The Renaissance of Etching – At the Met

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According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Etching is a method of making prints from a metal plate, usually copper, into which the design has been incised by acid. The copperplate is first coated with an acid-resistant substance, called the etching ground, through which the design is drawn with a sharp tool. The process as it applies to printmaking is said to have been created by the German craftsman Daniel Hopfer, sometime in the early 1500s. The oldest dated etching comes from Albrecht Durer in 1515. Originally the plates used for etching were iron but they were switched to copper, most likely by the Italians, and soon after etching started challenging engraving as the most popular medium for artists in printmaking. From October 23rd through January 20th the Metropolitan Museum of Art features close to 125 etchings as it traces the first 60 years of the etched print.

Lucas van Leyden – A Fool and a Woman
Albrecht Altdorfer – Interior of the Regensburg Synagogue

The basic difference between etching and engraving is that an engraver used sharp tools to cut into the surface, whereas etching required the use of acid to burn into the material. Engraving came first. It required a chisel-like tool (a burin) to cut ink-holding lines into a plate. A print was then created by inking the plate so that the engraved lines were filled. One removed the excess ink from the surface and finally the plate, covered with dampened paper, was run through a press. Engraving had been around in one form or another since the days of the cavemen but that all changed in Germany in the 1500s. The problem with engraving, while it looked spectacular, was that it was extremely labor intensive and slow. Etching was much faster in that acid did the work of the burn. The disadvantage was that not much was known about acid back in the 1500s and there were considerable health risks, not to mention the damage it could to do the iron or copper plates if mishandled. But the artwork of the world was changing. What was once a forum for the rich and elite was now finding ways to reach the masses.

Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen –
Virgin and Child with the Music-Making Angel

The Met exhibition covers the period of time from the beginning of etching into the latter part of the 16th Century. A wide range of artists from Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands are on display.  Keep in mind that this was a century bursting with artistic inspiration, an era where da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, El Greco and Titian all worked and flourished. While perhaps not as well known throughout history as these giants, the etchers made their own mark and what’s showing at the Met offers us some breathtaking pieces by truly gifted individuals.

Pyramid of Men – Juste de Juste

The Franco-Italian sculptor and printmaker, Juste de Juste is widely accepted as the creator of seventeen etchings of naked men, sometimes creating a human pyramid. The bodies are similar in their shapes and sizes, with many of the faces showing anguished grimaces.

Albrecht Durer – Agony in the Garden

As you might suspect, many of the etchings were religious in nature. The German painter and etcher Albrecht Durer shows us Gethsemane, with Christ kneeling and praying while his followers sleep. It’s been said that Durer transformed the potential of printmaking.

Cornelis Anthonisz – The Fall of the Tower of Babel

Another work inspired by the Bible is that of The Fall of the Tower of Babel by Cornelis Anthonisz, from Amsterdam. The scene is chaos as the Tower is being destroyed by Heavenly winds and fire as the mortals flee in terror.

Parmigianino – The Lovers

Not all work came from above, however. Parmigianino was an Italian artist who had a tumultuous life – he once traveled to Rome, seeking the patrongage of Pope Clement VII but had to flee abruptly due to the city being sacked. He died tragically at the age of 37 but before that he created many fine works which are still being displayed today, with collections in Vienna, Florence, Madrid and London, among others. This one is simply The Lovers.

Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert – The Dangers of Human Ambition

One of the most compelling works being offered at the Met is that of Dirck Coornhert, the Dutch writer, philosopher, politician, theologian and artist. The Dangers of Human Ambition was done in 1549 when Coornhert was 27 years old and features a long line of tortured souls crowding each other to climb a ladder leading to who knows what, with some of them falling along the way.

Titian –
St. George and the Drago in a Landscape

Given the enormous accomplishments of contemporary artists such as da Vinci and Michelangelo it stands to reason that the contributions made by the etchers in the 16th Century might have a difficult time standing out. Indeed, the current exhibition at the Met is downright minuscule in comparison to that of the area housing the pieces of Rodin or the spectacular armory of The Last Knight. But genius is not judged by size or floor space and the compelling work of the etchers takes a back seat to no one. After all, one does not need to be standing in front of a Mona Lisa to get one’s breath taken away.

Photos: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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