Possessing one of the most original and influential art historical minds of the 20th century, Leo Steinberg (1920–2011) wrote deeply and revealingly on subjects ranging from Michelangelo to Picasso, and from the theology of the Incarnation in Renaissance art to the objects comprising Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines. He had a gift for recognizing what had been habitually overlooked, even in famous masterworks. Steinberg saw the print as “the circulating lifeblood” of pictorial and iconographical ideas—the vehicle through which artists communicated with one another. He began collecting prints in the early 1960s and amassed a large collection, studying and researching every acquisition. In 2002, he gave more than 3,200 prints to the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin. (He had previously donated hundreds of prints to public institutions such as the New York Public Library and Metropolitan Museum of Art.) The following essay has been adapted from a lecture presented at the Blanton Museum in April 2003. Minor adjustments have been made to accommodate the written form.1
When I was in graduate school during the 1950s, prints were not taught. My professors—even those I was fondest of—seemed unaware of them. Though prints have been around for 600 years, bursting with information, they tend to be treated as an underclass, used but not cherished, readily overlooked. Just two years ago, a New York Times critic, reviewing the Vermeer show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote:
He languished in obscurity for nearly 200 years, in part because his tiny output of just a few dozen pictures was not easily seen by arts patrons. In the days before museums, photography and the ready reproduction of images, artists who wanted their work to be widely known literally had to create enough work to fill the right walls; they gained exposure as their pictures appeared and reappeared in private collections and at auction.2
No acknowledgment that artists gained exposure through reproductive engravings. But by the time of Vermeer, around 1650, the technology for publicizing one’s work had long been available.
Go back to the late 1400s and consider the problem of seating the 13 diners at the Last Supper. In Italy, traditionally, the figures were filed along the far side of the table, with only the betrayer, Judas, seated in front. Andrea del Castagno, in his fresco at Sant’Apollonia, Florence, tries to enliven the scene by converting the marble panel above Christ and Judas into a painted square that we would call Abstract Expressionism (Fig. 1). A later Florentine, Michelangelo’s first teacher, Domenico Ghirlandaio, throws in a peacock and other birds in flight to make things more interesting, because a lineup of 12 seated, decorous diners can look rather boring (Fig. 2). Can’t we get some action into it?
Then, suddenly, Leonardo, working in Milan in the mid-1490s, produced a little pen sketch that shows Judas in three-quarters view from behind, rising from a three-legged stool and extending a right hand toward the dish between him and Christ (Fig. 3). Twenty years later, the Florentine painter Franciabigio—who could hardly have seen Leonardo’s inch-wide sketch—painted a Last Supper with a Judas seen in three-quarters view from behind, rising from a three-legged stool and extending a right hand toward the dish between him and Christ (Fig. 4).
How come? Well, both must have seen one of two known engraved adaptations of a painting by Martin Schongauer, a German working in Colmar until his death in 1491, which show Judas seen in three-quarters view from behind, rising from a three-legged stool and about to raise a right hand toward the dish between him and Christ (Fig. 5).
Or take this Schongauer Annunciation, engraved by himself (Fig. 6). For a thousand years, the scene had been represented laterally across the field: Gabriel left, Virgin right. Schongauer makes it pivot 90 degrees, with the angel arriving out of deep space and the Almighty removed deeper still. Half a century later, in 1527, the North Italian Lorenzo Lotto painted an Annunciation in which the Virgin faces the viewer, the angel approaches from behind, and the Almighty is seen through a doorway (Fig. 7). It is obviously not a copy. But an idea hatched in the North and transmitted by way of a print had become an available option in Italy.
Meanwhile, the 20-year-old Albrecht Dürer, completing his apprenticeship in Nuremberg, was poring over Schongauer’s prints and, as soon as he was free to begin his Wanderjahre, journeyed on foot to meet the old master. But Schongauer had died in early 1491, some months before Dürer’s arrival. Back in Nuremberg, Dürer became an assiduous producer of woodcuts, engravings and etchings, and found a merchandising outlet for his prints in annual book fairs, such as the famous one in Frankfurt, still going strong.
Dürer prints traveled. The young Marcantonio Raimondi in Venice pirated them, and Dürer traveled to Venice in 1506 to protest. A few years later, Marcantonio joined Raphael in Rome, where the painter was organizing a workshop of engravers to translate his paintings and drawings to the copperplate. Having frescoed the state rooms of the Vatican palace with scenes from sacred history, Raphael culled some of these scenes to be disseminated in black-and-white.
Busy as he was, Raphael found time to invent compositions specifically for his chief engraver. One shows David about to behead the giant Goliath, whom he had just felled with a slingshot and pebble, causing the Philistines to take to their heels with the Israelites in pursuit, while a messenger in the left foreground leaves the picture to bring the good news to King Saul (Fig. 8). Compositions such as these were studied by artists throughout Western Europe; like a centrifuge, pictorial energy exploded outward from a rotating hub.
Later in the 16th century, Titian had Cornelis Cort as his own in-house engraver (Fig. 9). Other engravers from Antwerp also settled in Venice to publish Titian’s designs: and when Titian painted imaginary portraits of the 12 Roman Emperors for a palace in Mantua, the set was instantly engraved and repeatedly copied.
