Invention of Lithography Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1798, aspiring German playwright Alois Senefelder invented a new printmaking technique based on applying ink to an image created by a greasy medium on a porous stone. The unmarked or nonimage areas holding water repelled the ink. This new “chemical printing,” later known as lithography (stone writing) transformed both commercial printing and the visual arts.

Summary of Event

In the eighteenth century, there were two printing methods, both based on mechanical means for producing the printed image. In the intaglio method, Intaglio printing an image is created from ink applied to and retained in lines or marks etched or engraved onto a plate. In relief printing, Relief printing such as woodblock, ink is applied to a raised surface, which is then pressed onto paper. By the end of the eighteenth century, printing would be revolutionized by a poor playwright. [kw]Invention of Lithography (1798) [kw]Lithography, Invention of (1798) Printmaking Lithography [g]Germany;1798: Invention of Lithography[3310] [c]Inventions;1798: Invention of Lithography[3310] [c]Science and technology;1798: Invention of Lithography[3310] [c]Art;1798: Invention of Lithography[3310] [c]Communications;1798: Invention of Lithography[3310] Senefelder, Alois André, Johann Anton Ackermann, Rudolph Schinkel, Karl Friedrich Menzel, Adolph von Goya, Francisco de

Born in Prague on November 6, 1771, Alois Senefelder was the son of Franz Peter Senefelder, an actor with the Royal Theatre of Munich. When his father died in 1791, Senefelder gave up legal studies at the University of Ingolstad to support his mother and siblings. He wrote many plays but could not afford a publisher or printer. He began experimenting with engraving copper plates to find an inexpensive way to print his own works.

A coincidental household event in 1796 led to Senefelder’s invention of lithography, or chemical printing, in 1798. He had been practicing writing backward and had purchased a flat grinding stone in order to prepare the ink for his writing exercises. When his mother needed to write a list of items for the launderer and did not have any paper or regular ink, he used a greasy ink compound of wax, soap, and lampblack to write the list on the grinding stone. Later, when he was about to wipe away the writing from the stone, it occurred to him to try etching the stone instead of the copper plates he had been using. After applying a mixture of nitric acid and water to the stone, he found that the grease in the written letters had protected them from being eaten away and that the surrounding stone surface was removed, leaving a raised image of the letters.

For the next two years, Senefelder experimented with this printing discovery, and in 1798 he had fully developed chemical printing, an entirely new process based on the chemical principle that greasy substances and water repel each other. He found that because it was very porous, Kelheim limestone from Bavaria was the best stone for printing. The new process could create a wide range of tones, from light grays to the deepest black, and a single stone could produce hundreds of fine proofs. In September, 1799, Senefelder was granted an exclusive license for chemical printing in Bavaria and the electorate.

Aside from printing text, there were many other potential applications of the new technology. In 1799, Johann Anton André, a prominent musician who had just inherited his father’s music publishing business in the town of Offenbach, invited Senefelder to join him in the enterprise. In the same year, André signed a publishing agreement with Constance Mozart, the widow of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, giving André access to the music of one of the most prolific composers who had ever lived. Among other projects, the technical means to accomplish this monumental task was provided by Senefelder’s lithographic presses.

In 1800, André’s brother Phillip took Senefelder to London. While his brother was interested in music, Phillip André wanted to explore applications in the visual arts. In 1803, using Senefelder’s process, he published Specimens of Polyautography, Specimens of Polyautography (André, P.) the first collection of drawings made on stone, including pieces by Henry Fuseli, Thomas Barker, Benjamin West, and others. By this time, the French had begun using the term lithographie, or “writing on stone,” rather than Senefelder’s “chemical printing,” to describe the technique, and the French term eventually became standard.

Senefelder was appointed inspector of cartography for the Royal Bavarian Printer in 1809. In 1818, he published a complete account of his invention entitled Vollständiges Lehrbuch der Steindruckerei (A Complete Course of Lithography, Complete Course of Lithography, A (Senefelder) 1819) in Munich and Vienna. King Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria permitted the book to be dedicated to him. The work is divided into two parts: The first provides a history of the invention from 1796 to 1817. The second part covers practical or technical subjects such as acids, presses, paper, and inks. In 1819, the book was translated into French, English, and Italian.

