Épinal prints: what are they?

From a time when information was not readily available to everyone, the Épinal print serves as a veritable chronicle of the French people in the 19th and 20th centuries. Come learn how.

Archive photo of the Epinal imagery (End of 19th century) by AnonymousMusée Bertrand


They originated in a print shop founded in 1796 in the French municipality of Épinal, in the Vosges department: "L'imagerie d’Épinal," founded by Jean-Charles Pellerin.

Archive photo of the Epinal imagery (19th century) by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

Its location was good for business. Beside the Moselle river and the forests that enabled the manufacture of paper, there were many artisan playing-card and printed-paper makers, which allowed Pellerin to very quickly expand his business (which began as an artisanal family affair) into an incredible industry well known outside France.

Thanks to mobile peddlers, in the late 19th century and into the 20th, Épinal prints were well known around the world.

Napoleon at the Boulogne camp (19th century) by PELLERINMusée Bertrand

How does an Épinal print work?

Definition: an Épinal print is a print depicting a popular subject using bright colors.

The printing press (1954 - 2010) by IBM according to Leonardo da VinciCastle of Clos Lucé

In the beginning, the prints were first engraved on wood blocks then printed on paper, using a Gutenberg-type lever press: this was known as xylography.

Lithographic cylinder press (1849) by [Jacques Laurent] PoirierMusée des arts et métiers

Around the 1850s, Pellerin replaced this procedure with lithography, which then used lithographic stone plates that revolutionized printing.

Photo of the Imagerie d'Epinal workshop by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

Once the pattern was printed on the page, it was the colorist's job to use a stencil to apply the well-known vibrant colors of the Épinal print.

Board game:Jeu de L'oie (The Goose Game) (ca. 1910)The Strong National Museum of Play

Large-scale distribution of information

In the 19th century, l'imagerie d'Épinal developed a business aimed at children, making riddles, snakes-and-ladders games, and card games. But it is the propaganda images glorifying Napoleon I to which Épinal prints owed their rise.

Apotheosis of Napoleon (19th century) by François GEORGIN and PELLERINMusée Bertrand

From 1829 to 1845, Pellerin and his associate François Georgin mass-produced a multitude of plates depicting Napoleon Bonaparte and his associates, illustrating his rise to power.

These images were true tools of information, but also of propaganda, and their peddling throughout France, Europe, and the whole world enabled people to follow the adventures of the French Emperor, protagonist of these prints accessible to all.

Republished in 1912, the Épinal prints brought unity and amplified patriotic sentiment among the French on the eve of World War I.

Eve of Austerlitz (19th century) by PELLERINMusée Bertrand

The ancestor of the comic?

Historical depictions, often accompanied by expository texts: Épinal prints are often regarded as the beginning of comic books and comic strips.

For example, on this print, the printers showed a behind-the-scenes view of the famous battle at Austerlitz.

Napoleon, always a great strategist even in intimate moments, is represented asleep among his generals, a battle plan map by his side.

The text accompanying the print gives a romantic dimension to the scene.

Photo of the Imagerie d'Epinal workshop by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

And now?

Today, l'Imagerie d’Épinal still exists. Still in its original premises in the town center, the "Maison Imagerie d’Épinal" preserves its exceptional historical heritage by running the Imagerie as two endeavors: a museum that allows visitors to see the production workshops on one hand, and on the other, the business giving new life to these images that are so well known worldwide.

Photo of the Imagerie d'Epinal workshop by AnonymousMusée Bertrand

Since 2014, the business has put its machines (which are unique in France) back into service, and it offers a wide variety of images, items, and interior decorations, using the codes of the famous Épinal prints.

Credits: Story

Musée Bertrand de Châteauroux.

Kevin Guillebaud
Candice Signoret

Photos :

© Musée Bertrand
© Musée des arts et métiers-Cnam/photo Sylvain Pelly

© Maison Images d’Épinal

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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