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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Printed Image in the West: Mezzotint

Definition: La manière noire (“the dark manner”)
The term reveals its meaning. A mezzotint–from the Italian mezzo (“half”) and tinta (“tone”)–presents halftones. Specifically, in this type of intaglio (nonrelief) print, subtle gradations of light and shade, rather than lines, form the image.

Technique: Schabkunst (“scraped art”)
“The copper-plate it [the mezzotint] is done upon, when the artist first takes it into hand, is wrought all over with an edg’d tool, so as to make the print one even black, like night: and his whole work after this, is merely introducing the lights into it; which he does by scraping off the rough grain according to his design, artfully smoothing it most where light is most required …”

—William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty (1753)

A mezzotint emerges from darkness into light. First, the artist (or an assistant) roughens (or “grounds”) the copperplate using a “rocker,” a broad, semi-circular, serrated-edged, chisel-like implement specific to mezzotint. Moved rhythmically and repeatedly across the plate, the rocker eventually yields a pronounced overall texture (or “burr”) that will catch the ink. (If printed at this stage, the plate yields a solid field of rich, velvety black.) Next, using a “scraper,” a triangular blade fixed in a knife handle, and a “burnisher,” a blunt implement with a hard smooth rounded end (both standard engraving tools), the artist smoothes selected passages of the burr, reducing or removing its ink-catching capacity, and thereby rendering the lighter-toned passages of the design. Finally, the artist (or a specialist printer) inks the surface of the plate and transfers the design to a sheet of dampened paper by running it through an intaglio press (beneath layers of protective felts). The process requires great care, since the burr of a mezzotint plate makes it more fragile than those used in other printmaking techniques. Because a mezzotint plate’s roughened surface deteriorates rapidly from repeated printing, each plate will render only a small number of truly first-rate impressions. The plate can be reworked (yielding successive “states” of the print), but such reworking historically has not always been expert, and connoisseurs have come to favor early proofs, pulled when the original burr is fresh.

History: La manière anglais (“the English manner”)
The mezzotint process was first developed in the printmaking center of Amsterdam in the second quarter of the seventeenth century. There, two amateur foreign artists–the German lieutenant-colonel Ludwig von Siegen, and the exiled Bohemian prince Rupert of the Rhine (33.52.32)–arrived at the technique virtually simultaneously, but (apparently) independently. When both men turned their attention to other matters, Prince Rupert’s one-time assistant Wallerant Vaillant (56.605.14), a French-born painter active in Holland, became the first professional engraver in mezzotint. Vaillant’s large and accomplished oeuvre spurred the medium’s growing popularity; within two decades of the technique’s invention, mezzotints were made and collected throughout Europe (68.753.1).

Mezzotints found a notably appreciative audience in London. There, following the Restoration of the British monarchy in 1660, numerous Dutch mezzotint engravers (such as Abraham Blooteling, Jan van Somer, Pieter Schenk, Jacob Gole, and Gerard Valck) came to work; shared their knowledge with authors who published descriptions of the technique (John Evelyn, in Latin, in 1662, and Richard Tompson and Alexander Browne, in English, in 1669); and trained native-born successors. By 1700, England boasted several talented mezzotint engravers, including William Sherwin (aided by Prince Rupert, who visited England following the accession of his cousin, Charles II, to the throne); the printmaker, publisher, and printseller Isaac Beckett; the theatrical designer Robert Robinson; the miniature painter Bernard Lens II; the amateur artist Francis Place; and the talented professional engraver John Smith (Beckett’s pupil and successor). Amsterdam had remained the center of mezzotint production for only a quarter-century before London irreversibly surpassed it.

There, in the middle and later years of the eighteenth century, the technique dubbed la manière anglais would experience a golden age. Although some London-born printmakers, such as Richard Earlom (who also worked under the pseudonym Henry Birche) and Thomas Watson (53.600.1892), rose to prominence, as in the seventeenth century a large portion of the talent would be imported: from Dublin, Thomas Frye (66.695.7), James McArdell, Richard Houston, Edward Fisher, John Dixon, and James Watson); from Paris, George-François Blondel (67.797.6); from Vienna, Johann Gottfried Haid; and from other British towns, Frye’s pupil William Pether (Carlisle) (53.600.566), the Prince of Wales’s mezzotint engraver John Raphael Smith (Derby), and George III’s mezzotint engraver Valentine Green (Salford). To escape from the competition of this increasingly crowded field, other British mezzotint engravers–such as James Walker (engraver to Russia’s Catherine the Great) and Charles Howard Hodges (a pupil of John Raphael Smith active in Amsterdam)—carried the medium abroad.

