Epinal: Popular Art for Mind and Heart

    February 8 – March 31, 2016


    A Precious Heritage

    This exhibit shows large-sized prints with mainly Marian themes. As part of a collection of popular religious images printed around 1850 in France, these pictures are known as Images of Epinal. The Marian themes represented here show many facets, some relating to special Marian titles, and others showing apparitions or sanctuaries of France. A few prints are popular reproductions of famous Marian paintings, while others depict famous miraculous images of Mary or scenes of her life. It seems appropriate to consider these nineteenth century prints as a bible for the poor of modern times. The prints of this exhibit are part of the Marian Library holdings. They are both rare and antique and constitute a precious heritage.

    A Name

    Popular imagery began in the fifteenth century and reached its apex in the nineteenth century with images generically known as Images d’Epinal, named after the town of Epinal in northeast France, famous for its mass production of devotional imagery. These devotional images bear witness to the aspirations, customs, and religious beliefs of the time of the French Restoration (1814-1848).

    The implantation of popular or naïve imagery in Epinal dates from the seventeenth century. Its evolution was such that the name Epinal was given generically to holy cards and other narrative popular art.

    Up to the middle of the nineteenth century, the name of the artist was of little significance. Artisans did not produce original designs but copied preexisting pictures. However, with the advance of technology, artists like Guy Arnoux and Pierre Abadie-Landel were needed to create original designs.

    A Main Center

    There were three European centers, located in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, and France, responsible for supplying most of the market with devotional images. French production of popular imagery took place mainly in Paris. By mid-sixteenth century, this production in Paris concentrated on one street, the rue Montorgueil. At the end of the century the companies producing images moved to rue Saint Jacques. Eventually, especially in the nineteenth century, the industry concentrated in the Saint Sulpice quarters of Paris.

    A Change in Style

    The move of the imagery industry to Saint Sulpice was important because it defined a change in style, as exemplified by the Bouasse-Lebel Company created in 1845, and soon to become one of the most famous of the producers of popular imagery. Allegories and symbols were favored until the third quarter of the nineteenth century when individual piety was rekindled. Relying heavily on the purity of the soul theme and individual relation to God, images were framed with paper lace or with one picture hidden beneath the other for a surprise-image. The artistic style and content of these images was inspired by religious Romanticism.

    A Manifold Meaning    
    Sacred and Secular

    The first images edited were religious prints called holy cards (saintetés) or leaflets of saints (feuilles des saints). A title or a short prayer accompanied earlier pictures, with later pictures including longer prayers and/or hymns to be sung to the melody of popular airs, songs the reader would know.

    As production of popular images became a lay enterprise, secular themes developed. Diversification occurred principally in the nineteenth century with representations including anecdotal, philosophical, satirical, historical, military, legendary, and children-oriented themes. However, even after the French Revolution with its censure of religious imagery, devotional images accounted for the majority of prints. In the 1850s forty-four percent of production by the Wentzel Company in Wissembourg was devoted to religious images, seventeen percent of which represented saints, while fifteen percent showed Jesus Christ.

    Powerful and Catechetical

    Religious images had a powerful and positive influence throughout the history of Christianity. Images of Epinal have an explicitly catechetical character. They show (more than tell) the faithful how to sustain and enrich their simple faith and prayer life. Missionaries adopted devotional images to help natives understand the Christian teachings and support their devotions. In the nineteenth century the clergy distributed them to the congregation to remind them of their duties, and to passersby to attract them to church. They could also be bought from peddlers as images of protection.

    Popular and Colorful

    These popular images served also as a decorative features on walls in homes and schools. Thus the printing companies started to produce large-sized images. They were presented in a heavy, brightly colored floral frame. Developing a wide range of colors was most important because the more vivid the colors, the more successful the images.

    A Sample

    Four out of the thirty Epinal prints that are on display in the Marian Library.