1st trips to to Epinal

(article en français ici)

When I was a child, my parents and I used to drive to Epinal every other month or so. It was the nearest town of importance in our region. There, you could buy everything not found at home.

I can still see myself, seated in the back of our Citroën, peering through the windows to get the first glimpses of “Le Chat Botté”, “Cadet Roussel” and “Pierrette”. These were strange looking figures made of carved and painted wood, signaling the entrance of the town.

At that time, I did not know that Epinal was the world capital of “Les Images d’Epinal”. It was later that I learned it had been so for more than 200 years. The strange looking characters at each entrance of the town were only three out of hundreds of other ones printed in L’Imagerie, a big factory near the river.

History of L’imagerie d’Epinal

Its founder, Jean-Charles Pellerin, was making enameled clock dials with religious motifs around 1796 but business was slow. He got the idea to substitute enamel with printed paper colored with stencils. The motifs were outlined on a wood block and everything around them was cut out. They were then ready to be inked in black and printed on a sheet of paper (see printing relief techniques for more details).

To color inside the black lines, stencils were made out of metal with a machine called “pedalette”: it looked like a sewing machine except that the needle was substituted by a saw. There was one stencil by color, and the color was watercolor. It was put on the paper with a big round brush.

Later, besides woodblocks, L’Imagerie began to use lead stereotypes as the blocks were stronger; or lithography as more details were permitted; yet the technique used to make stencils stayed the same.

This first technique was also the one used by Jean-Charles ‘father who was making playing cards and wallpapers (called “dominos” at that time). There were many craftsmen doing the same thing in this region of France covered by trees. Jean-Charles just used the technique in a new manner.

Besides making these new clock dials, he soon started to print secular stories related to the events of that time, the French Revolution. Each sheet of paper was then sold in the countryside as a kind of newspaper by traveling sellers called “chamagnons”. Most of them were coming from a little village near Epinal called Chamagne, the same village where the painter Claude Gelée was born. They were also selling other sheets of paper with religious motifs on them, also made at L’Imagerie. These were intended to protect houses or their inhabitants against evils of all kinds.

However, L’Imagerie became really famous in 1810 when Jean-Charles asked François Georgin, a renown engraver of that time, to make woodcuts about Napoleon the 1st. He did more than 60 of them illustrating the main events of the 1st Empire. They were printed on Arches paper, Arches being a village near Epinal where there was a factory paper still in activity today.

In 1880, L’Imagerie began to print flyers for businesses and political parties. It also created ABC and other educational materials, riddles, illustrated songs, paper cutouts, plates of soldiers… “Le Chat Botté” , “Cadet Roussel” and “Pierrette” were made at that time.

The first one was an illustration for a popular story by Charles Perrault; the second one the representation of the hero of a traditional song; the third one a famous girl with a milk bottle.

Between 1870 and 1914, L’Imagerie was selling more than 10 million pictures a year worldwide. They were in many languages, some even made for The Humorist Publishing Company of Kansas City.

L’Imagerie d’Epinal today

The 1st World War and the arrival of modern media put an end to the expansion of the business. In 1984, it was on sale after 70 years of decline.

However, its buyers were dedicated to the preservation of this heritage. They decided to print modern pictures along with some of the most popular old ones. They also opened a museum where one would be able to see workers using with new and old woodcuts.  

With more than 200,000 visitors a year and new customers like Michelin, Renault, Club Mediterranée… who order images to illustrate their brand, L’Imagerie has now began a new career.

Some collectors spend thousands of francs to buy old prints; for the less wealthy, new editions of them are on sale at the Museum for more reasonable prices; along them, you can also find plates of the old educational materials and recent pictures depicting popular events: the End of the Berlin Wall, the World Soccer Championship, the 100th Anniversary of the Cinema…

If you want to find a rare piece, you can also ask around Epinal, and certainly far beyond; it seems everybody has at least one of these Images d’Epinal somewhere in the attic; they are as widely spread as Norman Rockwell drawings in the USA.

I have a few of them, old and new, but I do not know their exact value. In fact, I did not even especially like them at first; their themes and gaudy colors didn’t attract me. Yet they were and still are so unique and unmistakable that I would now miss not having at least one. They are part of my culture. I even suspect that I have been influenced by them in what I am doing now.

You can judge for yourself if it is true if you go to L’Imagerie web site.

Otherwise, if you want to travel to France and see the Museum, you will have to go to the east of France, in a region called “Les Vosges”. You will know that you are not far from your destination when you see the three wooden characters: they are still there; they are part of the landscape. And though you now know who they are, I guess kids will go on wondering for many years to come what they are supposed to represent. In fact, I always thought that was the reason why they were put there.

This article was first published in “The Print club of Albany Newsletter”, Fall 2000; it has been revised to be published here.

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