In the century following, Peter Paul Rubens employed a battalion of engravers, etchers and woodcutters. In 1962, I acquired the landscape known as The Carters for the exorbitant price of $10 (Fig. 10). I wanted it, for I’d never seen a picture that so plausibly combined night and day. The original Rubens painting in St. Petersburg may be better, but the lapse into moonlight is stronger in the print. The engraver, Schelte Adams à Bolswert, has produced not just a copy, but an interpretation—like the performer of a musical score.3
By the time I made this acquisition, I had escaped graduate school, and was discovering that, for the art of the 16th and 17th centuries, prints were the circulating lifeblood of ideas. I remember setting myself this problem: Both Diego Velázquez, around 1650, and Rembrandt, later in the same decade, produced images of a nude reclining female backview—the Rokeby Venus and an etching of a reclining female nude, respectively (Figs. 11 and 12). It seemed a curious coincidence, since neither artist would have known the other. Then I came upon a plate with a similar figure in Jan Theodor de Bry’s Emblemata nobilitate et vulgo…, a collection of emblems published in Frankfurt in 1593, and I thought, ah ha! Both men must have seen the same de Bry print or the model it copied, an engraving of 1526 by the Nuremberg master Bartel Beham (Fig. 13).
But did Beham invent the motif? Or did he take its nude female backview from an engraving with a Venetian landscape background by Agostino Veneziano (Fig. 14), who had come to Rome in 1516 to join Marcantonio in Raphael’s circle? So we go from Venice to Rome to Nuremberg to Frankfurt to Amsterdam and Madrid. Evidently, the motif of the reclining nude female backview was in the air, wafted all over Western Europe through the mediation of prints.
If you’re going to do art history, I realized, you’d better know what your artists were looking at. And that has to include prints, so that when you come upon a 17th-century Flemish drawing by Abraham van Diepenbeeck—a study for a Rest on the Flight into Egypt, with seven babies led by two little angels dancing the round to amuse the Christ Child (or simply to rejoice at the Incarnation), you recognize their round dance as a steal from Raphael, who had furnished the design for Marcantonio’s engraving Dance of Cupids (ca. 1517–1520) (Figs. 15 and 16). Was Diepenbeeck plagiarizing? Or was he paying homage, saying to Raphael: “Your dancing babes are good enough to entertain the Holy Family.” A January 2002 auction at the Swann Galleries in New York included a late 16th-century German drawing replicating this same composition, reversed left-right; its source, as often happens, went unrecognized by the cataloguers because, being proud experts on original drawings, they wouldn’t be seen dead looking at prints.4
I wasn’t proud and felt no such disdain. And so, beginning around 1961, I started to look at prints and buy them in bookshops and flea markets and from dealers, finding the unsalable stock they wanted to get rid of, like Goltzius engravings or prints after Rubens, or works by unknowns—hundreds of artists I’d never heard of. The dealers would let me take bunches of prints on approval. I’d bring them to the print room at the Met or the New York Public Library to try to identify the artist, to look at what else the artist had done, to read what had been written and to find out whether the work had ever been catalogued.
If at first I imagined myself stepping into a vast unmapped terrain, I soon discovered that I had, in fact, entered a club composed of a small band of dedicated enthusiasts, spread out over continents and centuries; people who had been fascinated by the world of prints and had spent decades cataloguing collections for the benefit of like-minded amateurs in generations to come. I would look at a print picked from a junk heap on Portobello Road, find it catalogued and described by a librarian working in Vienna during the Napoleonic Wars, and end up enjoying a sense of fellowship with kindred spirits across ages and oceans. Fifteen years into this history, I began to teach courses in prints, first in at Hunter College in New York, then at the University of Pennsylvania.
I titled this talk “What I Like About Prints.” Many things.
First, I suppose, I like the look of them and the pleasure one takes in discriminating, as between different impressions. One of the first prints I acquired with beginner’s luck in 1960 was a small etching of a standing bull by the 17th-century Dutch painter Paulus Potter (Fig. 17); the deep blacks of the inking—like the interior of deep water or of a diamond—gave me a sense of concentrated infinity such as I’d never seen on paper. It turned out to be a proof impression, before the first of five recorded states. No wonder I got hooked.
Secondly, these things cost so little then—that bull came out of the 50-cent bin in a little shop, Rockman Prints, on 3rd Avenue. I asked, “Why so cheap?” Mr. Rockman replied: “I hate animals.” But I won’t linger over how wonderful things were in the old days; it is a known failing of old men that they try to make younger people feel they were born too late and have missed all the fun.
Another appeal of Old Master prints was the sense of intimacy they gave me with artists long dead—not only their makers, but their users. I was looking over their shoulders, joining them in what they were looking at. I’ll cite one example: it concerns a third-rate picture by a feeble Spanish painter, Francisco Pacheco, who will be eternally remembered as the teacher and father-in-law of Velázquez. Pacheco was an educated man whose home in Seville was a meeting place for scholars and writers; the Spanish Inquisition appointed him its official watchdog over the visual arts, to ensure that artists kept heresies and indecencies out of their work.
Commissioned to paint a St. Sebastian nursed by St. Irene, Pacheco avoided the erotic suggestiveness in which painters of the period indulged (Fig. 18).5 His treatment of the subject in a picture of 1616 (destroyed during the Spanish Civil War) is remarkably decorous: a bearded St. Sebastian, decently dressed, sits up in his bed to thank St. Irene and her maid for the chicken soup. But then, at upper right—well, here is Pacheco’s own proud description of it in his book, The Art of Painting (1638): “a window through which the saint is seen in the open, tied to a tree and shown full of arrows.”6
That’s all he says. He offers no indication that this window view—which represents a narrative flashback either as an effect of memory or as background to the saint’s story—this ventana, so like a picture behind a hinged panel, is but the précis of a once-popular composition by Hans van Aachen, best known through Jan Muller’s engraving (Fig. 19). In Pacheco’s Sebastian, the recessed mental picture is appropriately remote in style from the prosy present—another reality level, a gusty vision to threaten stylistic coherence; on purpose, of course. Such sophistication is hard to reconcile with the rest of Pacheco, but it is typical of the youthful Velázquez. I suspect the 17-year-old apprentice of being responsible for this story-within-a-story, this frank importation, which Velázquez’s aging master subsequently could not bring himself to admit.
