Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Optical print: Viewing the world from the comfort of your sofa

La Place de St. Jaques a Londres, ca. 1750-1800, 298 x 445 mm, etching/engraving/watercolour/illuminated




Optical prints, also known as the 'Vue d’Optique', are curious objects. These prints are characterized by mirrored titles, an exaggerated perspective effect and multilingual descriptions. Once mass produced as tourist prints, nowadays these objects are increasingly valued for their artistic character. The preserved optical prints give us an very interesting eye on how the 18th century elite viewed the world.

't Stad Huys van Amsteldam   
Daumont, Paris, ca. 1750-1800, 300 x 450 mm, etching/watercolour
These beautiful etched or engraved prints were usually hand coloured. Some of them are even made to be illuminated. This means that the contours of buildings, windows and stars are perforated with dots and figures. On the back of the print a piece of translucent paper is pasted. 
On top of this the holes are coloured. When held in front of the light you get the illusion of a landscape by night, like a magic lantern. The Print ‘t Stad Huys van Amsteldam is a good example of such an illuminated version.

Egerton & Wm. Smith & Co. (British) Zograscope, early 19th century. Wood, glass, paper, and paint. Joseph Allen Skinner Museum, Mount Holyoke College. Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Massachusetts. Photograph Laura Shea. SK 2006.1957.1.INV. For more images of this incredible instrument, please visit: (last accessed January 2017). We are grateful to the Joseph Allen Skinner Museum for providing us with these beautiful images.
Illumination was not what these print were intended for. Their main feature was the perspective effect. When viewed under a so called 'zograscope', also known as a 'optical diagonal machine', the perspective of the scene was enhanced, giving the print a 3D-like effect. The print was layed in the zograscope or on a flat surface. A mirror allowed, finally, the lettering to be read straight. Throughout time the zograscope became rare, but fortunately optical prints were so beautiful they remained a popular collector's item on it’s own merit.

As mentioned, optical prints were produced as tourist souvenirs. This explains subjects as architecture, land- and cityscapes. Yet there are also other kinds of optical prints, made to tell stories. For example biblical scenes and news worthy events as the great fire of New York. Optical prints are therefore a genre going beyond picturesques mementos.

Habermann, Franz Xaver 
Representation du Rue terrible a Nouvelle York 
Augsbourg, ca. 1750-1790,  295 x 412 mm, etching/engraving/watercolour
Optical prints find their origin in the early 18th century, but their popularity came to a head in the second half of that century. The most famous publishers of optical prints arose in ‘printing capitals’ like Paris, Augsburg and London. In Paris, firms like Basset (active 1700-1865) and Daumont (active 1740-1775) were important printers. Although smaller houses as Huquier fils. (active 1750-1805), Mondhare (active 1762-1829) and Hocquart (active 1800-18..) also printed a fair share of Vue d’Optique.

Augsburg in Germany was the centre of European printmaking. Many optical prints found their origin here. Georg Balthasar Probst (1732-1801) was the most important optical printer of Augsburg. His prints, mostly after works of popular artists, are known for their clear and detailed looks. His oeuvre contains cityscapes from all over  the world (China to Delft and New York to St. Petersburg), but he also printed allegorical scenes like the planet series or biblical scenes like the The plagues of Egypt.

Le Iuppiter cinqutiéme Planéte et Son in influxion 
Georg Balthasar Probst, Augsbourg, ca. 1750-1800 
346 x 424 mm (plate: 327 x 417 mm), etching/engraving/watercolour

This blog is a teaser to our new catalogue Catalogue 39: Optical Prints. One hundred and forty-six of our most beautiful and extraordinary optical prints are described and illustrated in this catalogue and it will give you an example of how 18th century well-to-do men and women looked at the world from the comfort of their sofas. 

Sanne Hansler