Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Etching Revival in Nineteenth-Century France

During the mid-nineteenth century, etching experienced a widespread revival among artists working in France. Although the medium had been in use for centuries, interest in it had waned by 1800, alongside the invention of lithography and the developing popularity of reproductive engraving. By the 1860s, however, etching was embraced as a reaction against the negative associations of these media with industry and mass production. Produced by sketching upon a malleable wax ground instead of carving into a copperplate, etching more closely resembled the practice of drawing and was seen as directly connected to the artist’s hand. Etchers were also often more involved in the printing of their works, and could select inks, papers, or processes themselves or in collaboration with a master printer. These qualities led etching to be viewed as more authentic, artistic, and expressive than other printmaking processes in nineteenth-century France.

Although artists had sporadically taken up etching during the 1840s and 1850s, a full-scale movement coalesced in the 1860s. The artists involved opposed the repetitive style and banal subject matter of most reproductive printmaking. Instead, they aligned themselves with the notion of the “painter-printmaker”—a producer of specifically artistic prints, for whom printmaking was a means of formal exploration rather than entrepreneurial gain. They invoked the historic connections of etching to great masters of the past in order to suggest a grand lineage for their project. Among these precedents, Rembrandt was widely embraced and seen as a creative and independent spirit. When a young Edgar Degas (1834–1917) experimented with intaglio, for instance, he reinterpreted the Dutch master’s portrait of a young man (1977.500), playing up the expressive qualities of the work with erratically crosshatched lines and thickly applied ink.

Building on etching’s developing reputation as an expressive and artistic technique, the publisher Alfred Cadart (1828–1875) and printer Auguste Delâtre (1822–1907) formed an official society for the medium in 1862. Entitled the Société des Aquafortistes, this group of printmakers aimed to promote etching to both artists and the general public. One member, Adolphe-Martial Potément (1828–1883), represented the bustling atmosphere of the group’s Parisian headquarters in an 1864 print (50.616.15), in which a fashionable crowd can be seen gathering to view new etchings on display. In addition to its public exhibition space, the headquarters sold works by participating artists and served as a center for education, with a studio for instructing prospective etchers. This technical instruction was later condensed by one member, Maxime Lalanne (1827–1886), whose Treatise on Etching (59.500.789) was published by Cadart in 1866 and circulated among printmakers throughout Europe.

From the society’s headquarters, Cadart further promoted etching by producing albums of original prints, the most popular of which was entitled Eaux-fortes modernes (1862–67). Distributed by subscription, this collective work was available in both regular and deluxe editions to appeal to a wide and varied audience. Each edition included five recently published etchings by group members. A frontispiece designed by Félix Bracquemond for the 1865 album (63.625.11) indicates the grand ambitions for this venture in its depiction of a figure of Beauty who gazes forth from a classical temple decorated with the names of great modern painters, linking etching to the achievements of both the past and the present. The subjects included in Eaux-fortes modernes varied, but tended toward landscape (2012.136.516), which emphasized etching’s ability to translate directly from life. Accompanying each set of prints was a brief preface by a prominent contemporary critic who generally remarked on the development of the medium and drew further public attention to the society.

Print albums became a key marketing and creative strategy by which Cadart promoted and revived etching over the course of the 1860s. In addition to Eaux-fortes modernes, he published other monographic series, including, most popularly, a collection by Édouard Manet reinterpreting his own paintings (69.550). The portfolio format, which typically included several prints linked by both theme and some sort of packaging or binding, had been popular among printmakers from the Renaissance onward. It was revived through the influence of Charles Meryon (1821–1868), a French printmaker whose prolonged mental illness and untimely death in 1868 fueled his immense reputation among etchers. Meryon’s best-known work, the album Eaux-fortes sur Paris (63.606.11), provided twenty-two views of the French capital, which was then in the midst of dramatic modernization. The series was characterized by its fantastic tone and focus on uncanny, often dark details of urban life. The Vampire (29.107.108), for instance, provides a close-up view of a grotesque gargoyle from Notre-Dame Cathedral surrounded by a menacing flock of birds. In addition to their subject matter, Meryon’s works appealed to etchers for their technical dexterity, abundance of detail, and the fact that they were often produced by the artist himself, on his own press.

Meryon served as an important precedent for artists of the etching revival in France and an inspiration for their project. His legacy was taken up by the prolific printmaker Félix Bracquemond (1833–1914), who worked closely with Cadart and the Société des Aquafortistes during the 1860s and, as a young artist, produced two portraits of Meryon (40.63.13; 17.78.60) to signal his allegiance. He, too, acquired his own press and experimented with the technical processes of intaglio printmaking, favoring deluxe papers and inks. Bracquemond was noted for a tendency to continuously modify his plates, producing numerous versions—or “states”—of each image. The results of this production included several albums (26.28.73) that were published by Cadart and received enthusiastically by print collectors of the time. Beyond his artistic role, Bracquemond further promoted etching through his active career as a writer and critic for several popular art journals. His polemical texts argued for the importance of intaglio printmaking and the qualities that distinguished it from other media, spurring interest among other artists and further critical dialogue.

Due to the efforts of this community of artists, printers, and publishers, the etching revival inspired an interest in the medium that was sustained throughout the rest of the nineteenth century in France. The activities of the Société des Aquafortistes waned around 1867, but Cadart continued to produce albums with artists from the group through the 1870s. The ephemeral quality of prints, an increasingly international art market, and connections between artists allowed the Paris-based movement to spread, especially to England and the United States. By the 1880s, a new generation of artists had taken up etching: from Albert Besnard (1849–1934), whose dark, imaginative subject matter exploited the monochromatic contrast of printmaking (67.793.15), to Eugène Delâtre (1864–1938; son of Cadart’s partner Auguste Delâtre), whose use of colored inks (22.82.1–51) and vanguard style inspired Pablo Picasso’s first experiments in the medium (1984.1203.110), ensuring a place for etching within twentieth-century modernism.