Jacques Callot and the Baroque Print
One of the most prolific and versatile graphic artists in Western art history, the French printmaker Jacques Callot created over 1,400 prints by the time he died in 1635 at the age of forty-three. With subjects ranging from the frivolous festivals of princes to the grim consequences of war, Callot’s mixture of reality and fanciful imagination inspired artists from Rembrandt van Rijn in his own era to Francisco de Goya two hundred years later. In these galleries, Callot’s works are shown next to those of his contemporaries to gain a deeper understanding of his influence.
Born into a noble family in 1592 in Nancy in the Duchy of Lorraine (now France), Callot traveled to Rome at the age of sixteen to learn printmaking. By 1614, he was in Florence working for Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. After the death of the Grand Duke in 1621, Callot returned to Nancy, where he entered the service of the dukes of Lorraine and made prints for other European monarchs and the Parisian publisher Israël Henriet.
Callot perfected the stepped etching technique, which consisted of exposing copperplates to multiple acid baths while shielding certain areas from the chemical with a hard, waxy ground (see the book illustration in the adjoining gallery). This process contributed to different depths of etched lines and thus striking light and spatial qualities when the plate was inked and printed. Callot may have invented the échoppe, a tool with a curved tip that he used to sweep through the hard ground to create curved and swelled lines in imitation of engraving. Many of Callot’s contemporaries adopted his laborious process, while others exploited etching’s inherently freer line.
In Callot’s theatrical world of princes, paupers, dancers, and dwarves, virtue and evil coexist. Its inhabitants pursue peaceful or frivolous pleasures in one moment only to be confronted with — or perpetrate — torturous death in the next. Callot’s stage-like compositions might distance us from direct emotional confrontation, but they emphasize life as a performance: one in which humankind’s edifying qualities exist alongside the ridiculous and grotesque.