Outside of Britain, however, the mezzotint failed to thrive. In Paris, Jacques-Fabien Gautier-Dagoty (28.52.2), developed a method of four-plate color printing in mezzotint, continued by his sons, but the expensive process did not survive the French Revolution. In Vienna, the Tyrolian-born, Roman-trained, Austrian engraver Ignaz (Ignazio) Unterberger made powerful mezzotints distinguished by their unusual ground textures, and Johann Gottfried Haid and Johann Jacobé, both of whom had worked in London, made masterful mezzotints–and trained many accomplished pupils in the technique. In colonial America, a few artists–such as Peter Pelham, Edward Savage, and Charles Willson Peale–made mezzotints, but none did so as their primary means of support.

By comparison to etching, with its distinguished tradition of peintres-graveurs (artist-printmakers), few artists used mezzotint as a means of original expression (49.98.1). Instead, from the time of its invention, the mezzotint served primarily to translate oil paintings into printed form. Its distinctive use of tone (rather than line), and its remarkable capacity to convey texture, suited it perfectly for this role. Moreover, its velvety black and rich brown shades matched a widespread seventeenth-century taste for strong chiaroscuro in oil painting–a style that remained vital in eighteenth-century British painting as well.

While the earliest mezzotints reproduced the works of past masters, living painters soon seized upon the form to promote their own work. Since a mezzotint can be made more rapidly, and less expensively, than a line engraving (although it yields fewer impressions), it became a favorite means for the quick dissemination of timely images. In the second half of the eighteenth century, leading British portrait and subject painters worked closely with mezzotint engravers to prepare skilled reproductions of their work, which were frequently shown alongside their painted prototypes in London’s annual art exhibitions. Such images often gained greater currency than the artists intended: to meet the increasing demand, less reputable publishers did not hesitate to plagiarize copies of popular works.

Mezzotints circulated widely, sold in a variety of sizes (including “royal,” 24 x 19 in., “large,” 18 x 24 in., “posture,” 14 x 10 in., and “small,” 6 x 4 in.) intended to fit standard-sized frames, and were offered in a range of prices calculated to suit every budget. Collectors assembled portfolios or albums of mezzotints portraying leading figures of the day, and displayed mezzotints reproducing historical, genre, or still-life subjects on their walls. Such “furniture” prints might be close-framed (to reveal only the image); mounted on stretchers, varnished, and framed (without glazing); or pasted directly onto the walls of domestic interiors and public spaces. Hobbyists transferred mezzotint designs onto pieces of glass (attaching them with a waterproof adhesive, then dissolving the paper so that only the ink remained on the glass), which they colored in oils or watercolors to resemble paintings. Some mezzotints, such as the (often crudely) humorous scenes known as “drolls” issued by leading publishers Robert Sayers and Carrington Bowles, were hand-painted and sold in garish colors.

By the mid-1770s, as framers and gilders (rather than publishers) came to dominate the trade in furniture prints, the mezzotint began to lose favor to another tonal intaglio printmaking technique: stipple engraving, first developed in France in the 1760s. The stipple process uses dots (made with an etching needle or roulette) to create tone, and its plates can withstand longer print runs than mezzotint plates. For eighteenth-century printsellers–who typically sold stipples in ready-made gilt frames–the method offered an additional benefit: the possibility of color printing à la poupée (dabbing selected areas of the plate with color). Faced with this competition, mezzotint printmakers and publishers changed tack. Some pursued methods of color printing (28.52.2). Others extended their range of subjects and issued luxurious series of mezzotints directed toward elite collectors, such as Richard Earlom’s Liber Veritatis (three volumes of etchings with mezzotints after drawings by Claude Lorrain published by John Boydell in 1777 and 1819), and Valentine and Rupert Green’s reproductions after paintings in the Düsseldorf Gallery of the Elector Palatine (exhibited in London and published in 1793).