The first English translation had a longer complete title: A Complete Course of Lithography: Containing Clear and Explicit Instructions in All the Different Branches and Manners of That Art—Accompanied by Illustrative Specimens of Drawings, to Which Is Prefixed a History of Lithography, from Its Origin to the Present Time. The publisher was Rudolph Ackermann, a former saddler and coach builder who had established a printshop, the Repository of Arts, Repository of Arts, London in London in 1795. Ackermann was instrumental in popularizing lithography in England.

Senefelder continued to experiment and improve the presses and lithographic process throughout his life. He died in Munich in 1834. Other pioneers of lithography were Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Adolph von Menzel, and Francisco de Goya. A noted Prussian architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, was also a painter and lithographer. His lithograph of a Gothic church was one of the best of this early period. Adolph von Menzel was a self-taught artist who took over his father’s lithography studio in Berlin in 1830. His prints were considered the most artistically and technically significant lithographs of the time. The celebrated Spanish artist Goya created his first lithograph in 1819. His memorable set of four lithographs about bullfighting was produced in 1825.


Lithography revolutionized the field of cartography. Cartography Previously, most atlases and maps were produced by engraving, an expensive and labor-intensive process. With Senefelder’s transfer lithography technique, cartographers could draw maps on paper, rather than drawing in reverse on stone, and then transfer the image from the paper to the lithographic stone.

Because lithography could produce numerous high-quality copies of an original, it was significant in the development of commercial printing. By the mid-nineteenth century, full-color printing from multiple plates was practical. A growing number of publishers used the process to print popular works for a wide audience. The most famous lithographic publisher was Currier & Ives, Currier & Ives publishing[Currier and Ives] which from 1835 to 1907 produced more than seventy-five hundred titles, totaling more than one million prints. These inexpensive prints reflected popular American subjects, including firefighters, famous race horses, hunting scenes, sports, humor, disaster scenes, and sentimental images.

After the mid-1800’s, offset printing, Offset printing a mechanical process developed from Senefelder’s chemical printing, became the dominant commercial printing technique. In this process, the source image was printed on a rubber cylinder, which was rotated as it pressed against the paper or other material that received the print. This method’s main advantage was that a variety of materials could be used for printing—not only a range of rough and smooth papers but also wood, tin, leather, and cloth. Even after the advent of digital reproduction in the twentieth century, offset printing continued to be used to print high-quality packages, cards, posters, magazines, calendars, books, newspapers, and other printed products.

Late nineteenth century fine artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, and Pierre Bonnard created impressive color lithographs. Twentieth century fine artists who worked in this medium included Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault, Robert Motherwell, Ben Shahn, and Robert Rauschenberg.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohn, Marjorie, and Clare Rogan. Touchstone: Two Hundred Years of Artists’ Lithographs. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Art Museums, 1998. Catalog of the museums’ exhibition of August 15-November 1, 1998. Illustrated. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Croft, Paul. Stone Lithography. New York: Watson-Guptill, 2003. A practical handbook describing lithography techniques. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Man, Felix H. Artists’ Lithographs: A World History from Senefelder to the Present Day. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970. Includes detailed accounts of Senefelder’s life and invention, and the first practical and artistic uses. Illustrated. Glossary and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Senefelder, Alois. A Complete Course of Lithography. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1968. An unabridged republication of the first English edition published by R. Ackermann in London in 1819. Includes rare plates from the original German and French editions. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tonsing, Paul Martin. The Power of the Press: History and Development of Printing Presses from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-First Century. Fort Worth, Tex.: P & T, 1998. Covers lithography-stone printing within the context of 550 years of the development of printing presses. Illustrated. Notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Twyman, Michael. Breaking the Mould: The First Hundred Years of Lithography. London: British Library, 2001. Historical account of lithography in the nineteenth century. Illustrated. Maps and bibliography.

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