Etcher Sketch: A Conversation with Nadine Orenstein and Freyda Spira About “The Renaissance of Etching”

Albrecht Dürer, Landscape with a Cannon (1518), etching, 8 ½ x 12 5/8 inches. Courtesty of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Fletcher Fund, 1919 (19.73.111).

The idea of using acid to incise lines in a printing plate arose in 15th-century Europe, most probably as an outgrowth of innovations in the production of ornamented armor. Despite the many technical challenges presented by the chemistry and metallurgy of etching (noxious fumes, iron plates that rusted, the unpredictable interactions of materials), artists across the continent took to it, and in the process changed the way prints looked and functioned. Drawing through an acid-resistant varnish or wax ground allowed for freehand gestures that engraving did not. This actively experimental period is the subject of the Metropolitan Museum’s current exhibition “The Renaissance of Etching,” curated by Nadine Orenstein, Drue Heinz Chair of Drawings and Prints, and Freyda Spira, Associate Curator of Drawings and Prints at the museum.

A rare, comprehensive examination of the first 70 years of the etched print, from the late-15th to mid-16th centuries, it includes etchings by such major figures as Albrecht Dürer, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Parmigianino, as well as lesser-known artists, alongside related drawings, printing plates, and illustrated books from the collections of the Met, the Albertina in Vienna, and other lenders.

Daniel Hopfer, Design for the Channels of Fluted Armor (ca. 1515), etching, second state of two, 5 7/16 x 3 3/8 inches.

Catherine Bindman You have both worked on major exhibitions incorporating lots of etchings in recent years: “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers” in 2017; “The Power of Prints: The Legacy of William M. Ivins and A. Hyatt Mayor” in 2016; and “Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475–1540” at the National Gallery in 2012, part of which was dedicated to the emergence of etching under Daniel Hopfer. How does this new exhibition relate to those ambitious projects?

Nadine Orenstein Well, in fact, the new show has been kicking around longer than any of them—since at least 2008. It was Catherine Jenkins’s idea and came out of her work on Fontainebleau, but she left the department to become an independent scholar and the show was postponed several times, all for good reasons. Catherine has been fully involved as a curator-at-large, selecting material, and writing and editing the catalogue with us.

CB The show is produced in collaboration with the Albertina—

Freyda Spira We were initially in discussion with the Rijksmuseum as a European partner. But when Taco Dibbits became director in 2016 their plans changed. The Albertina was always supposed to be a third venue. I knew Christof Metzger, head of the curatorial department there, as we had worked together on the Hopfer show at the Graphische Sammlung in Munich in 2009 [“Daniel Hopfer: Ein Augsburger Meister der Renaissance”]. The Albertina became our sole partner, and in many ways they are ideal in terms of both expertise and collections.

NMO It reminds me of Noah’s Ark. They seem to have two of everything.

FS And much of this material has not been seen. It gives them the opportunity to show it to a broad audience.

CB Speaking of Hopfer, you are showing examples of armor since etching is believed to have originated in Hopfer’s armor-decorating workshop in Augsburg. You do have access to the extraordinary holdings of the museum’s Department of Arms and Armor.

Albrecht Dürer, Man of
Sorrows
(1515), etching on iron, second state of three, 4 3/8 x 2 9/16 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Fletcher Fund, 1919 (19.73.24).

FS We actually have Hopfer armor from Augsburg with ornamental and figural decoration that mirrors that in his prints. We also have an etched light-cavalry armor from Milan that shows the relationship between Northern Italian armorers and those in Southern Germany. These things will be in the central doorway of the exhibition, to reinforce the point that the same etching technique that was used to decorate armor was later used in printing plates.

NMO What’s fascinating about the shift from etching on armor to etching on paper is that an elite, exclusive item is translated into a medium for producing relatively inexpensive images for a broad, popular audience. Also, the work of art itself became the means of producing art.

FS Etching also created a whole new market for artists working in that area.

CB How are the very early days of this transition in the late-15th century represented in the show?

FS First, we will have prints by Hopfer that mirror the images on the armor, including three ornament prints specifically intended for the decoration of armor. The labels discuss how strategies similar to those for etching armor were used on the earliest plates. Others prints, like Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women (ca. 1500–1510), reveal him experimenting with the medium. And we want to document the transition chronologically in the story of etching from Hopfer to Dürer.

CB Dürer made just six etchings, and you’re showing impressions of all of them!

