Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 25, 2007
Michael Cole, ed. The Early Modern Painter-Etcher Exh. cat. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006. 208 pp.; many b/w ills. Cloth (0271029056)
Exhibition schedule: Arthur Ross Gallery, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, April 14–June 11, 2006; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, FL, July 1–August 19, 2006; Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA, September 2–October 28, 2006
Peter Paul Rubens. Saint Catherine (ca. 1620–21). Etching. Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

The Early Modern Painter-Etcher, curated by Madeleine Viljoen, Director of the La Salle University Art Museum, and Michael Cole, Associate Professor and Graduate Chair in the Department of the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania, reexamined art-historical categories. Specifically, it looked at the ways in which painters in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries took up not just any print technique but in particular the technique of etching. The excellent catalogue, with four essays and substantial entries, thoughtfully points out the ways in which etching as a medium was accessible to painters, and the ways in which artists experimented with it, albeit many only briefly. Recalling and questioning Adam Bartsch’s term the peintre-graveur, the curators simultaneously broadened and narrowed the usual scholarly parameters for print exhibitions, creating a catalogue that is provocative and fascinating, while limiting the exhibition in crucial ways that left this viewer wanting more.

Avoiding such categories as national school, “master” artist, or chronology, the show was organized around ten thematic groupings with engaging titles such as “Flawed Experiments.” The first section, “Once in a Lifetime,” explored the intriguing fact that a number of painters are known to have created only one etching with their own hands, no matter how many prints were created after their designs. For example, Peter Paul Rubens’ St. Catherine (ca. 1620–21) is the sole print attributed to that artist, a contested attribution that Larry Silver nonetheless convincingly supports in his extensive catalogue entry (115–116). The section titled “Models” included two of the most influential of the first generation of etchers: Albrecht Dürer, represented by Landscape and Cannon (1518), and Parmigianino, by The Resurrection (ca. 1528). The labels noted that both artists produced etchings for only about three years before turning to other media. While many painters handed designs over to reproductive printmakers, a few produced etchings after their own paintings, as discussed in the section “Etchings After Paintings.” A stunning first state of the Transfiguration (1587–90) by Camillo Proccaccini revealed an artist unfamiliar with the medium, translating the central divine light in his painting into an unorthodox and effective system of rapid dashes. Fate may have also led some painters to etching: the exhibition notes that Frederico Barocci created only four prints, all between 1581 and 1584, and may have attempted the medium only after his engraver, Cornelis Cort, died in 1578. The section “Against the Grain” included artists who specialized in one subject but explored another in etching. It was fascinating to learn that Simon de Vlieger was renowned for his marine paintings, but none of his etchings depict that subject. Here he was represented by a print of two alert greyhounds. The section “Color and Tone” included the obscure and wonderful St. Florian (ca. 1785–96) by fresco painter Franz Anton Maulbertsch. Other sections discussed invention, specialization, and the attraction of working in series. Concluding the exhibition was “The Painter as Etcher,” which considered representations of the artist, the studio, and allegories about painting. Giovanni Battista Castiglione’s The Genius of Castiglione (ca. 1647) and Adriaen van Ostade’s The Painter in his Studio (ca. 1647) were created at the same time, but offer utterly different visions—one, a fabulous nude Genius, and the other, a “peasant” painter.

The catalogue clearly states the conceptual decisions behind the exhibition and is a provocative and substantial contribution to print scholarship. In the introduction, Cole explains the focus on painters who produced etchings, observing that very few architects or sculptors took up the medium, and arguing for a reexamination of the categories used to divide the arts. In the first essay, “Fluid Boundaries: Formations of the Painter-Etcher,” Cole and Silver remap the history of etching, with an emphasis on its stops and starts, concluding that “the tradition of the painter-etcher was by its very nature experimental” (31). In “Dürer’s Etchings: Printed Drawings?” Susan Dackerman argues persuasively that Dürer created only a small number of etchings, due not to the technical limitations of the medium but to the fact that the drawing aesthetic was not yet valued by the market. The ever-savvy artist considered drawings to be workshop tools, not collector’s items, and “he did not consider the etchings impressive enough gifts” (47). Viljoen’s fascinating essay questions the ready alignment of etching with drawing, examining both contemporary texts and the evidence of the works to argue that “the triangular relationship that existed between etching, painting, and drawing is anything but straightforward” (71). In “The Unfinished Eighteenth Century,” Graham Larkin asks why most painter-etchers of that period chose not to use current advances in etching technique—“crayon manner, stipple, aquatint, and soft-ground etching”—relying instead on the basic etched line and “an aesthetics of non-finito, exhibited in both subject matter and style” (75).

The organization of the exhibition closely followed the concept, leading to a few omissions that this viewer—a print curator—regretted. The exhibition included seventy-five prints by sixty-four artists, from the renowned to the obscure. Each artist was represented by one print, or one series, no matter how influential he or she was as an etcher: for example, just one print by Rembrandt was included. Perhaps a larger version of the exhibition would have been able to present one or two artists in greater depth. More importantly, for a show focused on a single medium—etching—it was surprising that no copper plates, tools, or detailed technical explanations were included. The section “Flawed Experiments” noted various errors in technique, such as foul biting, but never clearly explained what this is. At the Smith College venue, a general summary of printmaking terms was available; but since it covered all printmaking techniques, it was not as useful as a more targeted sheet would have been. The decision not to focus on technique was clearly stated in Cole’s introduction to the catalogue, but a little technical background would have aided the gallery viewer.

Despite these caveats, this scholarly and inventive exhibition is a model, raising new questions for print scholarship. Focusing on individual painters’ experimentations with printmaking, the catalogue is a fruitful contrast to the emphasis on market forces and technology in David Landau and Peter Parsall’s The Renaissance Print, 1470–1550 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994) as well as the discussion of the professional engraver by Timothy Riggs and Larry Silver in Graven Images: The Rise of the Professional Printmakers in Antwerp and Haarlem, 1540–1640 (Chicago: Mary and Leigh Block Gallery, Northwestern University, 1993). However, relaxing some of the conceptual decisions for the actual exhibition—by including a brief discussion of technique and geographic range—would have enhanced the experience of many viewers.

Clare I. Rogan
Curator, Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University

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