British Museum's world-class collection of French prints to go on show for first time in 40 years

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British Museum's world-class collection of French prints to go on show for first time in 40 years
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Les Baigneurs (grande planche), c.1898. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

LONDON.- For the first time in over 40 years, the British Museum is to mount a major display of its collection of French prints, one of the best collections of its kind in the world. Nearly 80 important works by artists including Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec will go on show in the exhibition French Impressions: Prints from Manet to Cézanne, which opens next week. Covering the last four decades of the 19th century, the exhibition provides an opportunity to view rarely seen artworks by some of France’s most famous artists.

While the period from 1860 to 1900 in France produced some of the world’s most famous paintings, the extensive – and hugely radical – prints that were also created in these years are now little-known. Many of the celebrated artists from this time embraced printmaking alongside their painting, but this output has come to be overshadowed. This free exhibition will therefore be a rare chance to explore how many French artists were at their most pioneering in print, producing some of their most unusual and unique compositions.

Highlights of the exhibition include Manet's rare 1862 print Le Ballon, of which only five impressions are known to survive. The work is like no other ever produced by Manet and is thought to have been influenced by Spanish artist Goya. Other works include two examples of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s colourful prints of actresses and Parisian music-hall stars, and Les Baigneurs (grande planchet) by Cézanne, one of only 8 prints ever made by the artist and a recreation of on his best-known paintings at the time.

The last time the British Museum exhibited its French prints collection on this scale was in 1978, in an exhibition that focussed on one type of printmaking: lithography. This new display will encompass a much more varied selection of works, including etchings, aquatints and monotypes, allowing a more substantial survey of this transformative period. In another departure from the 1978 exhibition, female artists will be included, with work on show by Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt and Suzanne Valadon.

French Impressions will also examine the role of illustrated print journals that proliferated in the 1890s, and how these first helped establish the reputation of many French artists. On show will be a selection of prints from the hugely influential La Revue Blanche (acquired by the British Museum in 2018 and on display for the first time) as well as other significant artworks from L'Estampe Originale and L'Estampe Moderne.

Jennifer Ramkalawon, curator of French Impressions: Prints from Manet to Cézanne said; “We are thrilled to be mounting this extensive display of French prints from the British Museum collection. After four decades we think this is long overdue. While many visitors will know the paintings by these world-famous artists, it is in their prints where you see some of their most radical and creative works. Many of these beautiful and very rare artworks were influential in the development of French Impressionism and Modernism, and they deserve their moment in the spotlight.”

Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum said: “This period produced some of the great names of Western art and I am delighted that our exhibition will highlight some astonishing – if little-known – examples of their work. It demonstrates how important the British Museum’s extensive prints and drawings collection is to the story of European art.”

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