NMO Yes, and we have three impressions of his Man of Sorrows (1515), which might help explain why he ultimately abandoned the medium. The successive impressions show how the areas of rust on Dürer’s plate increased as the plate was printed. At that point etching was being done on iron or steel rather than the copper that was used for engraving. But you can see how the plate has rusted. It’s a very small print with a plain background so the rust marks are obvious. In his subsequent etchings, Dürer added a lot of lines to the backgrounds, an approach that had the advantage of making the rust less obvious.

Hans Burgkmair, Venus and Mercury (ca. 1520), etched steel plate, 7 1/4 x 5 1/8 inches. ©The Trustees of the British Museum, London.

CB In Prints and Visual Communication, William Ivins wrote, “The earliest corpus of etched work, that of the Hopfer family of Augsburg, consists almost entirely of rapidly made copies of other men’s work.” Freyda, you wrote your dissertation on Hopfer—what is your take on his status as an artist?

FS When I was working on my dissertation in the early 2000s, all the literature on Hopfer suggested that he was a thieving copyist whose main contribution to printmaking was technical. I was interested, however, in investigating his content and context, and also looking at him as an artist. It was interesting to go back to Hopfer for this exhibition. This time I was able to examine his etchings in the conservation department at the museum, which led me to think about materials and techniques much more closely. It also enabled me to look at his sources and collaborators in a broader way. This opened up a whole new avenue for me in thinking about Hopfer’s technical innovations, not just as the inventor of a new printmaking technique but as an experimental etcher.

NMO Nobody really picks up on the interesting technical exploration that Daniel Hopfer and his sons were carrying out—for instance playing with the areas of black and white by scraping away the ground to create a dark field and then painting over that area with stopping out varnish to create white details within the black field. Once Dürer gets interested in etching, the Hopfers’ experimental work becomes neglected.

CB Well, yes—once painters take up etching as a site of aesthetic experimentation, they dominate the narrative. But you argue that this early period—before the painters—has more to offer than the mere commercial utility that Ivins suggested.

Urs Graf, A Girl Washing Her Feet (1513), etching, 5 1/2 x 2 7/8 inches. Courtesy of Kunstmuseum Basel, Kupferstichkabinett, Donation of Emile Linder, 1860, Inv. X.2293.

FS Yes. The early examples of etching are actually about creativity and experimentation. Hopfer’s Angels with the Sudarium was executed first as a pure line etching; then in a second state, he created tone akin to an aquatint by either carefully painting a resist onto the plate with a brush and then exposing it to acid a second time, or by simply painting the acid directly onto the plate. He only tried this out twice but was obviously interested in testing the limits of the technique.

NMO And the first people using it are really printmakers who are trying to decide how best to use the new technique. Should I use etching to make works that look more like a drawing or more like a print? Dürer used the same kinds of lines he uses in drawings for his etchings. Lucas van Leyden decided to give his etched lines the look of engraving, and combined etching and engraving in prints that were all created in 1520 such as A Fool and A Woman, or The Beggars or Maximilian I. You see him trying to figure etching out, then going back to pure engraving after a year.

CB In the 1520s we also see the development of pure landscape etching by artists such as Albrecht Altdorfer—what made etching so well-suited for this?

NMO The freedom of the line is perfect for landscape—you can use it to evoke the fluidity of natural forms.

FS But Altdorfer’s earliest etchings—the two prints of the Regensburg Synagogue (1519), for example—were not that successful. His densely etched lines made the images too flat. He must have realized that if he created more calligraphic drawings on the plate, like those of Wolf Huber, he would get a better result. A lot of ideas about landscape at the time also came from Dürer’s iron etching Landscape with a Cannon (1518). This was his most ambitious etching and incorporated a brilliantly composed landscape, the first etched example. The artists who followed Altdorfer, such as Augustin Hirschvogel and Hanns Lautensack, were working in a spectrum between cartography and ideal landscape. It’s important to remember that etching also allows a lot of precision as well as fluidity: Hirschvogel’s 1543 book of geometrical diagrams the Geometria was etched—he knew that he could really control the line.

CB And what about Parmigianino?

Albrecht Altdorfer, The Entrance Hall of the Regensburg Synagogue (1519), etching, 6 1/4 x 4 3/8 inches. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926 (26.72.68).

