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Art & Design

  • The Brilliant Line: Following the Early Modern Engraver, 1480-1650

    Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

    September 18, 2009 – January 3, 2010

  • 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.

    Early Systems of Line

    The earliest engravings appeared in southern Germany around 1430 and by about 1460 in northern Italy. While different tools, papers, and formulas for ink contributed to the strikingly varied qualities of engravings in each locale, different traditions of drawing and metalwork also informed their regional character. The south German engraver known as the Master ES looked closely to pen-and-ink drawing techniques, using draftsman-like lines laid in patterns of cross-hatching to model his figures. Martin Schongauer, an Alsatian painter and engraver, refined these cursory tonal formulas, bringing to engraving a painter’s sense for light and shadow and a more systematic approach to three-dimensionality. In Mantua, Italy, the circle of engravers surrounding Andrea Mantegna operated worlds away from these formulas, even though they were familiar with the works of their northern counterparts. Their heavy outlines and angled, parallel shading recall chiaroscuro drawings and antique relief sculpture.

    Around 1500 Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg would bring together the formal and technical models of north and south and integrate engraving with the Renaissance realm of ideas. An accomplished draftsman, painter, and woodcutter as well as engraver, Dürer pushed engraving beyond its roots in metalwork and drawing, creating a consistent tonal “system” for engraving that other practitioners might adapt to their own designs. His technique exploited the graphic precision and brilliance of engraving and built a unique visual language for the medium. In his hands engravings would come to be highly valued works of art. Perhaps only Lucas van Leyden, a younger contemporary in Holland, approached Dürer’s impact on engraving’s early visual course.

    The Swelling Line

    The prevalence of Marcantonio Raimondi’s system of engraving was derailed by one simple innovation: the swelling line. A swelling line tapers at both ends and becomes wider in the middle, an effect that can be achieved with one elegant stroke of the burin or by reentering an engraved groove and selectively widening it. When crossed to form diamond shapes, or lozenges, swelled lines work like nets of tone to surround the curves of a figure, eliminating the need for multiple, overlapping hatchmarks and contour lines. Surprisingly, swelled lines were not used before about 1560.

    Most scholars agree that the innovation occurred at Antwerp, where a convergence of influences led the Flemish engraver Cornelis Cort to experiment with the swelled line for reproductive works. Particularly suited to reproducing the dramatic light and tonal effects of paintings as well as the exaggerated, heroic forms of late Renaissance and Mannerist art, the swelling line would become the most crucial weapon in the reproductive engraver’s arsenal.

    Cort left Antwerp for Italy in the 1560s, and while his innovation spread among his contemporaries there, the Haarlem artist Hendrick Goltzius exploited its possibilities in the north. The swelling line and its effects soon defined Goltzius’s technique and that of his followers in Haarlem. For these artists, the beauty and form of the virtuoso line itself was now one of the subjects of their work.

    The Decorous Line

    The assertive swelling line of Hendrick Goltzius and his followers soon permeated the practices of virtually every reproductive engraver in Europe. Outside of Haarlem, many engravers chose to diminish the visual impact of the swelling line while exploiting its unparalleled facility for creating volume. The period around 1600 therefore finds a number of engravers who, now versatile in their craft and with numerous models from which to choose, catered their system of line to their subjects, or to the style of the artist whose works they reproduced.

    The resourceful Agostino Carracci of Bologna was, in this sense, the consummate professional engraver. Agostino deftly altered his formulas for line according to his models. Some artists, such as the Roman Francesco Villamena and the Parisian Claude Mellan, worked in “reproductive” and “inventive” modes, in which they used different systems of line for works after paintings and for those of their own invention.

    In operating with such flexibility, these artists affirmed the excellence of their craftsmanship as well as their intelligence as reproductive engravers. This affirmation built upon that of Dürer, demonstrating that engraving was an independent art form with both creative and intellectual potential, a claim now expressed through the engraver’s decorous (appropriate) use of line.

    Marcantonio’s Line

    Around 1510 the Bolognese artist Marcantonio Raimondi solidified a lifelong professional relationship with Raphael, perhaps the most celebrated artist in Rome during the High Renaissance. Marcantonio was charged with creating engravings to record and disseminate Raphael’s designs. This collaboration would come to shape the direction of engrav-ing as a reproductive medium, providing both a professional and a technical model for subsequent engravers.

