Prints and Prejudice: Women Printmakers 1700-1930 Back

Until recently, printmaking had remained a poor cousin of painting and drawing in the historiography of eighteenth-century art. However, the impact of this medium on the broader cultural and artistic worlds of the long eighteenth century has long been known by historians of print. Antony Griffiths, the previous Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, once wrote ‘many of the best-known works by some of the world’s greatest artists are prints…it is, then, surprising that so little is generally known about the subject’.[1] Indeed Voltaire, in 1732, argued that printmaking was ‘an undertaking useful to humanity, which multiplies, at little cost, the achievements of the best paintings…which would perish without the help of printmaking’ [2] Sadly, the story of printmakers engaged in a long struggle for status in an art world that too often saw print as a secondary medium is a narrative that is too common in the historiography of art. The engagement of women printmakers in this struggle who often worked outside of formal art institutions is less explored and less well-known. And it is their stories that are being given time in the spotlight by leading art institutions across the globe.  



The Marquise of Pompadour; by Francis Boucher (1703 – 70); French; 1758. Oil on Canvas. copyright Victoria & Albert Museum.

The catchy titled ‘Prints and Prejudice: Women Printmakers 1700-1930’ opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in November 2022 hot on the trail of ‘Dare to Know: Prints and Drawings in the Age of Enlightenment’ at Harvard Art Museums. The show precedes ‘Women on Paper’, on at the Rijksmuseum until June 2023. If researchers of eighteenth-century print have remarked that the field has generally not been given enough scholarly attention, feminist art historians bemoan that women artists working with print feature even less frequently in art historical studies of the period leaving them doubly marginalised. Like the Rijksmuseum, the V&A aims to recover and recognise the works of women artists in their collection, for feminist art historians have long known these works to be ambitious and daring, delicate and intimate. And whilst ‘Prints and Prejudice’ falls short of countering the dominant habit of applying feminine prefixes, ‘we never talk of men artists or male art’, the significance of this show’s topic in one of the world’s highest footfall museums cannot be overstated.[3] Not only does the exhibition cast light on printmaking, a medium worthy of consideration as a highly-skilled and highly-diverse craft but it uncovers the achievements and contributions of women artists who pursued informal learning paths to capitalise on their talents.

The artistic ambitions of women are salient in the long eighteenth century. Women featured in the show often worked outside formal artistic institutions since the English Royal Academy of Arts and the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture (note there is no mention of Engraving) were inaccessible to women artists until 1768 and 1757 respectively. For the very few women that were admitted as students after this time, they were forbidden from studying the male nude which often meant their attention was redirected to capturing unprovocative, inanimate subjects on canvas such as flowers, fruits, and landscapes. Few media in art offered women the opportunity for self-directed learning and the chance to cash in on their talents than printmaking.

More readily accessible than painting due to their affordability and reproducibility, prints could be circulated widely in the eighteenth century, and depending on price point, garner print purchasers from all social echelons. Throughout the exhibition, we discover that women printmakers trained alongside their male relatives and counterparts, as part of the family workshop. Printmaking families relied on the steady flow of income that selling prints could provide and  this realisation came early for some artists. Letitia Byrne (1779-1849), who was trained alongside her three sisters – Mary, Anne Frances, and Elizabeth – and her brother John in the family workshop made one of her earliest etchings at 14 or 15 years old. Ahead of her time and vying for ways to commercialise her works, a diary entry from the painter Joseph Farington floats across the exhibition wall referring to a complaint made to him by Letitia that states ‘she said there is a prejudice against employing women as engravers’.[4] Despite this, Byrne continued etching and engraving for book publishers throughout her long career, although frustrating to a scholar of print, it was in painting that she was most recognised by her contemporaries in the artistic community; Byrne exhibited her watercolours at the Royal Academy under her death in 1849.

Letitia Byrne, after George Samuel, A Cross at Clearwell, n/d etching, copyright Victoria & Albert Museum

For creative women from elite society, learning from formally trained and established male artists was commonplace across both sides of the Channel. In France, Madame de Pompadour developed her skills in copper plate engraving with the assistance of some of the most accomplished artists working for the Crown in eighteenth-century France such as François Boucher. As economic factors were not an issue, Madame de Pompadour also worked from her own printing press and the image she produced represented an exercise in leisure and sociability rather than achieving artistic recognition or commercial success.  

Whilst this exhibition spans modestly across two rooms, the quality of the works it brings together (from vibrant hand-coloured botanical works to intimate portraits and sublime landscapes) and the clarity with which the interpretation panels help to bring those works to life more than makes up for its humble size. The display is divided into two parts. The first, displays works made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the second extends to those produced in the twentieth century displaying the full range of printmaking techniques – copper plate engraving, mezzotints, wood engravings, and lithographs. By showcasing the talents of English and French women artists across the centuries, the exhibition highlights their remarkable yet overlooked engagement with printmaking as well as the role these women played in the development of printmaking. In particular, the eighteenth century was a period marked by artistic and commercial transformation – when political and cultural revolutions swept across Europe, spurring profound shifts in the arts, social and cultural encounters, and our shared sense of history and is well represented in this small exhibition. It draws entirely from the V&A’s collection of prints and illustrated books, and features ‘celebrities’ of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries such as Angelica Kauffman, Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, and Madame de Pompadour, as well lesser-known artists Gwen Raverat and Letitia Byrne.

The hope is that this show is the first in a long-term approach across museums to take stock of work by women artists in public collections to create a more balanced representation in temporary exhibitions and permanent displays. With this in mind, the publication of an exhibition catalogue would go some way to address this.


[1] Antony Griffiths, Prints and printmaking: an introduction to the history and techniques, (British Museum Publications: London, 1980), 9.

[2] Cited in Anne L. Schroder, “Genre Prints in Eighteenth-Century France: Production, Market, and Audience” eds. Richard Rand and Juliette M. Bianco, Intimate Encounters: Love and Domesticity in Eighteenth-Century France, (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1997), 69.

[3] Griselda Pollock, “Women, Art and Ideology: Questions for Feminist Art Historians,” Woman’s Art Journal 4, no. 1 (1983): 2.

[4] Joseph Farrington, Diary, 19 January, 1819.