E.A. Seguy was an artist and designer active in Paris during the first three decades of the 20th century. Very little is known about him, even his actual name and birth/death dates are in dispute. During my search for more information, I even stumbled across an odd theory that blames the confusion on the presence of not one but two E.A. Seguy’s living and working in Paris during this time period. Regardless of the mystery and speculation surrounding his life, what we do know about Seguy can be found in the design folios he left behind.
Seguy produced eleven albums of nature themed illustrations and patterns, drawing inspiration from papillons and other insects, flowers, foliage, crystals and animals. Seguy was one of few artists that successfully combined both Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles in his work. His brightly colored geometric patterns were intended to be used as inspiration for such decorative items as textiles and wallpaper.
Dover Publications reproduced Seguy’s albums in a book entitled Seguy’s Decorative Butterflies and Insects in Full Color. The publisher had this to say about Seguy: “His aim was to make available dozens of examples of extremely colorful exotic animals that had been unjustly neglected by occidental decorative artists because of their rarity in life and in illustration. It is interesting to note that Seguy, while confident that butterflies would be readily accepted, made the special plea for the other insects that were constructed like wonderful machines and were thus entitled to the same consideration as an airplane fuselage, an ocean liner or locomotive; nature was a successful industrial designer!”
While I have long admired Seguy’s bright bold colors and design aesthetic, it wasn’t until I had the chance to view his prints in person rather than reproduced in a book or on a screen, that I gained a true appreciation for how beautiful they really are.
Seguy’s albums were created using a unique printing process called pochoir, which was popular in France at the turn of the 20th century. Pochoir is a process that utilizes the method of applying pigment to paper through the use of stencils. First, the artist created an image in watercolor or gouache. The design was then analyzed to determine the necessary colors and number of stencils needed. The stencils could be cut from any number of materials, including copper, zinc, oiled cardboard, or celluloid. The paint was applied through the stencils by brushes or pompons. The prints were produced entirely by hand assembly line style, and each one was individually examined and approved upon completion.
While simple in concept, pochoir could become quite complex in practice, with some images requiring the use of 100 or so stencils to produce a single print. The technique was regularly used to produce plates in French fashion journals as well as being used to illustrate industrial design, textile, interiors, and architecture folios.
Pochoir is thought to be a reaction to what was seen as a general debasement of machine printing technology during the time period. Jean Saudé, the individual who most influenced the pochoir technique, believed that pochoir was the only process which translated the artist’s original intent because it was entirely done by hand. Saudé considered the process to be a type of hyphen between the artist and the public. After viewing the original pochoir prints of Seguy’s work, it is easy to see exactly what Saudé was referring to. Pochoir allows for characteristics such as defined surface elevation through the use of thick paint, visible brush strokes, texture, gradation and transparent colors. When one views an original pochoir print, especially one designed by an artist of Seguy’s talent, it feels as if you are holding an original one of a kind painting in your hand. The print has a certain texture and surface quality akin to original gouache and watercolor paintings that is hard to find in other reproduction methods.
Pochoir’s popularity lasted only through the 1930’s. The characteristics that made pochoir prints so magnificent were also the medium’s eventual downfall. The pochoir process was expensive and quite labor intensive and was soon replaced by techniques such as lithography and serigraphy.
The Walter Havighurst Special Collections is home to several folios of Seguy’s work, containing the original pochoir prints. One cannot truly appreciate Seguy’s artistic talent nor the unique qualities of the pochoir printing process without the ability to view these materials first hand.