Hans Sebald Beham, Standard Bearer with a Snake (1520), etching,
4 7/8 x 3 inches. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

NMO He really used etching like drawing and was very experimental with it. He saw it as liberation. There will be a whole section on him in the exhibition. Marcantonio Raimondi has always been understood as the first Italian etcher, but Catherine Jenkins has examined his prints closely and believes that they are not actually etchings but engravings. It’s honestly hard to see, but the evidence is strong enough that we have included only one example in the exhibition for comparison. This puts Parmigianino at the forefront of early Italian etching. We present him as the most creative of the Italian etchers, trying out things in the 1530s that we associate with Rembrandt’s work a century later.

CB What are the rarities and special things that we should look out for?

FS There are some amazing loans in addition to those from the Albertina. We will have the Hans Burgkmair iron plate for Venus and Mercury (ca. 1520) from the British Museum alongside the earliest impression of it, from the Kunstmuseum Basel. And we have borrowed Hirschvogel’s six copper plates for his Survey of Vienna (1547) from the Wien Museum to show with an impression of the map loaned by the Albertina (1552). There are also the two unique etchings by the Swiss etcher Urs Graf—A Girl Washing Her Feet and Aristotle and Phyllis, both dated 1519—from the Kunstmuseum Basel.

NMO Definitely the etchings by Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen. There are three in the show—Mulay Ahmad (ca. 1536), Virgin and Child with the Music-Making Angel (1545), and Spanish Woman (Oriental Woman, 1545)—and I would have liked to put in many more. He is not well known—a surprising and fantastic artist who tried to make his etchings look like paintings. Vermeyen joined Emperor Charles V on his Conquest of Tunis in 1535 and came back with a lot of ideas. He represented all sorts of unusual subjects, like a portrait of Mulay Ahmad (ca. 1536), the king of Tunis, in his native costume. I also want to mention the three prints from the Bibliothèque nationale that make up a triptych by Nicolaas Hogenberg, a German artist who ended up in Mechelen, not far from Antwerp. The plates show The Holy Trinity, a Group of Saints, and The Patriarchs (1524). Each plate is dated, but we realized that the center plate—The Holy Trinity—is engraved, while the two side ones are etched. It’s one of the weirder combinations of the two techniques and hard to explain. Hogenberg might have been trying to prove that etching could match engraving.You also have to look at the Sebald Behams too. We are showing two from a group of four or five very loose, experimental etchings that he made in 1520. In one he shows a really chubby Fortuna, a spin-off of Dürer’s famous Nemesis and in the other a drunken standard bearer entwined suggestively with a snake. They are bawdy and raunchy, and Beham is clearly having fun.

Parmigianino, The Lovers (1527–1530), etching, second state of two, 5 7/8 x 4 1/8 inches.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926 (26.70.3(102)).

CB The exhibition ends around 1560, just as the technique was becoming professionalized under publishers such as Hieronymus Cock in Antwerp and Lafreri in Rome.

NMO There is a huge development over the course of our show, from early experimentation to professionalization. By the time you get to publishers like Cock, they are hiring etchers to make reproductive prints. The advantage of etching is obvious: Cock could issue bigger prints and pay the printmakers less because they could work faster. With greater professionalization we begin to see a split forming between the peintre-graveur and the professional etcher. Cock published huge numbers of reproductive prints after artists such as Bruegel and Floris, as well as a few original etchings by them. Peeter van der Borcht created many single-sheet etchings in the 1550s and later he created an enormous number of book illustrations for the Antwerp publisher Christopher Plantin. In his reproductive prints, he came up with a precise and consistent style with a regularized system of hatching that did not evoke the work of the original painters but effectively communicated the image. By the end of the show the etchings  are much bigger and the range of subject matter expands as well. Once they had figured out how to etch reliably on copper by the 1540s, big ambitious etchings like van der Borcht’s Large Peasant Festival (1553), Hogenberg’s Wagon of Hay (1559) and Hoefnagel’s Allegory of the Spanish Tyranny (1570) became possible.

FS This early period in the history of etching was a rich moment for innovation. But it is interesting to note that etching is basically still used in the same way today by artists, although many of the materials have changed. These days we are faced with new techniques for reproducing images all the time. But this is the beginning. People had to figure out what to do with the possibilities.

NMO And nobody has pulled all this material together before. We are bringing in a huge number of early etchings in beautiful impressions that have rarely, if ever, been seen before in this country..