The term “original” can be confusing when applied to works of art on paper. Generally, a piece is defined as original if the artist of the design has worked on the printing element himself, as opposed to those reproductive or interpretive prints in which an intermediary is responsible for replicating an artist’s design on a printing element. In those situations in which the artist is at a remove from the actual production of a work on paper, the designation of an “after” usually follows. The practice of producing “afters” was a popular one with many important nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists, as the following examples illustrate.
Paintings have often been popular sources for duplication on paper, as in the case of Joan Miro’s original painting The Coffee Grinder, which was executed in 1919. In 1954, a skilled French printer named Visat was commissioned to produce an engraving of the piece which was in turn transferred onto BFK Rives paper. Miro was consulted and approved the final image as a faithful reproduction of his own work, and he also signed and numbered the resulting edition of 300 original prints that was published by Maeght, Paris. Visat’s name appears as part of the engraving itself, identifying him as the printer. As is common with the production of “afters,” Visat’s version of The Coffee Grinder greatly expanded the collectability of an original work of art far beyond its initial conception as a single painting.
Another famous series of “afters” involves the artist Marc Chagall and his longtime friend and collaborator, Charles Sorlier. Chagall began experimenting with the technique of lithography in 1950, as consumer demand grew for him to produce original works of art at affordable prices. He eventually became a gifted lithographer at the atelier of Fernand Mourlot in Paris, but Sorlier, who had been recommended as a printer to Chagall, was matchless in his skill, especially as a colorist.
The two men embarked on a decades-long series of collaborations in which Sorlier was entrusted to reproduce a number of Chagall’s original paintings in print; the duo also produced many original works together in which Chagall supplied the lithographic design and Sorlier pulled the prints themselves.
The results are some of the most highly sought-after works in Chagall’s oeuvre, including the famous Carmen, based on Chagall’s design for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and the spectacular Jerusalem Windows series, which Chagall had originally designed as stained-glass windows for the synagogue of the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center. Chagall placed absolute faith in Sorlier as a transmitter of his own aesthetic, but nonetheless each printing was carefully supervised by Chagall, and like Miro he approved each piece for publication and often signed his name to a limited edition of each.
As Sorlier himself noted, “Since Chagall himself has worked and reworked these lithographs, they might be considered to be practically original works. But Chagall’s great integrity as far as his engravings are concerned prevents him from making any such claim; and, in every instance where he himself has not manually made the impression in the stone, he has demanded that the name of the engraver be put on the picture.”
Then and now, collectors have prized the works of Chagall and Sorlier for their bright, vivid hues and lyrical imagery. Though technically designated as “afters,” these interpretive and collaborative pieces are each remarkable works of art born of two artists working as one.
Many other popular and prolific artists authorized the printing of their original works for sale, such as Pablo Picasso, whose famous Barcelona paintings were reproduced as a series of lithographs by the same name, and Henri Matisse, who near the end of his life created numerous works of art from paper cutouts that were later translated into lithographic form.
In many cases, the intermediary printers have been celebrated artists in their own right; for example, Jacques Villon, the brother of Marcel Duchamp, was a well-known Cubist painter who also produced “afters” of works by the likes of Picasso, Edouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Paul Cézanne.
The relationship between “original” works of art and their “afters” is a fascinating and complex one, which does not sully the authenticity of the work in question but merely adds another chapter in the story of its creation.