Printmaking in Europe 18th century

In the 18th century, the golden century of printmaking in Europe, intaglio printmaking dominates and its methods are being perfected with colour print-making, the appearance of the crayon manner etching and the aquatint. The abundant variety of subjects, which reflect the needs of all strata of society and the artists’ quests, as well as the proliferation of prints characterizes the printmaking production. Far from adopting an attitude of contempt, the painters themselves create prints and illustrate the great literary texts. The profession of illustrator specializing in artistic or scientific illustration appears. The great art collectors pay the most important printmakers to reproduce their collection into impressive albums, while large prints, reproductions of the painting creations, are sold each year on art markets. 

Countless etchings and engravings having for subject the antiquity and myths give the opportunity to a wider range of people to travel in time and space, illustrating rich publications of travellers-designers and well-known literary texts. More than ever, mythology is also a source for artists to demonstrate their craftsmanship and aesthetic choices.

Large scale intaglio prints reproducing paintings of various European artistic schools are made by famous print-makers, whose technique – the accuracy of the design, the rendering of the tones, the sense of depth and the expression of persons – stands out. Genre scenes (representation of aspects of everyday life) is fashionable, influenced by the tradition of the Flemish school.

Some painters-printmakers, wishing to give their prints the colours of painting, invent new techniques and use two or more plates. Generally, by perfecting the techniques, the creators’ prints acquire an excellent quality and the creators manage to express themselves in a very personal language.

William Hogarth’s latest print creates emotion and admiration. It was made seven months before his death and bears the title Tail piece. This is an invaluable picture of his whole artistic and human life, with the pessimistic and satirical image of the end of his own life, of Chronos-Kronos, and everything in general, but also his immortal invention of Beauty. The main representation is also the last satire of Sublime in Art and personal Memento mori, while the lower part of the work, with the texts and the two cones, his artistic will, makes reference to his belief that he found the immortal «Line of Beauty», as described in his study The Analysis of Beauty (1753), similarly to the aniconic symbol of Aphrodite, the conic form in which the goddess was worshiped in ancient Paphos.

Western Europe’s passion for exoticism, especially for China, flourishes in the 18th century: engravings which illustrate books and independent etchings “perspective views”, which through an optical device (zograscope) offer the illusion of a 3-dimensional representation of monuments, palaces, gardens, ports etc.

Francisco de Goya, using mainly etching and aquatint, elevates printmaking as an artistic language: at the end of the 18th century, the First Court Painter represents in his series Los Caprichos, as Linda Simon writes «the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common preju-dices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual». This series of 80 etchings is a satire of the society of his time in Spain, especially the nobles and the clergy, evolving from realism to fantastic. Let us note that with Goya’s prints ugliness firstly appears triumphantly in art.

The penultimate print No-one saw us, shows a group of monks who secretly went to a wine cellar. Disfigured faces without decency, making grimaces, simply ugly or even strange, gathered near a barrel and drink wine.