One of my students likened our entrance into the galleries of the exhibition, Painted Prints, while on a class trip to Baltimore, to that of Dorothy’s stepping into Oz – the moment at which Dorothy goes through a door as black-and-white film gives way to color. While scholars had long known that prints were occasionally colored by hand, this was the first exhibition both to provide a thoroughgoing historical and technical framework for said practice(s) and to demonstrate that hand-coloring – which turns out to have been far more popular than scholars had suspected – lasted as a virtually separate artistic enterprise well into the seventeenth century. In the process, visitors were treated to a rich array of impressions (often in different versions for comparative purposes) from some of the finest print-rooms in the world, including the first color impression of the-Triumphal Arch of Maximilian I to be exhibited publicly in North America. The visual delights were accompanied by the thoughtful scholarship characteristic of Susan Dackerman, in previous, smaller BMA shows, such as The Pious and the Profane in Renaissance Prints (1999) and Book Arts in the Age of Dürer (2001).
The primary authors, Dackerman and her colleague Thomas Primeau (BMA conservation), recipients of a CASVA paired fellowship in connection with the exhibition, began with the technical evidence. They discovered that only 7 out of the 60 prints tested had later coloring (essay by Primeau; Appendix, 271-78). Technical analyses, adapted from methods used for the analysis of manuscripts and paintings (and as one recent reviewer pointed out, maps) – microscope, x-ray fluorescence, stable signature isotopic analysis and the like – proves instead that coloring was no late aberration as compared top the alleged ‘purity’ of early prints. Rather, that purity was seemingly colored (the term itself is a loaded one) by such things as the debate over disegno versus colore, with the former’s preference for line informed by Aristotelian ideas, then handed down from Erasmus to Panofsky. Further evidence of contemporary practice is provided by the colorists careful choice of pigments and also by the sheer variety of techniques and quality of painting, often with thin washes so as not to cover the printed line, complete with the kind of subtle effects that can only be seen – and appreciated – through close-hand observation of the actual objects themselves, as well as allusions to the styles of such master colorists as Titian.
The central thesis of the exhibition, extending from this crucial technical evidence, is that, far from being a mere afterthought or a disguise for damaged or weak impressions (surely sometimes the case), the hand-coloring of prints was highly valued. As evidence, Jan Van der Stock has shown (cited in Dackerman, 28) that a colored print on Hieronymous Cock’s stock list could bring as much as four or five times the value of the very same print left uncolored, even as a group of 1000 hand-colored works like Michael Ostendorfer’s woodcut of the chapel of the Beautiful Virgin at Regensburg could have been had elsewhere for a mere two gulden. The success of colorists is corroborated, among other things, by the activities of the Mack family of Nuremberg, whose fascinating case Susan Dackerman was able to reconstruct with the aid of Nuremberg’s city records. Not only were the members of this family careful to identify their works in the form of a monogram, but they were also afforded independent status as colorers in the highly competitive economic environment of late sixteenth-century Nuremberg. According to Dackerman, Dürer himself may have allowed for the coloring of the great Triumphal Arch of Maximilian I (cat. 14), or, as is argued in the catalogue by Katherine Luber, the same artist may have offered a hand-colored woodcut of Maximilian I to Margaret of Austria instead of a painting, as has been previously thought (129). What better model for others to follow?
While the motivation for the Briefmaler is not difficult to fathom, the reception of hand-colored prints is somewhat more opaque (cf. the review of Painted Prints by Christian Rümelin in The Burlington Magazine). Such prints almost certainly served as surrogates for more rare and expensive works (some even imitated panel painting or were mounted on canvas). Then as now, they likely would have been appreciated in some circles mainly for their artistic qualities, as suggested by prices to some degree. The exhibition even included an example of the coloring done by a collector: the humanist and physician Hartmann Schedel of Nuremberg (101). But it seems that they were also arbiters of piety across a wide swath of society: handed out to children during Shrove Tuesday processions (30); linked to indulgences granted for prayers before stencil-colored images of Christ’s face (e.g., Hans Sebald Beham’s Head of Christ, 1529, cat. 18); and used by a penitential confraternity in France (e.g., Hans Holbein the Younger’s Dance of Death) (31). What is less clear, however, is what effect the color itself was thought to have. Did color “animate” the image in some way? Could it somehow bring the image closer to its prototype? In certain instances, the color red color may have had a “special sacramental value” (30, following David Areford).
The work of Painted Prints can now also be reconciled with a growing body of literature on the meaning of color itself in the late medieval and Renaissance periods – most recently Herman Pleij, Colors Demonic and Divine: Shades of Meaning in the Middle Ages and After, trans., Diane Webb (New York, 2004). In the case of Italy, Michael Baxandall has shown that color was ordered in all manner of – sometimes-contradictory – ways, according to codes informed by such things as the elements, astrology, theology or heraldry (Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy). The color red has long been the subject of scrutiny by folklorists, being used in this period, among other things, to ward off the ‘evil eye’ (see H.C. Erik Midelfort, A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany). Dackerman herself has since explored the possible sectarian meanings colors may have had for their respective audiences, Protestant and Catholic. In a remark in Luther’sTischreden, the reformer wished openly that his preaching style could be like the art of Dürer, “the choice of language likened to the artist’s distaste for works employing too many colors” (Hans Preuss, Martin Luther der Künstler, n. 8, 47).
I would be remiss in not pointing out the exhibition’s model pedagogical apparatus, which we used back in the classroom to extend our putative trip to Oz. In addition to clear didactic labels and a handsome catalogue, there were displays for explaining relevant printing and coloring processes, complete with samples of pigments in their raw form. There was also an instructive website designed around the exhibition (www.artbma.org/paintedprints/), still active, through which one is not only able to learn more about printmaking, but also manipulate impressions, and see how technical analyses are carried out.
While not all print curators will have the scales fall from their eyes as a result of Painted Prints, Dackerman and her colleagues are nonetheless to be highly commended for opening up new and colorful vistas on the world of early modern prints.