That Muller engraving—which I purchased in 1964 from the same Mr. Rockman who three years earlier had sold me that 50-cent bull—was once a standard item in the mental museum of artists: it underlies a Netherlandish plaquette offered in a German dealer’s catalogue (and misdated by half a century because it was mistaken for an original composition).7 And the engraving’s nude saint, ingeniously tied to his tree by wrist and ankle, turns up as a youth getting undressed in Abraham Bloemaert’s Baptism of Christ (1602) (Fig. 20). Bloemart in Utrecht; the sculptor of the plaquette; Pacheco in his Seville studio—every one of them put his impression of the Muller print to good use.
As for the best known of Marcantonio’s engravings: I would love to see studies of their global outreach. Those with religious subjects traveled East in the knapsacks of missionaries, so that the design of his Descent from the Cross, after Raphael, turns up in a late 16th-century Indian gouache now at the V&A in London (Figs. 21 and 22). As I said in a 1978 essay, “Reproductive engravings are not so much a branch of art as the medium through which, for nearly 400 years, all branches of art interacted.”8
I enjoyed buying prints that artists, rather than collectors, had owned—prints that must have been lying around like scrap paper in some painter’s studio, like the Jan Lievens chiaroscuro woodcut whose balding man turns up on the table in Jan Steen’s Drawing Lesson (Figs. 23 and 24), or a 1583 Agostino Carracci engraving I bought—St. Paul Raising Patroclus—because the foreshortened figure of Patroclus had been pricked for transfer, obviously to be reemployed elsewhere. Sometimes prints in poor condition that would have been scorned by curators, collectors and dealers charmed me because they showed stains of oil paint, or, on the back, pencil sketches or shopping lists. I formed a collection of such material, and at Roberta Waddell’s request, gave the whole lot as teaching material to the New York Public Library.9
Here’s a large Hans Sebald Beham woodcut, representing the old fantasy of the Fountain of Youth (Fig. 25). Senior citizens are brought in at left; following their dip, they dance, young and naked, about a bonfire fed by their discarded crutches. At the center is a basin surrounding the magic fountain; on the right, an enclosed swimming pool, with terrace dining on the roof. Now look at the individual figures, beginning with one at dead center—the only one who looks straight out at us. This croucher seems familiar. Sure enough, he has been hijacked from that most famous engraving, Marcantonio’s Judgment of Paris after Raphael, where the goddesses Juno and Minerva lose their beauty contest to Venus (Fig. 26). Far inside the bath house, you can spot Marcantonio’s Minerva, getting dressed (Beham places her next to a guy taking a last peek before the eclipse). And did Beham raid only that one Marcantonio print? No: Way at the back you can spot an exhausted reveler getting some sleep. That is Marcantonio’s so-called Cleopatra or Ariadne (Fig. 27). Beham also owned Marcantonio’s Grimpeurs engraving after a group in Michelangelo’s cartoon for the Battle of Cascina, which gave him the climber and the pointing figure inside the swimming pool, and the same pointer again at the basin (Fig. 28). Where else, says Beham, would you look for Michelangelo’s bathing soldiers but at the bath? Bathing is all they do. It’s their defining nature. And the conspicuous repetition of the pointer deepens the irony. The unreality of the Fountain of Youth is confirmed by its delivery in familiar quotations. (I never owned the Beham woodcut, which is exceedingly rare; even the Met has only a facsimile of it. What I had was a small engraved copy, purchased on a low budget on the rue de Seine, Paris, in June 1962.)
These examples trace the passage of Italian inventions northward by way of prints. But one of the things I like is the two-way traffic. Vasari, in 1568, was well aware of the impact of Northern prints on Italian artists, and deplored what he took to be the corrupting effect of Dürer prints on Pontormo. But he also tells us that one of the earliest paintings by the adolescent Michelangelo was a copy of Schongauer’s Temptation of St. Anthony (1470–75) (Fig. 29).10 I wondered what made the boy Michelangelo choose to copy this print. Of course, it may have been one that just happened to be around. Or else, something in the subject resonated—a man haunted, or a consciousness beset by its inner demons. Michaelangelo’s later Dream of Human Life—which was engraved after his drawing by Nicolas Beatrizet—may still be an echo of the Schongauer he had copied as a boy.
The other day, putting together some notes for this talk, I made what may be a new observation. In the Schongauer, at lower left, one horrible demon tugs at his victim with both hands—throwing himself backward to bring all his weight to his purchase, so that his head flops upside-down. This motif, long internalized, Michelangelo put to use a half-century after he made that copy, in his Last Judgment fresco, where the most conspicuous of the condemned (I call him Shameface) is similarly dragged down by a demon, with both hands and a tossed head upside-down (Fig. 30). From Schongauer to Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, by way of a remembered engraving.
There’s another role prints have played in my own thinking—not geographically, from Colmar to Florence, or from Rome and Antwerp to the far Indies—but diachronically, across the centuries, even to modernism. Writing about contemporary art in 1972, I argued against Clement Greenberg, for whom Color Field painting had staked out the path which serious painting in the future must follow.11 I suggested instead that some younger artists were working with a different conception of the picture plane—the picture plane not as “diaphane”—a transparency to look through—and not as an upright wall, but as a flatbed, the ground of operational processes. You can hang an early Robert Rauschenberg on the wall, but it is not intrinsically a space to be experienced in correspondence with your own upright posture. It is a work surface, and if it accommodates scattered bits of illusionism, these are instantly cancelled out by contradiction.
