Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Blackwork: A New Technique in the Field of Ornament Prints (ca. 1585–1635)

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Some of the most wondrous and innovative works of art are the product of interactions between different crafts and artistic disciplines. This can take shape in the exchange of form and style, but can also involve the adaptation of new skills regarding materials and techniques.


As with many inventions, it is hard to ascertain what initially inspired goldsmiths to adapt the champlevé technique for printmaking.

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From Enameling to Printing

A case in point is a group of prints executed in the so-called blackwork technique. The term blackwork is probably best known from embroidery, where patterns in black thread on a white ground formed a popular variation to colored patterns from the fifteenth century onward (64.101.1236). However, when used in relation to prints–which were, more often than not, already black and white to begin with–the term refers to a special engraving technique that was adopted from the goldsmith trade. This technique was based on a specific method of enameling called champlevé, an old procedure used to decorate metal surfaces with an emulsion of colored glass and metals. Champlevé is achieved by gouging out a pattern of deep reservoirs or troughs into the surface of an object; these reservoirs are then filled with a mixture of metal and colored glass. The mixture is heated to its melting point and once the glass becomes fluid, it fills out the reservoirs. After cooling down, the object is polished to create a smooth surface plane (17.190.689).


The champlevé technique was adapted for printmaking by making the same type of deep reservoirs and troughs in the surface of a copper plate. Instead of the glass emulsion, the reservoirs were filled with ink, which allowed for the printing of large, completely black surfaces on the paper. This is in contrast to the hatched fields otherwise used in printmaking, wherein the successful effect of saturation depended on the patience and accuracy of the printmaker (23.101.4). To avoid the relatively large quantities of ink from running, the ink was much thicker than the type that was generally used for etchings and engravings. For the same reason, the inked-in copper plate was most likely also left to dry for some time before it was run through a printing press, in the same manner as other intaglio prints.


The offprint of a copper plate prepared in this manner is a black and white pattern, often referred to as a silhouette (32.123.11). The ink layer is raised significantly above the surface: the deep relief in the copper plate translates to a visible and tangible relief on the paper. Under a microscope or a raking light source, an impressive landscape is revealed that consists of a thick, uneven crust of ink interrupted by deep white gullies in the places where the copper was left smooth (39.95.5, detail). Three-dimensional RTI recordings of these prints allow for detailed study of their materialistic characteristics and reveal some remarkable idiosyncrasies. They show the accurate and sophisticated cutting by certain artists (42.40.1(1), detail) and bring to light differences in the ink composition, from thick and somewhat rough textures to thin and almost smooth surfaces. The detailed images also show that the depth of the ink reservoirs varies immensely from artist to artist, and generally decreases over time. Even in the more shallow examples, however, the difference between the blackwork and “normal” engraved lines remains clear (42.86.3(3), detail).


The Blackwork “Hype”

As with many inventions, it is hard to ascertain what initially inspired goldsmiths to adapt the champlevé technique for printmaking. It might have been the lucky result of an experiment done by one or a few people. So far it is presumed that the technique emerged around 1585. It was in this year that Hans van Ghemert, an otherwise unknown Dutch or German goldsmith, signed and dated a very small blackwork print showing a detail of a ring. Although at first sight a simple design, the execution of this rare print is actually quite sophisticated and we can presume that it was preceded by a number of “experiments” that do not survive or are not identified as such.


The popularity of the blackwork technique increased quickly in the last decade of the century and reached its zenith within a period of forty years. During this time, it was used by many goldsmiths in France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands to produce prints showing designs for and related to their profession. It is unknown how the new technique spread so quickly across Europe, but the fact that the prints were copied soon after their production shows that artists were closely following developments in their field. The Dutch publisher Claes Jansz. Visscher, for example, combined copies from three different countries in a single series, which he published in Amsterdam around 1620 (56.500.114).


Form and Function

Like other ornament prints, the designs disseminated through blackwork prints were meant to function as (inspirational) models. Artists and craftsmen used them to get ideas for their own designs. The prints could also be copied directly, but the number of objects attesting to this custom is surprisingly low.


