcher, but also, I hope, for the members of the public who might otherwise not have been aware of this connection between library materials and art museum objects. I am grateful to the many staff at the Harvard Art Museums and across Harvard’s campus who helped make this component of the workshop possible. 

I had suspected that many of the choices Manet had made in his drawing after Jeanne (Spring)—whether of materials, tools, or support—had been made from a position of constraint, as he was forced to contend with the unfortunate demands of new and unfamiliar technologies of reproduction. The day of the workshop, however, I was surprised to learn from participants (many of whom themselves were graphic designers or practicing artists) how effortless and smooth they found the experience of drawing in ink on albumen-coated paper. It was not a burden, but a pleasant, even creatively productive, material experiment. 

With this insight from the workshop participants, I started to consider my original hypothesis from a different perspective. Manet had made a series of technical and material decisions with gillotage in mind, yes, but what other avenues of inspiration did gillotage have in mind for Manet?


Sarah Mirseyedi is a Ph.D. candidate in the history of art and architecture at Harvard and was a graduate student intern in the Materials Lab from September 2018 to May 2019.


[1] For more on this drawing, see Carl Chiarenza, “Manet’s Use of Photography in the Creation of a Drawing,” Master Drawings 7 (1) (Spring 1969).

[2] For more on Gillot paper, see Kenneth M. Grant, “The Forensic Examination of Drawings: Three Case Studies in Technical Observation of Works on Paper,” in Storied Past: Four Centuries of French Drawings from the Blanton Museum of Art, ed. Cheryl K. Snay (Austin: Blanton Museum of Art, 2011), 146–48.

[3] Sarah Mirseyedi, “Reproduction,” in Drawing: The Invention of a Modern Medium, ed. Ewa Lajer-Burcharth and Elizabeth M. Rudy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Art Museums, 2017), 244–55.

[4] James A. Ganz and Richard Kendall, The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings (Williamstown, Mass.: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2007), 199.

[5]  In January 1896, Scribner's Magazine published a wood engraving after Monet's painting View of Rouen (1872). Much as he had done for Two Men Fishing, Monet had earlier made his own drawing after View of Rouen on Gillot paper, which enabled the drawing to be reproduced by gillotage for the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1883. Workshop participants were able to compare the more traditional wood-engraved reproduction against the reproduction made through the photomechanical gillotage process, thanks to these loans from Harvard libraries. For more on these two reproductions, see Ganz and Kendall, 196–97.