At the time, I withheld a thought that seemed out of place in a discussion of modernism: that what I called the “flatbed picture plane” was new only in its large, wall-power scale, and that the principle of it had always been native to the scriptorial tradition—the practice of illuminated manuscripts, followed by the making of prints. It seemed to me that awareness of the earlier tradition would make much of modernism a less radical break, more continuous with the past.
Let me cite one instance: for Greenberg, Cubism around 1910 had been the decisive move toward flatness in painting. In a famous 1959 essay he cited a painting by Georges Braque (which also took form as an etching [Fig. 31]):
Braque has been made uncomfortable by the contraction of illusioned space in his pictures of 1910. The expedient he had then hit upon was to insert a conventional, trompe-l’oeil suggestion of deep space on top of Cubist flatness, between the depicted planes and the spectator’s eye. The very un-Cubist graphic tack-with-a-cast-shadow, shown transfixing the top of a 1910 painting, Still Life with Violin and Pitcher, suggests deep space in a token way…. The Cubist forms are converted into the illusion of a picture within a picture.12
Greenberg was unaware that the device he found so innovative and striking in Braque’s painting—the shadow-casting tack or nail, which interposes a stratum of space between the image proper and the beholder—had long been common practice, though only exceptionally in paintings. Where such trompe-l’oeil devices do occur is in the work of artists trained as miniature painters, such as the master of the late Quattrocento Ferrarese Madonna and Child, who painted ripped packaging projecting from the picture proper into our space (Fig. 32); or the mid-16th-century Munich painter Hans Mielich, who painted a beetle crawling along the upper edge of his panel, converting the illusionist rendering of an outdoor banquet back into flatness, or rather, making us see depth and flatness at once (Fig. 33).
In my response to Greenberg, I reproduced a historiated initial by Sano di Pietro, a 15th-century Sienese artist (Fig. 34). The words to be sung are “Missus est Gabriel angelus” (Luke 1:26). What we are given is simultaneously the capital letter M, a loggia opening on a bedchamber, and a trellis for ivy ornament. The “constant shuttling between surface and depth”—Greenberg’s phrase for the effect of Braque’s tack-with-cast-shadow—is routine in the scriptorial tradition.
One more point while I’m on this detour into Renaissance manuscript illumination. By 1515, the best of these illuminators, such as the Flemish painter of the Spinola Hours, now at the Getty, had mastered the spatial illusionism of Renaissance painting and could treat it with irony. One page of the Spinola Hours gives us the story of Moses’ brazen serpent about to heal the plague-ridden Israelites; attached to the frame is a hinged tablet, bearing a reference to the Virgin as healer (Fig. 35). Just such a tablet appears in Jasper Johns’s drawing Liar (1961).13 In the miniature, the tablet presently hides the midsection of some of the figures, but you’ll see them whole if you just lift it up, since the hinged tablet does not seem to be part of the picture. Or is it?
Ten pages in Simon Bening’s DaCosta Hours at the Morgan Library show a small framed picture hung from the main frame and consequently obscuring some of the action and landscape behind.14 The same in the Dives and Lazarus page in the Spinola Hours (fol. 21v), but here a denizen of the large outer picture—poor Lazarus—looks into the door of the room in the small inner picture, as if trying to crash the party of the rich Dives.15 And the confusion becomes absolute on a page from another manuscript of this same Ghent-Bruges School, where the landscape of the inner picture extends into the outer scene, in perfect alignment. Datable ca. 1515, the willed upheaval of reality levels is worthy of Magritte’s Promenades of Euclid (Figs. 36 and 37). My point is that these illuminators could treat the then-reigning mode of illusionism tongue-in-cheek—knowing that the parchment they were bent over was less like Alberti’s window and more like the flatbed picture plane on which information (or contradictory misinformation and interference) is entered.
The practice of illuminated manuscripts died out during the 16th century, but something of their scriptorial tradition was kept alive and disseminated in prints—as when naturalism and ornament inhabit one hospitable space in Bartel Beham’s Child and Rinceau (Bartsch 51) or Louis Cossin’s 1668 engraving of the goldsmith Louis Roupert (Fig. 38). Or when a moralizing German broadsheet of ca. 1600 puts the world and its ancient critics, along with their comments, together in a single composition. “Also stets in der Welt”—“This is how the world goes” (Fig. 39).
Such mating of disparate reality levels may once have been marginal, but that’s how evolution works: the marginal becomes mainstream. In this sense, the mix of illusion and counter-illusion—deep space established and simultaneously disestablished—is as much part of the Western tradition as are Raphael or Rembrandt.
I move on now to a more general consideration: that the most important contribution of prints is to have raised—for an entire civilization—the level of critical visual awareness. Prints made it possible, as never before, to compare images at something like the molecular level. You could lay, side by side, prints by Lucas van Leyden, Dürer and Marcantonio; you could juxtapose engravings like Marcantonios and woodcuts, and compare just how you get from here to there; how you modulate from contour to contour, from one thing to the next. Like a brick or stone wall showing its grouting or mortar joints, the finished print let the viewer consider the build of its constituent elements, the process of their fabrication. And this was a novelty. Drawings, in this respect, could not compete. Before the 16th century, drawings were thought of as working instruments or stored ideas—to be kept hidden, or discarded after serving their purpose, like scaffolding once the building was up. Other modes of image-making—painting in fresco or oil, stained-glass windows or tapestries, even mosaics meant to be seen at a distance—all, once finished, concealed their process. It was the print that laid process wide open.
