When the first engravings appeared in southern Germany around 1430, the incision of metal was still the domain of goldsmiths and other metalworkers who used burins and punches to incise armor, liturgical objects, and jewelry with designs. As paper became widely available in Europe, some of these craftsmen recorded their designs by printing them with ink onto paper. Thus the art of engraving was born.
An engraver drives a burin, a metal tool with a lozenge-shaped tip, into a prepared copperplate, creating recessed grooves that will capture ink. After the plate is inked and its flat surfaces wiped clean, the copperplate is forced through a press against dampened paper. The ink, pulled from inside the lines, transfers onto the paper, printing the incised image in reverse.
Engraving has a wholly linear visual language. Its lines are distinguished by their precision, clarity, and completeness, qualities which, when printed, result in vigorous and distinctly brilliant patterns of marks. Because lines once incised are very difficult to remove, engraving promotes both a systematic approach to the copperplate and the repetition of proven formulas for creating tone, volume, texture, and light. The history of the medium is therefore defined by the rapid development of a shared technical knowledge passed among artists dispersed across Renaissance and Baroque (Early Modern) Europe—from the Rhine region of Germany to Florence, Nuremberg, Venice, Rome, Antwerp, and Paris. While engravers relied on systems of line passed down through generations, their craft was not mechanical. Rather, their close study of earlier systems led to creative improvisations to the medium’s rigid visual language.
The dates of this exhibition mark defining moments in the history of engraving: around 1480 engravers began to regularly sign and actively market their prints, and after about 1650 engraving would be integrated almost entirely with etching. In the intervening years rapid visual changes took place. As you begin to follow the early modern engraver to your left, you will encounter some of the remarkable objects and innovations that shaped the history of a medium.
Support for The Brillant Line is provided through the generosity of: The Samuel H. Kress Foundation International Fine Print Dealers Association The Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works Tru Vue, Inc.