In this color lithograph by Édouard Vuillard (French, 1868-1940), two women lean against a table with their faces hidden from view. The woman on the left, Misia Natanson – the wife of one of Vuillard’s most important patrons – is shown in intimate conversation with her sister-in-law, Marthe Mellot. This print is one in a series of thirteen lithographs (twelve plates and one cover sheet) titled Paysages et Intérieurs, which Vuillard printed in 1899 with help from the skilled color printer, Auguste Clot. Clot assisted with the intricacies of color lithography, a printing process based on the principle that water and oil repel each other.
To make a lithograph, an artist draws with an oil-based material (such as a greasy crayon or liquid tusche) on a slab of limestone or metal plate. The stone is then chemically treated with a series of solutions that secure the drawing and fix it to the stone’s surface. After these treatments are erased with turpentine or paint thinner, the stone is moistened with water, which settles on the surface everywhere except on the oil-based drawing. A greasy printing ink is then applied with a roller, adhering to the design and resisting the dampened blank areas of the stone’s surface. A sheet of paper is then pushed against the inked drawing through a lithographic press, which applies pressure evenly. Generally, each color requires its own stone. For a print like Vuillard’s, the same sheet of paper is pressed on multiple stones in order to develop a colorful composition.
This print is composed of four colors: yellow, green, red, and black, which were printed on the paper in that order. The effect of this process in the final print is striking. Through a masterful exercise of lithographic technique, Vuillard and Clot overlapped and superimposed colors to create a seamless surface in which background and foreground merge and the figures in the print become little more than extensions of Vuillard’s experimentation with color and pattern. Likewise, any sense of line is minimized as the figures and objects are instead defined by the layering and interaction of colors. Marthe Mellot appears essentially as a silhouette – her figure composed of a dense field of black ink, almost indistinguishable from the table on which she leans. This image, in which planes that typically define depth and distinctions like front and back are flattened, provides an interesting contrast to many of the other works presented in Backstories.