Take as an example a once-famous Marcantonio engraving after a design from Raphael’s workshop, traditionally mistitled Our Lady of the Stairs (Notre-Dame de l’Escalier) (Fig. 40). The subject, of course, is not the Virgin, but Martha leading her sister Mary Magdalen by the hand to hear Jesus preach, an event that will convert Mary from a life of sin to one of saintly penance. What has always impressed me is the way this deep-space composition succeeds in holding the picture plane. How rare the receding planes, whether upright or horizontal. The shadowed building façades at left—since we don’t see their cornices—barely register as receding. They serve as big steadying slabs.
And what else recedes? The lighted treads across the bottom—that thin sliver? The step under Mary’s trailing right foot, broken up by an assertive cast shadow? Finally, two small, scalene triangles formed by the risers of the top steps. And that’s it—an ingenious minimum, given the expanse of the field.
But now look at the hatching—the tonal coverage. It comes in at least seven varieties: (1) parallel verticals on the steps and on the pediment and entablature of the temple; (2) parallel horizontals in the sky to offset the clouds, and on the building at left, where the horizontals revert to verticals at the cornice; (3) diagonals of various tilts at far right; (4) curved parallels for columns and arms; (5) cross-hatching for deepening tone; (6) flicks and dots for texture, supplementary tone, transition to light, and to relieve monotony; (7) quadrant curves at both ends of the third step.
Over large surfaces, one kind of hatching can get very tiresome—tedious to do, boring to look at. Hence perhaps the quadrant curves at the ends, changing concave to convex. Such an arbitrary change in the treatment of hatching—like a spider’s web, or like tree rings in a cross-section—recurs in some prints of the next 100 years, though it imitates nothing actually seen; it does not serve what David Rosand calls “the mimetic responsibilities of the stroke.”16
Outlying parts of this print (which I do admire—it used to hang on my bedroom wall) display disagreeable messiness, as in the shin of the crouching figure at extreme right, or the deep folds just above. There’s some marginal sloppiness which, Marcantonio hoped, no one would notice. And I see a few other gaffes, such as the central intercolumniation of the temple portico, which is too wide and out of alignment with the pediment’s apex; or the base of the leftmost column or, to the left of it, that patch of pure cheating. Here, perhaps, one should blame the drawing he worked from, executed by a young draftsman in Raphael’s shop.17 But that drawing transmitted Raphael’s design, and it’s masterly. Up from lower left, an ascending diagonal launched like a rocket, boosted by pointing arms—and the reentry looping about the column at right. Complex and lucid—the kind of design that taught Western artists for 400 years how to compose.
Now compare this engraving with a chiaroscuro woodcut attributed to Georg Mattheus, born in Lyons, ca. 1520, died at Augsburg in 1572 (Fig. 41). It was probably made half a century after the Marcantonio engraving, which it copies, reducing the original halftones and graduated transitions to a stark contrast of black and ochre, plus a sprinkling of reserved whites that add sparkle, but little of substance. Mattheus practices a radical economy. He eliminates all intermediate values, printing from a black-inked line block and an ochre tone block, so that the sky matches the stone steps in the foreground.
These economies derive not only from the sparse means employed. They are a mode of visual thinking—as, for instance, in the deliberate alignment at upper left of an architectural cornice with clouds. Mattheus’s somewhat miserly manner participates in a general stylistic impulse to clean up after earlier Italian engravers—to weed out irregularities produced by tangled crisscrossing and abrupt directional changes, like alleys in medieval towns before city planning. As Auden says of an old town with its wayward streets: “Its formula escapes you; it has lost / The certainty that constitutes a thing.”18
But Marcantonio and his colleagues were facing a real problem. With nothing but thin, distinct lines to work with, the task of marshaling these into broad sweeps to convey shaded planes, texture, recession, could be a defeating perplexity. And it is the colossal achievement of late 16th-century printmakers—Francesco Villamena, Cornelius Cort, Agostino Carracci, Jacques Callot, Hendrik Goltzius—to have established pervasive, orderly systems equal to any representational challenge.
Rereading Rosand on Titian’s painterly brushwork while thinking of these matters, I noticed how often his descriptive phrases could apply to prints, such as Schiavone’s woodcut of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine (Fig. 42). In a late Titian of 1562, Rosand distinguishes “the mimetic responsibility of the stroke” from our perception of the stroke itself. He speaks of our “participation in the painter’s procedure”: we are “invited not to stand back and squint until a focused illusion is obtained, but rather to approach, to respond to the tactile appeal of articulated stroke and surface.” Everything, he writes, “encourages close scrutiny.” Finally, of Titian’s last painting: “Titian seems to have transcended the acceptable mimetic limits of his own art. . . . No longer does brushstroke correlate so exactly with the form and substance of nature. Rather, it establishes its own order. . . . It insists . . . on the vitality of its own structure.”19
Later Italian printmakers, those of the 17th century, move on to other concerns, which keep their hands full. It’s the Dutch, such as Goltzius, who plow the field of the copperplate with a disciplined virtuosity previously unimagined (Fig. 43).
