The Early Modern Painter-Etcher is the catalogue of an exhibition originating at the Arthur Ross Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and traveling to the John and Mable Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida and the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts. The prints, loaned from an extensive repertory of collections, range widely. A curatorial seminar advanced the scholarship for the exhibition and provided authors of individual catalogue entries. With its high-quality illustrations and entries, as well as essays by Michael Cole and Larry Silver, Susan Dackerman, Madeleine Viljoen, and Graham Larkin, The Early Modern Painter-Etcher is an essential purchase for academic libraries.
Following the model of David Landau and Peter Parshall’s The Renaissance Print, 1470-1550 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), the authors of The Early Modern Painter-Etcher worked across geographic boundaries and ventured outside the canon of early modern painter-etchers to rethink Bartsch’s concept of the peintre-graveur as it has been applied to this period. Overall, Painter-Etcher has a speculative tone similar to that of Renaissance Print, and the authors of both books, through connoisseurship of the prints and historical scholarship on the practice and theory of printmaking in early modern Europe, work toward a meta-analysis of the relationships among painting, etching, and drawing in the period that will sustain subsequent work in the field. If the book feels inconclusive overall, it is because of the complexity of these relationships and the exploratory way in which the authors have conceived their task.
Michael Cole and Larry Silver’s essay, “Fluid Boundaries: Formations of the Painter-Etcher,” lays the groundwork for the exhibition and catalogue by raising questions about the presumed bond between painting and etching and making some fresh observations, such as the relationship between the sporadic geographical diffusion of etching and the presence of direct stimuli in the form of adventurous artists like Dürer and Parmigianino. Early modern painters’ approaches to etching, they suggest, could be characterized by a predilection for large-scale prints; an interest in graphic colorism; a need for the inventive freedom of subject matter possible in etchings (a freedom that could reshape the role and status of the artist as well as individual careers); and the opportunity to work in series or book format. What Landau and Parshall characterized as the “false starts” of early etching, Cole and Silver describe as the reasons for etching’s longstanding appeal to painters.
One of the major false starts traditionally identified by print historians has been Dürer’s brief foray into etching, the subject of Susan Dackerman’s essay. She explores previous explanations for Dürer’s abandonment of etching, such as its lack of affinity for his style, especially as it developed after 1520; the absence of a copper mordant in Germany, necessitating his use of iron plates; and a dearth of public interest in a new medium. She adds to these speculations with her meticulous curatorial analyses revealing Dürer’s efforts to compensate for the aesthetic inadequacies of the medium with plate tone, more fluid ink, and uneven pressure during printing. Her fascinating observations illuminate what has always been a curious aspect of Dürer’s superlative graphic oeuvre. However, although Dackerman notes the innovative subject matter of his etchings, she does not wrestle much with this question – a crucial one, it seems to me. I particularly wanted a discussion of how the stylistic and religious intensity of Christ on the Mount of Olives and Sudarium Held by an Angel could be understood in the context of the impending Reformation. Along with the enigmatic Desperate Man and Abduction on a Unicorn, these prints point toward a close relationship between an artistic medium and Dürer’s spiritual and imaginative life. Building on Christopher Wood’s path-breaking Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), Dackerman concludes that this artist, in contrast to Dürer, truly grasped the connection between the etched and the drawn mark, understood as a sign of artistic uniqueness that could be marketed to collectors.
Whereas engraving and woodcut had clearly developed aesthetic conventions that distinguished them from drawings, the newer medium of etching was constrained by the ephemeral nature of the small pen sketch; Altdorfer both exploited the relationship between stylus and pen to great advantage and found ways, such as hand-coloring, to market etchings as more finished, collectible products.
In “Etching and Drawing in Early Modern Europe,” Madeleine Viljoen unpacks the commonplace notion, fostered by the nineteenth-century etching revival, that etching is like drawing. Grounded in a fierce opposition to engraving and other reproductive techniques, the manifesto of the etching revival is not corroborated in the early modern period, according to Viljoen’s nuanced analysis. By examining an interesting range of texts and documents, such as manuals of printmaking and drawing, compilations of reproductions of drawings, and etched sheets of studies, Viljoen shows the varied ways in which the relationship between etching and drawing was conceived in the early modern period. Etching could be used to record a personal style of drawing, to give pragmatic and systematic instruction on the delineation of form, or to codify a valued aesthetic approach (in essence, to illustrate a particular theory of art). Indeed, Viljoen argues that etching style might influence drawing style, as in the case of Domenico Tiepolo’s Satyr and Centaur drawings. Painter-etchers usually did not use drawings as exact templates for etchings, Viljoen concludes, nor were etchings to be taken as drawings. Rather, much as reproductive prints make theoretical statements about painting, etchings reveal particular ideas of drawing or capture the effects of drawings.
Graham Larkin’s “The Unfinished Eighteenth Century,” is the final and briefest essay in the catalogue. He identifies two overarching traits of eighteenth-century painter-etchings – their technical simplicity, and their non finito aesthetic – and then touches on canonical artists such as Canaletto, Tiepolo, Boucher, and Fragonard. Despite Larkin’s engaging descriptions of eighteenth-century graphic languages, his essay is an overview compared to the others, without the same variety of artists or detailed re-examination of scholarly assumptions. Because of this brevity, readers may be left with an impression of eighteenth-century etching as an afterthought rather than a significant factor contributing to Romanticism. I would like to have seen more discussion of the connection between etching and the capriccio as it developed in the eighteenth century with Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Goya. Tiepolo’s “oddly private, often-inscrutable graphic language,” as Larkin puts it on page 79, with its “hints of an uncivil regressiveness” is linked to the iconographic and expressive inventiveness that made etching appealing to painters in the first place, as Cole and Silver note early on. Given that fact, the link between etching and Tiepolo’s subjects in the Capricci and Scherzi could have been developed more.
Despite Cole and Silver’s introductory remarks, The Early Modern Painter-Etcher is more about how the medium of etching was conceptualized than with its subject matters. I suspect this latter aspect may well be an equally important aspect of etching’s story, however. Nevertheless, like The Renaissance Print, The Early Modern Painter-Etcher is a beautifully produced and informative book that will be consulted frequently by those who want to understand the latest thinking on issues in the history of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century printmaking.
Linda C. Hults
The College of Wooster