Based on their technique, the blackwork prints most likely allude to designs meant to be executed in champlevé, which were very popular at the time. A rare surviving example of a work by a goldsmith who also made prints is a miniature case attributed to the artist Jean I Toutin. The striking similarities between Toutin’s case and his prints make it easy to understand how the white or black enamel could be replaced by ink in order to illustrate the pattern on paper (23.84.15). Unlike Toutin’s pendant, many of these enameled objects were executed in a variety of vibrant colors, something that could not be portrayed in prints and had to be left to the goldsmith’s ingenuity.


The remaining body of blackwork prints represents a wide array of designs for, among other objects, rings, medaillons, watch cases, and pendants. Because these objects were rendered on a scale of roughly one to one, blackwork prints are relatively small. The prints show both objects as a whole and decorative motifs that could be applied to them. Often the printmakers played with these two types of designs in one print. Placing multiple models on one sheet of paper is not only proof of their efficiency; their compositions also show that they made an effort to turn the prints themselves into appealing objects (39.95.5). This plays into another function of these prints: as business cards or advertisements for the goldsmith. By spreading his designs through prints, the goldsmith could show his talents to a large audience of possible clients with minimal effort.


Over time, it became a frequently used “formula” for blackwork prints to show one or two larger designs for pendants, brooches, or box lids in the center of a composition, surrounded by smaller ornaments, figures, animals, flowers, and parts of objects, such as key grips and ring bands. Noël Rouillard, for example, presents a design for a decorated ring bezel, surrounded by four smaller motifs and five fantastical creatures (42.40.1[1]). Any of these motifs could be used individually or, in the case of the fantastical creatures, with their symmetrical sibling.


The Italian artist Giovanni Battista Costantini plays with the formula in his series of 1622 (23.101.8). Here, the basic composition remains the same: a cross-shaped pendant in the middle, combined with four smaller motifs. He enlivened the presentation, however, by introducing the naked men and cupids holding his designs and situating them in a landscape wherein he even uses sfumato to create a sense of depth. Costantini’s print is a good example of the refinement that characterizes the development of blackwork prints. This does not just entail the blackwork itself becoming more delicate, with thinner layers of ink being printed onto the paper, but is also evident in a higher level of intricacy by making combinations with finer engraved lines. In Costantini’s print, the two techniques are used side by side, but in a design like the one by the Master P.R.K. (42.86.3[3]), we see how the two techniques intertwine and are used to create an intricate but harmonious composition that is part blackwork and part engraving.


Blackwork prints that deviate from the format described above usually show somewhat more randomly contrived compilations of smaller motifs, like the series of birds and insects by Georg Herman (42.86.4[8]). Another frequently deployed format was an allover pattern that could be used to decorate the surface of an object. An example is a series of prints by Hans Janssen featuring hunting scenes interspersed between playful meandering scrollwork (47.108.11[2]). The relatively small size of Janssen’s prints makes it easy to understand how these designs could be used to decorate, for example, the lid of a small box.


This is more difficult in the case of a very rare blackwork print by the artist Esaias von Hulsen. It shows a relatively large design for an asymmetrical pattern of so-called Schweifwerk in which two figures have been placed (2012.55). In terms of composition and the combination of techniques, the complexity seen here differs from other blackwork prints by von Hulsen and his contemporaries. It might be called his “masterpiece,” made primarily to exploit the full potential of the technique and to show his mastery of it. The print’s function as a model for other goldsmiths appears to have become of secondary importance.


Von Hulsen’s print was made around 1620. For both its intricacy and its l’art pour l’art qualities, it marks the peak of the development of blackwork prints. At the same time, however, it also marks a turning point in the brief history of the technique. Due to changes in fashion in the fields of jewelry and the decorative arts, blackwork’s popularity waned over the course of the 1620s. Thereafter, goldsmiths returned to engraving and etching as their main instruments for recording designs on paper.

Femke Speelberg
Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In collaboration with Angela Campbell
Sherman Fairchild Center for Works on Paper and Photograph Conservation