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The Golden Age of Book Illustration 

From John James Audubon to Thomas Moran 

An Exhibition Drawn from the Collections of the California State Library 

February 17, 2017 - May 19, 2017

Reception: February 17 5pm-8pm




The Golden Age of Book Illustration celebrates that great era when authors, scientists, artists, and publishers collaborated to produce some of the most elegant and sumptuously illustrated books ever produced. The highlight of the exhibition is a selection of original hand-colored prints from John James Audubon’s monumental The Birds of America (1827-38) It certainly ranks as the most famous and prized of all color plate books and nothing in the annals of book illustration equals the majesty of its 435 hand-colored elephant folio plates. While Audubon’s great ornithological work is the highlight, this special exhibition includes a variety of striking examples ranging from lifelike engravings, lithographs, and chromolithographs of flowers, snakes, and exotic scenery to elaborate reproductions of Medieval manuscripts printed in gold, silver, and bronze.

Pulled from the rich collections of the California State Library, the exhibition shows the evolution in printing technology from the beginning of the 19th century when plates for illustrated books were laboriously colored by hand until the close of the century when they were printed in multiple colors via chromolithography. Ever since the invention of printing, artists and printers experimented with ways to include pictures in books and publish them in color. At first, skilled craftsmen copied artists’ drawings by carving them in reverse on blocks of wood and later by etching or engraving them on copper and steel plates. To add color, each black and white plate had to be carefully painted by hand. Because of expense, many of these books were published in limited quantity (fewer than 300 copies) and sold by subscription and issued in parts or segments over many years. For example, it took more than ten years to print and hand color the 100,000 plates needed for Audubon’s masterpiece. With the invention of lithography, the plate maker no longer cut into wood or metal but rather drew on stone for a more durable surface, and with chromolithography, plates could be efficiently printed in color. Around 1880, the development of photomechanical processes signaled the demise of these grand handcrafted color books.

Many of the great color plate books focused on natural history and the plant world driven in part by Europe and America’s insatiable curiosity about nature and distant lands. Words alone could not adequately explain a plant or animal species, and through the use of large format plates, the author could reproduce his / her subject life-size. Portraits of exotic people and their indigenous costumes proved to be another favorite topic. Knights, royalty, clergy, and even common laborers representing different continents provided the print maker with endless subject matter. Lord Kinsgborough spent his family’s fortune to publish his Antiquities of Mexico (1830-1848), a nine-volume work reproducing ancient Aztec and Mayan codices in his effort to prove their origins. On display will be a sampling of the artist’s hand-colored proof sheets and a spectacular folio of original drawings used to promote the costly multi-volume work. Lawyer turned artist George Catlin produced a large folio with breathtaking hand-colored renderings of Native American peoples who once populated the Midwest. Landscape views by Thomas Moran of such once remote places as the Yellowstone and Grand Cañon brought natural wonders to a worldwide audience. The Industrial Revolution caused those with an artistic and literary bent to take a romantic look back at the magnificent craftsmanship of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and through the use of multi color printing, sought to recreate the brilliance of the illuminated manuscript, stained glass window, and jewel-encrusted chalice. A selection of these striking works will be included in the exhibition.

The Library Gallery of Sacramento State is to be especially commended for hosting this exhibition of these rare and priceless volumes. Many of the titles on display have rarely been on seen in the Sacramento area or assembled together in one venue. It is remarkable that the California State Library, beginning in the 1850s, would purchase such extraordinary hallmarks of book illustration for the people of the Golden State. In 1866, for example, the Library received permission to purchase the Audubon double-elephant folio. With this exhibition, we hope these volumes will not only delight the eye but also instill a sense of appreciation for the extraordinary talent, ingenuity, dauntlessness, and dedication of these 18th and 19th century artists and publishers.

The Various Processes of Book Illustration

Woodcuts. This is the oldest method of making prints for books. Using small knives and gouges, the artist cuts a design into a block of wood, leaving the desired picture raised (in relief ). The block is inked and then pressed to a piece of paper to transfer the ink. In a woodcut the ink is usually very even, without variation in light and dark areas.

Engraving. This was the main method to reproduce illustrations in the 18th century. The engraver uses a tool called a burin to cut a design into a metal plate, usually copper. Steel was used after 1820. The burin has a diamond-shaped tip which cuts away the metal to make clean, V-shaped grooves. These grooves will hold the ink which will get transferred to paper in the printing process. The deeper the groove, the darker the printed line. After the plate is inked, the plate is wiped clean and then printed under great pressure on to dampened paper. The paper is pressed into the ink indentations. Shading can be effected in engraving by the use of crosshatching.

Wood engraving. With this process, the parts of the design which are to be white are cut away, leaving the black parts in relief, capable of being printed at the same time as the text. Thomas Bewick was perhaps the most famous wood engraver.

Etching. Chemicals rather than hand tools are used to cut into the plate’s surface. First, the surface of the plate is coated with a wax-like material called a ground. With an etching needle, the artist scratches into the ground to expose the plate. The scratched plate is dipped in acid repeatedly to bite out the design, the lines being stooped out with new coats of wax when sufficiently deep. The artist can draw directly on the plate.

Aquatint. This is a type of etching process using powders and particles to create various tones, textures and shadows. The plate is speckled with resin, the plate heated to make the resin stick, and then dipped in acid. The acid bites between the specks giving a grainy effect when printed. Stopping out with varnish and repeated dipping gives variations in tone, and lines can be etched at the same time.

Lithograph. In lithography, the transfer medium is a stone, usually of limestone. The technique is based upon the principle that oil and water repel each other. The desired image is drawn up the stone in an oilbased crayon. The stone is then wiped with water, which coats the stone everywhere except for where the crayon lines are. The stone is then inked with greasy ink which is repelled by the water and only settles on the greasy areas. Paper is applied and the stone run through a press, printed from the greasy areas.

Chromolithograph. Full-color printing by means of chromolithography came into use in the late 1830. Each color required a separate lithograph stone. Each plate sometimes required as many as two dozen separate stones to achieve the desired color. Nonetheless, printing with multiple stones was much faster and cheaper than the tedious hand coloring of each plate. Owen Jones whose works are well represented in this exhibition exploited the process for book illustration.



The Golden Age of Book Illustration

From John James Audubon to Thomas Moran

An Exhibition Drawn from the Collections of the California State Library

February 2, 2017 - March 18, 2017


Phil Hitchcock, Director of UNIVERSITY LIBRARY GALLERY

I would like to acknowledge the tireless time and professionalism of Gary Kurutz the curator for THE GOLDEN AGE OF BOOK ILLUSTRATION, and his staff.

I would also like to acknowledge Mead and Nancy Kibbey for their continued financial support and personal commitment to the UNIVERSITY LIBRARY GALLERY. Thank you all for another successful exhibition you have helped bring to our campus and community.

Gary Kurutz, Main Exhibit Curator, with the assistance of Daniel Flanagan

Vincent Beiderbecke and Matthew Bartok, Photographers

Rich Beckermeyer, Concurrent Exhibit Curator

Mark Carman, FinishLine-Print Specialists, Printing and Graphics