Long before the first art gallery, around 6000BC, the Halaf culture of modern day Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, invented the first stamp seals, a concept further developed by the Sumerian culture of the same region, who progressed to cylinder seals around 3500BC. Both were used for a similar purpose; signing a name, however the stone cylinders took advantage of the extra space to create more elaborate drawings which would print an impression when rolled over a clay tablet. It was basic, but humans had the ability to duplicate images as basic art prints at least 5000 years before Gutenberg was even born.
Far from being a bland signature, just like contemporary original artworks these these images represented a range of social and religious themes and concepts relevant to the society at the time, and were perhaps also representative of the person signing their name.
South American Olmecs came up with cylinder seals to dip into ink and roll over something like fabric or paper, whilst in Asia rubbings and wood block printing of fabrics developed in China and Japan around 700AD. Interestingly, religion consistently played a role; providing themes for cylinder seals, and appearing in Asian rubbings as Buddhist charms. Our own lenticular art print format owes something to religion too, often the subject of early lenticular print postcards and souvenirs.
Europe begins to catch up, and more recognisable prints emerge
In Europe, nobility began to use stamp seals, and woodcuts were used to create patterns on fabrics, around the same time as the east Asian countries, but by 1200 other factors were having an influence. Entrepreneurialism saw woodcuts being utilised to make products like playing cards, and finally, in 1418, we find something much more like a contemporary art print; a religiously themed woodcut named Madonna with Four Virgin Saints in a Garden.
However even this was something much more like a commercial poster than a work of art expressing anything; an image was commissioned, a designer drew it, and a cutter created the woodblocks for printing. Things began to change as print shifted to metal plates and intaglio printing a few decades later; requiring craftsmen like goldsmiths and armourers experienced in designing and creating themselves. Suddenly the entire process could be managed by a single artistic vision, and the true art print could begin to emerge.
It’s important to understand how rare it was for most people to own any kind of picture at this time; before printing, every image was a one-off original artwork direct from the artist, they were very much a luxury item, and the idea of owning an art print simply to admire its aesthetics was probably completely alien. Playing cards and religious images served a purpose; entertainment, and devotion to God, but one other kind of image was popular with a smaller audience; technical drawings and illustrations in factual books, which would have a significant effect.
How printed illustration drove the Renaissance, and the first true art prints
Artists, and other creative minds like architects, eagerly absorbed technical illustrations; such information had in the past been mostly out of their reach, but print made it affordable. Suddenly artists could draw inspiration from endless examples of ornamental design, ancient Roman architecture, or Medieval figure studies, and incorporate it into their own artworks and ideas. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before they began to see the potential for creating art prints themselves, and making their work available to a much larger audience than a handful of wealthy art collectors.
Demand drove supply, and many of the early examples of these art prints and illustrations covered subjects like classics, witchcraft, everyday life, and landscapes. Perhaps most importantly for the art world woodcuts, engravings, and etchings all helped communicate new ideas and styles around the artistic community. The result of this sudden ability to communicate visual ideas drove, at least in part, the Renaissance; artists were no longer isolated or dependent on commissions or wealthy buyers, suddenly they were all linked, and ideas about the decorative aesthetics that defined the Renaissance moved faster. Art prints also offered a whole new income stream, greatly democratising the collecting and production of art; things were no longer confined to a handful of private collections and art galleries.
Drypoint, engraving, and etching were all in use through the period, with engraving the most common in commercial print products such as books; and here the true art print market finally began to diverge and define itself. By the 1600s artists were focusing on etching, and artists like Rembrandt began to bring true artistic flair and emotion to art prints. But things were only just getting started; no one had figured out a true representation of shades of grey, and could colour art prints ever be possible?