Goltzius was a superb draftsman in the conventional mode. In his prints, he created a system of perceptible regularity and of such fascination that he even made drawings in imitation of his engraving technique.20 Later print lovers, enamored of Rembrandt, were repelled by the predictable regularity of this technique. That’s why, in the early ’60s, I was able to buy Goltzius prints for very little. For the Farnese Hercules, which I found in the basement of Kennedy Galleries, I paid six dollars. But if Goltzius’s webwork looked soulless as late as the 1960s, it now looks ideally efficient, even poetic, like deftly rhymed verse that stays in its meter.
The 17th-century French outdid even the Dutch Mannerists. Claude Mellan is best known for his Sainte Face (Fig. 44 and detail), in which a single unbroken spiral, starting at the tip of the nose, engenders all we see. One of my favorite Mellans is his portrait of Jean de Saint-Bonnet, Marquis de Toiras (Fig. 45 and detail), where the artist’s self-consciousness about the means used—the transformational play of horizontal striation—is given to the viewer to share. Saul Steinberg, three centuries later, is Mellan’s soulmate (Fig. 46).
And I haven’t yet mentioned Robert Nanteuil, who looks great to me, because I have learned to forget the degeneration of his method in routinely engraved postage stamps (Fig. 47 and detail). This kind of pervasive mesh or screen eventually fell into disrepute. One of the best-known print scholars of the earlier 20th century, William Ivins, called it the “tyranny of the syntax.” But where these various systematizations appear in their original freshness—as they do in Goltzius, Mellan, or Nanteuil—I loved the effect and grew convinced that artists did too. Even the young William Blake, earning his meager living as an engraver, may have liked what he saw himself doing (Fig. 48 and detail).
Discussing these matters on the phone some years ago, Jonathan Bober said he saw artists such as Jean Morin experiencing, as he put it, “the pleasure of participating in an ideal system, which Romanticism banished, and which left us with the notion that the expression of idiosyncrasy is the highest form of expression, or even the only true expression” (Fig. 49 and detail). Obviously, the old disdain of such work as soulless, as mechanical, cannot survive in the age of Agnes Martin and Chuck Close, or, for that matter, Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben-day dots—all forerunners of the pixels that produce digitized imagery.
In fact, our opposition of digital-analogue seems to me anticipated by such artists as Villamena, Goltzius, Morin, and Nanteuil. In their work, whatever is seen as linear—such as contours or hair—is rendered as analogue; everything else—planes, tonal gradations and atmosphere—is rendered as if digitally. And that’s another thing I like about Old Master prints: the concentration of thought, skill and invention that keeps renewing their relevance.
If there’s one more thing about prints that should not go unmentioned today, it’s that openness to their appeal brings you good friends. But acquaintance with prints can also make you enemies. I once invented a word for the practice of arousing hostility—a fancy word, which I hid inconspicuously in a footnote. It was made up from two Greek roots. I have no Greek, but I looked up the Greek for enemy—echthros—and came up with “echthrogeny”: an indispensable term for the gentle art of making of enemies. Too much familiarity with prints can make you positively echthrogenous. For instance, the literature on Caravaggio often repeats that around 1600 the artist invented the close-up, half-length grouping, which allowed him to focus on psychological interaction—card players at table, or a gypsy woman reading the hand of a young fop (Fig. 50). This may seem innovative to painting specialists, but hardly to people who’ve been looking at prints such as the Old Man and Woman by the Master BXG (Fig. 51), of which there are dozens. And Caravaggio scholars will not necessarily love you for pointing this out.
Or take this example: some 40 years ago there appeared a bulky new monograph on Velázquez. Its author gave the artist’s marvelous portrait of the court jester Calabazas in the Prado an improbably early date in the 1630s because, he wrote, “It could hardly have been painted after 1639 when [Calabazas] died.” Is that convincing? I thought the picture must have been painted much later in the artist’s career. Reviewing the book in 1965, I pointed out that posthumous portraiture in the 16th and 17th centuries was part of the normal practice of any professional portraitist, from Titian down.21 A major occasion—sometimes the only occasion—for the making of a portrait was the death of the subject. So then, a sitter’s demise does not establish an antecedent date for his or her portrait. This is borne out by thousands of portrait prints inscribed with the subject’s birth and death dates, including Rembrandt’s etching of the Mennonite preacher Jan Cornelisz. Sylvius, whom the artist had known well (Fig. 52). The inscription tells us that Sylvius (his wife’s older cousin and guardian) died in 1638, but Rembrandt’s portrait is dated eight years later. Portraits were made the way we publish obituaries—to commemorate—and they could be made years after the sitter’s death.
The author I was reviewing didn’t like that. Clutching a document that recorded the death of this Calabazas in 1639, he resented interference from a wise guy with his batch of irrelevant prints. He should have remembered that Velázquez’s great painting of The Surrender of Breda portrays the victorious Spanish commander—the Marquis of Spinola, whom Velázquez had known—four years after Spinola’s death in 1630.
Long ago, I found another merit in prints, specifically in reproductive engravings: their function as tacit art criticism. I’ll cite one example: Leonardo completed his Last Supper mural in 1498. Within two years there appeared an engraving of the composition—the first time that a contemporary modern work had its design published and broadcast far and wide (Raphael was then just 17, and not yet on the scene) (Fig. 53).
The engraving is naive, simplistic, somewhat amateurish. But it’s impressive, surprisingly large—and exceedingly rare. Only three impressions of it are known. (When one turned up at a European dealer’s some ten years ago, Jonathan Bober went after it, but the asking price of $70,000 was a bit steep. Fortunately, the dealer’s firm was soon gobbled up by a larger conglomerate and the new managers wanted a quicker turnover and no unsold inventory, so Suzanne Boorsch, then of the Metropolitan Museum, was able to negotiate a purchase at half the price.)