    Marcantonio quickly developed a uniform style that responded to Raphael’s wash and chalk or pen drawings, with their refined but dramatic transitions from lights to deep darks. In creating his regularized tonal system, Marcantonio drew upon earlier examples by Lucas van Leyden, Martin Schongauer, and the school of Andrea Mantegna. He also made numerous copies after Dürer’s prints, and it was Dürer’s use of light cross-hatching to define shapes that informed Marcantonio’s work most significantly. But Marcantonio’s system simplified that of Dürer, using shorter, wider strokes and creating uniform grids that could be applied to the edge of any form.

    Not all Italian engravers chose to follow Marcantonio’s new tonal system — as several examples in this section attest — but his work became the primary model for generations of engravers in Italy and also abroad. The success of the system was partially due to the newly predominant function for engravings promoted by Rome’s print publishers Antoine Lafrery and Antonio Salamanca: the reproduction of other works of art, increasingly paintings. Marcantonio’s regular system, adaptable by practitioners of different proficiencies with apparent speed and success, met this new demand.

    Antwerp and the “Fine” Line

    Outside of Rome, Antwerp was Europe’s most important print publishing center by 1550. There, in the model of Marcantonio and Raphael, the publisher Hieronymus Cock published engravings by a cadre of trained engravers after designs by leading artists. The strong tradition of engraving in the north, led by Lucas van Leyden and Dürer, informed the early history of Antwerp prints. Rapidly, as artists came into contact with foreign works and artists, Italian techniques pervaded the workshop. Particularly influential was the Mantuan engraver Giorgio Ghisi (see his works on the crossing wall nearby), who stayed in Antwerp for several years in Hieronymus Cock’s employ. Under Ghisi’s influence, Cock’s engravers developed a style related to Marcantonio.

    Alongside those working in the measured chiaroscuro of the Italianate style, other engravers in Antwerp met the growing demand for small, detailed book illustrations and portraiture with engravings in a “fine” manner. This laborious, delicate style, characterized by slender marks and extensive flicking with the burin, was exemplified by the Wierix family of engravers, and came to dominate portraiture outside of Antwerp in Paris, London, and Frankfurt. Both the fine and Italianate styles would inform future generations of engravers seeking methods to produce the nuances of texture, tone, and color demanded of them.

    Painters and the Academic Line

    After 1610 the internationally renowned Flemish painter Pieter Paul Rubens played a key role in shifting the focus of engraving from the celebration of the special qualities of the engraved line to an overall tonal quality resembling painting. Rubens traveled to Italy from 1600 to 1608, met the Carracci brothers, and made copies of Agostino Carracci’s engravings. Back in Antwerp, he began his own reproductive project, handpicking several engravers to carry out his designs. Rubens’s personal motives explain the shift from the virtuoso line of just a generation before: he sought to reproduce his oeuvre and promote his individual artistic style rather than champion the hand of the engraver. The “painter’s line” therefore concealed engraving’s distinctive graphic brilliance and clarity in favor of heightened painterly effects.

    Engravings moved toward a similar, overall tonal appearance in Paris, but with slightly different motives and effects. Robert Nanteuil, the most prominent of Paris’s portrait engravers by 1640, made engravings of highly placed bourgeoisie, nobles, and royals in French society. Always drawn from life, Nanteuil’s portraits incorporate lines on such a miniscule — and illusionistic — scale that our eyes may fail to perceive their linear structure at all. So if Goltzius emphasized the artificiality of line, and Rubens its emulation of paint, Nanteuil’s line imitated life.

    After 1650, Nanteuil’s and Rubens’s close technical successors dominated the art of engraving. The duration of their systems is explained by the increased regulations around engraving practice, brought about, in part, by the acceptance of engravers into the French Académie de peinture et sculpture, and by engraving’s elevation to a liberal art in 1660. As increasingly professionalized workshops produced prescribed divisions of labor, practitioners combined engraving with etching. Few engravings after 1650 are pure engravings.


Selected objects from The Brilliant Line: Following the Early Modern Engraver, 1480-1650

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