Popular print

"The Mice are burying the Cat", a 1760s Russian lubok hand-coloured woodcut. It probably originally dates from the reign of Peter the Great, but this impression probably dates from c. 1766. Possibly a satire on Peter's reforms, or just a representation of carnivalesque inversion, "turning the world upside down".

Popular prints is a term for printed images of generally low artistic quality which were sold cheaply in Europe and later the New World from the 15th to 18th centuries, often with text as well as images. They were some of the earliest examples of mass media. After about 1800, the types and quantity of images greatly increased, but other terms are usually used to categorise them.

15th century

The Seven Ages of Man, German, 1482, British Museum

From about 1400, there began a "visual revolution that inundated Europe with images during the fifteenth century" (Field) as the woodcut technique was applied to paper, which was now manufactured in Christian Europe, instead of being imported from Islamic Spain. In the 15th century, the great majority of these images were religious, if playing cards are excluded. They were sold at churches, fairs and places of pilgrimage. Most were coloured, usually crudely, by hand or later by stencil. One political cartoon relating to events in 1468-70 has survived in several different versions (many from years later). Old master print is a term that at this period includes popular prints, but later is restricted to more expensive and purely artistic prints.

Although early information as to prices is almost non-existent, it is clear from a number of sources that small woodcuts were affordable by at least the urban working-class, and much of the peasant class as well.

During the middle of the century, the quality of the images became typically very low, but there was an improvement towards the end, partly because it was necessary to keep pace with the quality of images in engravings. Engravings were always much more expensive to create, as they needed greater skill to create the plate, which would last for far fewer impressions than a woodcut. They did not come into the popular prints category until the 19th century, when different techniques made them much cheaper.

Other Languages
fran├žais: Imagerie populaire
Nederlands: Kinderprent
norsk: Kistebrev
svenska: Kistebrev