Judged as a copy, the engraving is wildly inaccurate. But the artist had looked at the original mural and he must have admired it, which makes his departures from the original the more telling. Above all—or rather, below—he added a spaniel, hence the name by which this engraving is known: The Last Supper with a Spaniel. The print had a good circulation. Later engravers copied it—changing the setting but preserving the dog. The same in sculptured reliefs. And so down even to Rembrandt in 1635; he too includes the spaniel because he knew Leonardo’s composition only from that old print.22
Now I ask: why was the spaniel put in? Well, since Christ at this table is not only announcing his imminent betrayal and Passion, but instituting the sacrament of Communion, the spaniel may have been entered in allusion to Matthew 7:6—“give not that which is holy unto the dogs”; which might refer to the unworthy reception of the Eucharist. But whether it was meant to have iconographical significance (which I doubt), the dog surely serves as a discreet repoussoir, i.e., a foreground item designed to push back, to remove the main scene from the threshold; in the present case, to distance the table somewhat by putting something in front.
Evidently, Leonardo’s placement of the table so close to the picture plane seemed disturbing: a huge empty hall on which the diners have turned their backs, from which they are nearly ejected. Diners and dining room in mutual repulsion. It makes no sense! Hence the felt need to deepen the space between threshold and table apparent in dozens of later copies. They all want the table to reside in its own space, hosting a dramatic action.
But is this what Leonardo intended? What is the meaning of the table’s placement at stage apron? Its placement in the original converts it from a table inside a room into a mensa placed like an altar. For this plain dining table is at this moment being transfigured into the first Christian altar. This is the argument of my 2001 book, Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper: that the picture—the subject of it—is conceived in deep ambiguity. Across the picture plane, it represents a historic event involving the 12 apostles; from the picture out, it stages an enduring rite out of time.
During the past 500 years, there have always been a few who saw the Last Supper in its ritual address. The majority saw it—as they still do—as a narrative. And the craving to keep the work rational, intelligible, confined to a single meaning, is given its first critical expression in that earliest print of 1500, where the engraver adds a cartello to explain the work’s single meaning—“one of you betrays me”—and a small foreground dog to domesticate the dinner table. This is a vital form of art criticism, before the writers got down to it. And it flourished in the world of reproductive prints, evident even in the most successful reproductive engraving ever made—Raphael Morghen’s rendering of the Last Supper, published in 1800 (Fig. 54).
And this brings me to the last point I’d like to make—a quarrel I have with the famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” written by Walter Benjamin in 1936, available in English since about 1970, and ever since continually cited and assigned as required reading. What concerned Benjamin was the effect of modern art reproductions on the way we consume visual art. Of course, he was aware of preindustrial multiplication techniques, from 15th-century woodcuts through engravings to lithography; but he regarded the photographic reproduction of works of art as a decisive break with the past. This allowed him to contrast the mechanically produced photograph with the uniqueness—the “aura,” he called it—of the original.
It seems to me that Benjamin’s lament for the loss of aura ignores too much of our actual relation to images. People who, from the late-19th century onward, welcomed photographs of Old Master paintings were not substituting these photographs for original paintings, but for the engraved copies and chromolithographs that had previously represented them. And not everyone welcomed the change. Just as some people today prefer their old vinyl records to digital recordings, so some people around 1900 still preferred engraved reproductions of paintings like Morghen’s to photographs. They thought the engravings, being handmade, had more “aura.”
One such person was Marcel Proust’s grandmother, taking charge of the decoration of his bedroom when he was a child. She disliked the mechanical nature of camera reproduction. To ensure the elevation of the boy’s blossoming spirit, she wanted his room hung with old engravings. Proust is affectionately condescending about his grandmother’s preference, but his mature writings include three mentions of Morghen’s Last Supper, which represented Leonardo’s masterwork in people’s minds for over 100 years. More than 40 copies of it were engraved, some half a dozen in the United States. And people were right to applaud.
In terms of accuracy and detail, reproductive prints from the early 1800s are an astounding advance on those that came before. Goethe happily acquired an impression of Morghen’s Last Supper, and in 1817—writing what is still the most important essay on a single painting ever produced by a great author—he introduced his subject as follows: “May our readers place before them Morghen’s engraving, which suffices to instruct us about the whole and its particulars.”23
Goethe takes it for granted that any decently furnished home has its own impression of Morghen’s engraving. In 1835, in an English edition of Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting, we are told: “Any description of [the Last Supper] would be superfluous after the beautiful engraving made from it by the Chevalier Raphael Morghen.”24
Black-and-white photography after 1860 was simply the next step, to be followed in the 20th century by the introduction of color. Benjamin posits a dramatic break—a loss of aura from original works of art, due to their photographic reproductions. But that contrast reflects no actual psychological experience, because the aura Benjamin imputes to originals is not a quality they simply possess. It is what tradition or individual sensibility brings to these works. And there is plenty of evidence (from my personal experience and from that of millions of others) that people can invest even photographic reproductions with aura. Furthermore, Benjamin’s essay, moving on to photo-journalism and popular movies, compares these to the high art of the past. This seems unfair: today’s films and TV should be compared not to altarpieces and frescoes but to the popular arts of the past—broadsheets, illustrations, posters, cheap prints, “penny plain, tuppence colored.” But that is another story.
