The art of engraving has experienced a large rise starting in 1470. The period between 1470 and 1530 is better known as as the Golden Age of engraving. Engravers such as Albrecht Dürer, Martin Schongauer and Lucas Von Leiden emerged, changing engraving from simply a means for mass production to an art form. Therefore, German and Italian artists, engravers and print-makers were mostly the ones contributing to the evolution of engraving. Dürer’s high-quality woodblocks revolutionized the potential of that medium and therefore became the first of their kind in the history of engraving. The woodcuts such as the Apocalypse series were marked by characteristic Gothic style, while his later engravings such as The Knight, Death, and the Devil, Saint Jerome in his Study and Melencolia I caused some dose of controversy and led to different interpretations. Dürer’s watercolors also mark him as one of the first European landscape artists.
. The other artists at that time, including Schongauer and Von Leiden were expressing their art through printmaking. That’s the key difference comparing to the earlier period, when engravings were done on metal by goldsmiths. This explains why many of the early engravers came from a goldsmithing background. A typical example takes us to where it all starts- renaissance Italy. At the early 15th century, Italian goldsmiths were the ones who started experimenting with the printing techniques. Giorgio Vasari, the painter and chronicler of Renaissance artists credited Italian goldsmith, Maso Finiguerra with the invention of printed engraving. However, it had been gradually realized that Vasari’s view, like many of his assertions as to the origins of technical advances, could not be sustained. Although Vasari’s theory about invention of engraving technique is not reliable, the engravers of metals were certainly the first ones to develop the copperplate technique. Copperplate technique was often used by early Renaissance Italian artists which were influenced by Finiguerra, such as Antonio Pollaiuolo and Andrea Mantegna. Pollaiuolo was Florentine painter, sculptor, and architect whose reputation as one of the most distinguished engravers of the 15th century is based on his one authenticated print, The Battle of the Nudes (c. 1470). Andrea Mantegna, his contemporary, worked in Mantua and his work marked him as the most eminent Italian printmaker. Mantegna produced approximately 20 plates, all line engravings in the broad manner. One of the most famous is Bachanal Festival (c. 1475).
In the 16th century etching spread throughout Europe, and its great variety of effects were experimented on by artists like Parmigianino and Barocci, followed by Reni, Guercino and S. Della Bella in the 17th century, only to reach its full potential with Rembrandt. In France, after a hesitant beginning, engraving reached its full glory in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the works of Jacques Callot and portraits by Gerard Audran.
In the 17th century Italy, the engraving genre flourished in Rome and in Venice. The fantasy views reached an unsurpassed height with the works of Piranesi. In England, the original engraving had its major representatives in Hogarth, Rolandson and Blake while Bewick revived the woodcut technique by inventing wood-engraving, which incorporated a block of wood sawn across the grain, giving a harder and smoother surface that yielded a finer-detailed results. The prevalent technique used by the English school in the eighteenth century was mezzotint.
Etching and aquatint were used by the great painter Goya at the end of the 18th century. Etching has later become the technique used by nineteenth century artists for preparing matrices. The original etching was considered an artistic expression of its own, thus experiencing a revival.
Nearly all great modern artists experimented with this technique- Chagal, Kokoschka, Picasso, Mirò and Dalì. It it is impossible to separate the history of etching from its cultural period and from the overall activity of the artists who practiced it. More on the topic in our next article!
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Le Triomphe des Chrestiens photo from private collection.