Frick printmaking show turns clock back centuries
In 1620, while living in Italy, French artist Jacques Callot made this print of a scene from Act I of a play called "Suleiman the Magnificent."
Detail from "Hotel Cluny," Paris, by Thomas Shotter Boys. Jacques Callot made this etching of Saint Livarius around 1624.
Jacques Callot made this etching of Saint Livarius around 1624. In the background is a scene of the saint's beheading, attended by an army of Huns.
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In choosing subjects, French printmaker Jacques Callot clearly liked variety.
With a cool, detached eye, he captured saints, sumptuous European courts of the 17th century and beggars. With a fluid, steady hand, he portrayed martyrs who literally lost their heads, plays staged for the Italian Medici court and a series of etchings that showed, in gory detail, how war robs soldiers and civilians of their humanity.
As a child, Callot saw plenty of colorful, graphic imagery, including coats of arms made for Duke Charles III of Lorraine. "His father was the herald to the duke," said Sarah Hall, director of curatorial affairs at The Frick Pittsburgh in Point Breeze.
On Saturday, the museum opens "Three Centuries of Printmaking," which showcases Callot's innovative techniques for making etchings. In addition, there are 18th-century British mezzotints of notable society matrons and colorful scenes of European architecture by Thomas Shotter Boys.
"Prints were, from the beginning, a way for the middle class to buy and own images," Ms. Hall said.
By trying new techniques for producing etchings, Callot made his mark as an innovator and came to own a share of the image market during his short but wildly productive life of 43 years. One of nine children, he had five siblings who entered the religious life. He was apprenticed to a goldsmith at age 14 but ran away. In 1608, when he was 16, his family agreed to support his move to Rome, where Antonio Tempesta taught him engraving.
By 1611, Callot had moved to Florence, where he learned to etch. There, he created an echoppe, an etching needle with an oval-shaped point that allowed him to draw a tapered, fluid line. Before making prints, he coated the metal plates with lute maker's varnish; this innovation allowed him to make multiple prints. He also repeatedly bathed the plates in acid to achieve variations in tone and shade.
Callot's portrayal of sacred subjects aided the Counter Reformation, a 17th-century movement within the Roman Catholic church to draw people back to the faith. Between 1631-34, he produced 600 religious prints. Such images, Ms. Hall said, had a clear purpose and amounted to propaganda.
"They want you to empathize with the martyrs. They want you to feel the suffering of Jesus Christ," she said.
Among the 30 Callot prints is a memorable image of St. Livarius, who holds his head in his hands. "The face looks happy, even though it's no longer attached," Ms. Hall said.
The Thirty Years War raged for much of Callot's lifetime and inspired him to chronicle the brutality of conflict for soldiers and civilians. A series of 18 prints, "The Large Miseries of War," appeared in 1633, two years before he died. Callot's vivid depiction of human cruelty inspired Goya to create "Disasters of War" nearly 200 years later.
To really appreciate the intricate details of Callot's work, you need to use a magnifying glass, and the gallery will have plenty on hand. After all that careful, Sherlockian study, it's refreshing to move to the second gallery, which holds 13 mezzotints, a method prized because it imitates the tonal properties of painting. Often artists made mezzotints to copy portraits by other artists, especially Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Portraiture has long been a British specialty. Mezzotints, a 17th-century innovation, require copper plates and an instrument called a burin. Artists such as Valentine Green understood the print market. One of his series, "Beauties of the Present Age," was published in 1780 and is on display. (Today, we'd call it "The Insatiable Babes of Britain.")
The second gallery offers a look at who was who during the 18th century, including Viscountess Townshend, whose ermine fur indicates her rank. Also here are Lady Elizabeth Cavendish and Emma Hart, who married Sir William Hamilton, then became the mistress of British naval hero Lord Horatio Nelson.
The last gallery features 29 chromolithographs by Thomas Shotter Boys. An accomplished watercolorist, Boys had experience illustrating travel books. He used this project as a way to demonstrate the capability of lithography to replicate the subtle washes, colors and shading of his watercolors. This is the first time in more than 20 years that all of these chromolithographs have been exhibited altogether, and they are considered Boys' best work, Ms. Hall said.
First Published June 13, 2012 12:00 am