One final caution about Benjamin’s essay: it focuses on works of art as peculiarly victimized by technology and modernity. Yet most normal human activities, such as eating or killing, have lost some of the aura they formerly had. As regards eating, there used to be a touch of the sacramental about meals. They were usually taken in common with others and attended by grace; there was little snacking in between times. No snatching of candy bars from a vending machine, or munching on popcorn at the movies. Modern eating habits like fast food meals tend to substitute ketchup for aura. And as for killing, it was formerly a one-to-one, hands-on affair. Modern technology converts bloodshed to statistics. Whether by suicide bomber or from the air, modern killing may be described as bereft of some original aura, just as mechanical reproduction is said by Benjamin to alter the aesthetic experience of art.
Yet all such acts—eating, warfare, or the consumption of art by way of a multiple print— can reactivate an original shudder, depending on how they are received, whether as reproductions of an earlier work or newly invented. Whenever I commune with Rembrandt’s little etching of The Raising of Lazarus (Fig. 55)—watching the corpse heave its weight out of its coffin at the bidding of Christ—I’m joining eight witnesses to a miracle, undisturbed by the thought that this scrap of paper had once hugged an inked copperplate under pressure, along with perhaps 50 others. And if Picasso’s Blind Minotaur mezzotint (one of 300 impressions) (Fig. 56) got overlooked as I dashed down the hallway to the bathroom, I knew it to be safely asleep, and that stopping again to look at it would wake it up.
So, when you look at prints, please remember that the aura whose loss Walter Benjamin feared is yours to restore.
- The gift to the Blanton was arranged through Jonathan Bober, then curator of prints and drawings at the museum, now senior curator of prints and drawings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Art in Print is deeply grateful to Sheila Schwartz, Steinberg’s longtime assistant, for making this text available for publication and for her advice and patient input.
- Deborah Solomon, “He Captured the Soul of Silence,” New York Times, 4 March 2001.
- See also Steinberg, “Remarks on Certain Prints Relative to a Leningrad Rubens on the Occasion of the First Visit of the Original to the United States.” Print Collector’s Newsletter 6 (September–October 1975), 97–102.
- Monogrammist WF, Swann Galleries, sale 1923, 31 January 2002, lot 239; http://catalogue.swanngalleries.com/asp/fullCatalogue.asp?salelot=1923+++++239+&refno=++502805&saletype.
- See, for example, the canvas by the Maître de la Chandelle, formerly attributed to Trophime Bigot, in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux, inv. Bx 1966.7.1.
- “Una ventana por donde se ve el Santo en el campo, atado a un árbol, donde le stán asaeteando.” Francisco Pacheco, Arte de la Pintura (1638; published 1649); ed. F.J. Sanchez Cantón (Madrid: Instituto de Valencia de Don Juan, 1956), II, 328.
- Weinmüller, Munich, auction, 6 December 1961, lot 894, dated to 1552—the year of Van Aachen’s birth!
- Leo Steinberg, “The Glorious Company,” in Jean Lipman and Richard Marshall, Art about Art (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1978), 30n14.
- Between 1980 and 1996, Leo Steinberg gave 272 prints to the New York Public Library print collection, then overseen by curator Roberta Waddell. In a 2006 email exchange with Victoria Sancho Lobis she noted: “He reminded me that he has always been interested in prints as works of art which were used—not mounted in albums or framed on the wall—but used, particularly by artists in their studios. Professor Steinberg didn’t seek out the exquisite, very saleable impression, but had a particular interest in prints that had ‘lived a full life.’”—Ed.
- A painting purporting to be the one described by Vasari is now at the Kimbell Art Museum and generally attributed to Michelangelo. It received much attention after this lecture was delivered, but Steinberg was not convinced that it was by the hand of the teenage Michelangelo.—Ed.
- See the essay “Other Criteria” in Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972).
- Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 72.
- Private collection, reprod. in James Rondeau and Douglas Druick, Jasper Johns: Gray (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2007).
- Morgan Library & Museum, Ms. M. 399, online at http://www.themorgan.org/collection/da-costa-hours/thumbs.
- See http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/%20objects/%203878/master-of-james-iv-of-scotland-the-feast-of-dives-flemish-1510-to-1520/
- David Rosand, The Meaning of the Mark: Leonardo and Titian, Franklin D. Murphy Lectures, 8 (Lawrence, KS: Spencer Museum of Art, 1988), 51.
- For the drawing, see Grazia Bernini Pezzini et al., Raphael Invenit: Stampe da Raffaello nelle collezioni di l’Instituto nazionale per la grafica (Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 1985), 221–22, no. 11, 1; and Innis H. Shoemaker and Elizabeth Broun, The Engravings of Marcantonio Raimondi (Lawrence, KS: Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art, 1981), no. 56 and Fig. 37. The drawing, in the Devonshire Collection at Chatsworth, is attributed to Giulio Romano.
- W.H. Auden, “Brussels in Winter,” 1938.
- Rosand, Meaning of the Mark, 82, 87.
- See, for example, Goltzius’s portrait of Gillis van Breen in the Teylers Museum, Haarlem, reprod. in E.K.J. Reznicek, Die Zeichnungen von Hendrick Goltzius (Utrecht: Haentjens Dekker & Gumbert, 1961), pl. 131.
- Leo Steinberg, review of Velázquez: A Catalogue Raisonné of His Oeuvre, by José López-Rey, Art Bulletin 47 (June 1965), 287.
- For copies of the Last Supper, engraved, drawing, painted, and sculpted, see Leo Steinberg, Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001), Appendix E, 227–271.
- Ibid., 270.
- A Treatise on Painting by Leonardo da Vinci, tr. John Francis Rigaud, with a life of Leonardo and an account of his works by John William Brown (London: George Bell and Sons, 1877), xxxviii.