“Black Art” in the service of enlightenment Portraits of the nineteenth-century print trade in sketches of the 1830s and 1840s

Martina Lauster

The industrialization of printing during the first part of the nineteenth century entailed a loss of values traditionally associated with authorship and literature on the one hand, and with the artisanship of the print trade on the other. Yet those involved in the industrial production of print could also be aware of their unique opportunities to spread, in the age of steam, the spirit of enquiry that had powered the first ‘print revolution’ in the age of Gutenberg. This paper deals with ways in which awareness of the ambivalent nature of industrial print (its promotion of enlightenment at the cost of authenticity and artistic quality) informed serial works of the 1830s and 40s such as Les Français peints par eux-mêmes. These new media, occupying a position between book and journal, enabled a mass production of often illustrated ‘Sketches’, a hybrid genre combining discursive texts with witty verbal and/or graphic portraits. Serial sketches were both highly visual proponents and analysts of the profound changes that society and, not least, the production of print underwent in those decades, by playing with the image of the potentially subversive ‘black art’ of printing, demonised as it was in more superstitious centuries, and by projecting an egalitarian ethos of the trade suitable for the nineteenth century.

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