The Equestrian Portrait Prints of Wenceslaus Hollar

Fig. 1. Matthäus Merian, Equestrian Portrait of James I with a view of London (1621), engraving, 34 x 24.7 cm. Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin.

Fig. 1. Matthäus Merian, Equestrian Portrait of James I with a view of London (1621), engraving, 34 x 24.7 cm. Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin.

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607 Prague–1677 London) was one of the most accomplished and prolific graphic artists of the 17th century, working around the same time as other notable etchers such as Stefano della Bella, Jacques Callot and Rembrandt. Hollar was both an original and reproductive printmaker, making prints after his own designs and others’. He was also adaptive, as we shall see. His most famous prints are his complex and beautiful etchings of fur muffs and shells, but he is celebrated as well for prints with historical resonance and precision, such as his view of Greenwich of 1637 and his depictions of Old St Paul’s Cathedral before its destruction in the Great Fire of 1666. His diverse subject matter included topographical works and maps, portraits, costumes, book illustrations and reproductions of works of art from the collection of his patron, Thomas Howard, the Earl of Arundel.

Among Hollar’s earliest works are topographical views of Prague, Germany and Holland, and prints of military events during the Thirty Years’ War and the conflict between Spain and the Dutch Republic (notably the battle of Breitenfeld in 1631 and the sieges of Maastricht and Schenkenschans). Interspersed within this oeuvre are the equestrian portrait prints that are the focus of this essay—a genre mainly reserved for royalty and military commanders.

Hollar’s arrival in England in 1637 coincided with the tensions that culminated with the English Civil War, and he adapted the mode of equestrian portrait he had learned in Germany to depict English personalities. Though he would have had ample opportunity to study horses and draw them from life, no such drawing is extant, and it is clear that Hollar chose to use other existing equestrian prints as templates for his own. For nearly every such print we can in fact trace the source.

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