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Printmaking in Europe 17th century

In the 17th century, the role of prints is spreading. The art of printmaking is the mean of expression selected exclusively or partially by great artists, such as Rembrandt, who etches approximately 300 plates. His etchings (sometimes with drypoint and burin), which may present up to 15 states, show a more wide inspiration than his paintings: historical subjects, portraits and self-portraits, genre scenes (depicting aspects of everyday life), landscapes, nudes and some allegories. However, most of the prints reproduce drawings or paintings, decorating books and  houses. Works with decorative patterns and courtiers’ dresses are all over Europe. The kings use the art of printmaking to advertise their great palaces and projects constructed both for war and peace purposes. The Church is addressed to all social classes with artistic and popular prints. In general, it allows the spread of ideas and sciences. 

While woodcutting remains almost unchanged and is limited to the illustration of cheap books, many printmakers improve and vary the intaglio technique combining its methods, while the new method of mezzotint encourages the rendering of tones.

Jacques Callot, a printmaker from the Duchy of Lorraine, who at that time is very famous in Europe, revolutionises etching, using a harder varnish enabling him to etch lines with extreme accuracy and a multiple stopping-out, and a sort of burin (échoppe): thus he achieves some tones and a 3D representation of the scene. His work, inspired from his stay in Italy, his services at the Medici courts of France, as well as from his imagination and experiences – religion, wars and poverty that ravage his country – consists exclusively of prints and is characterised by the great variety of the subjects, of the dimensions of his etchings (from a few square centimetres to 123 cm x 140 cm) and by the artist’s trend for scenes with numerous figures and fine lines.

The mighty buildings, the wars of the kings of that era with besieged cities and battles stimulate the interest of famous printmakers all over Europe, who create independent prints or series of prints, with buildings, cities and military scenes, spreading the splendour of powerful people of that era.

Others respond to the will of the people to learn geography and get to know other countries. Printmaking helps the publication of illustrated books with these subjects. Matthäus Merian continues the tradition of the atlas with his multi-volume work Topographia Germa- niae (first edition 1642-1654) containing more than 2,000 engraved views of big and small cities, important castles and monasteries. Among the travel books, the work of Flemish Cornelis de Bruijn, Reizen van Cornelis de Bruyn door of the vermaardste Deelen van Klein Asia, etc. (Cornelis de Bruyn’s travels in the Levant), stands out, with texts and engravings from the drawings he created at the Ottoman Empire of that era, from the Greek islands, Constantinople, Smyrna, Cyprus, Syria, Palestine to Egypt.

Reproductive printmaking dominates the 17th century. The most famous creators are copied countless times in prints of unequal quality. Some of them are a poor version of the original work, but some others often look like masterpieces and manage to yield both the details and the tones of the work. The so-called Landscape with a Lute Player is, in addition to its artistic and technical quality, a good example of reproductive printmaking. The original design remains completely unknown, even though Titian’s name is engraved on the plate. But whether the original is indeed one of Titian’s many drawings, or of a member of his artistic environment, or the creation of the printmaker himself as an honour to Titian – there are other similar cases, and the foreground reminds more of Annibale Carracci’s work… Various museums however have in their collections the “original” print. This is the etching of Giovanni Francesco Grimaldi, recorded by Bartsch in the work of Le Peintre Graveur. The etching of Hambis Printmaking Museum – which is also found in other museums, with exactly the same dimensions, the same quality of printmaking, differs only in that it is a reverse copy that the etched note «Ticiano Venetia» became «Titiano inv.» and the name of the publisher «Daman excudit» disappeared. The chronology of the two works is unknown, but both belong to the second quarter of the 17th century.

The works, both the creations of the printmaker himself and those that copy paintings, follow the same artistic trends as those that dominate painting: the scenes of the Raphael’s Bible belong to Mannerism, Virgin Mary with the Infant by Antonio Balestra combines the stream of Rococo that dominates Italy in his era with a personal tendency toward classicism.

As many others artists who get inspired by Greek mythology, Nicolas Poussin, a leading French painter of classicism, creates many landscapes with scenes of ancient Greece and its mythology. Four of them (with Polyphemus, Diogenes, Orpheus and Eurydice, and a man killed by a snake) are etched and engraved by Etienne Baudet, who dedicates them to King Louis XIV. 

The print Landscape with Diogenes illustrates the excerpt of Diogenes Laertius’ book Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers: «A child has beaten me in simplicity»: seeing a child drinking from his hands, Diogenes threw away his cup. A personal representation of ancient Greece, with the gate of Athens and rich villas in a rich nature – of western Europe – small scenes with fishermen, philosophers talking to each other... The printmaker manages successfully to yield the light and volumes.