Oud Holland

Review of: 'The Renaissance of etching' (2019)

August 2020

Review of: Catherine Jenkins, Nadine M. Orenstein and Freyda Spira, The Renaissance of etching, New Haven/London [Yale University Press] 2019

A printed battle scene by the Augsburg printmaker and armour etcher Daniel Hopfer, depicting the overwhelming defeat of the troops of Louis XI by the army of Archduke Maximilian on the plains of Thérouanne (fig. 1), was discovered only a decade ago in a Hopfer-family album at the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna. It is an extraordinary discovery, for the many characteristics of the late Gothic style, its details inspired by Israhel van Meckenem’s engraving of Judith with the head of Holofernes and the fact that Hopfer signed this etching with his full name (otherwise he always signed his prints with a monogram) – thus making it possible to date The battle of Thérouannea round or shortly after, 1493. This exceptionally early date makes this particular print the very first known etching in existence, and Daniel Hopfer the first artist to use an etched metal plate to create a printed image on paper. Just over a decade later, the etching technique was adopted by other artists and spread across Europe, after which it manifested itself as one of the most versatile and enduring forms of printmaking – and was employed by many master printmakers in subsequent centuries, such as Rembrandt and Goya.

The beautifully illustrated catalogue The Renaissance of etching, which is a cooperation between independent scholar Catherine Jenkins and curators from both the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Albertina Museum in Vienna – forms an elegant homage to the earliest etchers, outlining the first 60 years of this new printing medium. It accompanied the eponymous exhibition that took place at the Metropolitan Museum from 23 October 2019-20 January 2020, and at the Albertina Museum from 12 February-1 November 2020.Over a hundred of the most beautiful early etchings were on display, together with drawings, illustrated books and original printing plates.

Left: Cover of The renaissance of etching
Middle: fig.1 Daniel Hopfer, The battle at Thérouanne, 1493, etching, 23 x 21.1 cm, Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe.
Right: Albrecht Altdorfer, The small spruce, ca. 1520-1522, etching, hand-coloured, 15.9 x 11.7 cm, The Albertina Museum, Vienna, inv. DG1926-1778.

The catalogue expounds, in great detail, as to how etching – originally a technique used to decorate metal objects, such as armour – began to be employed for printmaking in the age of Dürer, and swiftly caught on across the continent. This is a decisive moment in art history, because printmaking no longer required great skill and training. Everyone capable of picking up an etching needle and drawing a line on a coated metal plate (with beeswax, oil varnish, or oil paint) could now call himself a printmaker. Some of the new medium’s pioneers were already respected printmakers: such as Albrecht Dürer, Parmigianino and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. But new players from different backgrounds entered the arena of printmaking as well, such as the aforementioned armour etcher Daniel Hopfer, and glass painter Augustin Hirschvogel. Some artists, including Dürer, but also Jan Gossart (Mabuse) and Lucas van Leyden, briefly tried their hand at the novice medium, only to return to their true love: engraving. Others, like Parmigianino and Etienne Dupérac, were gripped by the expressive freedom of the etching technique and used it to its full potential, producing numerous new works.

After a technical but clear description of the etching technique by Nadine M. Orenstein and Ad Stijnman, the catalogue continues with seven chronologically and geographically organised essays by renowned print specialists. Alongside the already mentioned contributors, the catalogue also features essays by Christof Metzger and Freyda Spira on early etchers in Germany. Each essay concludes with catalogue entries pertaining to the essay’s covered time period and geographic region. For these entries a number of print experts were asked to contribute, including Peter Fuhring, Donald J. La Rocca, Anne Varick Lauder, Femke Speelberg, Pierre Terjanian and Julia Zaunbauer. By discussing and visualising the synchronous developments in printing centers in Germany (Augsburg, Nuremberg, Regensburg), the Netherlands (Leiden, Antwerp, Haarlem, Mechelen), Italy (Bologna and the Veneto), France (Paris and Fontainebleau) and Austria (Vienna); together, these essays and entries tell the story of how etching caused a revolution in the sixteenth-century world of printmaking throughout Europe. Not only did the medium attract a new, diverse crowd of printmakers; due to its relative ease and sketch-like freedom, it also opened the door to new styles and subjects. Such as, the autonomous landscapes by Albrecht Altdorfer or the ornamental and architectural designs of Jacques Androuet du Cerceau – which would continue to inspire many generations of printmakers.

A number of the essays are based on earlier research by the authors. ‘Bitten with Spirit’, the introductory essay for which Orenstein joined forces with Stijnman, for example, built on Stijnman’s previous research for his magnum opus: Engraving and etching 1400-2000. A history of the development of manual intaglio printmaking processes (2012). Similarly, for his essay on German iron etchings, Christof Metzger could pull from his body of research for the Daniel Hopfer exhibition in 2009, at the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich.2 Orenstein reworked her earlier essay on ‘Gossart and printmaking’ from the 2010 Metropolitan exhibition catalogue, for the first half of her essay on the first etchers in the Netherlands.3 And, ‘Etching in Renaissance France’ was a topic Catherine Jenkins had already tackled for her groundbreaking publication: Prints at the court of Fontainebleau, ca. 1542-47 (2017).

Nevertheless, it is extremely worthwhile to have all this information combined with new insights in a single, new publication devoted to the emergence of etching. It is in fact where the true power of this catalogue lies. Together, the essays provide an eye-opening parallel investigation into the origin, development and spread of the new medium across Europe. Jointly they generate a broad, pan-European context for the earliest of etchings, in a way that would never happen with individual, specialised publications. When reading the catalogue from start to finish, one realises that artists from different schools actually experimented with etching, when others had already fully embraced the etching needle. While Lucas van Leyden and his Dutch contemporaries already produced their first etchings with copperplates in the 1520s, printmakers in Germany kept working on iron plates for a long period of time, even though iron is prone to rust, whereas copper is not. Collectively, the essays beautifully illustrate how, in a period of merely 60 years, etching transitioned from an experimental new technique, into a professionally deployable technology used in the workshops of printmakers and publishers.

As for the origin of etching in the Netherlands, the two essays by Nadine M. Orenstein combine the latest insights with some exciting new finds. In the first essay ‘Tentative beginnings: etching in the Netherlands from 1520 to 1550’ – by contrasting Gossart, Lucas van Leyden and Dirck Vellert, with Frans Crabbe, Nicolaas Hogenberg and Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen – Orenstein clearly illustrates the differences between those early etchers who quickly left the etching technique, and those who fully embraced it. The first group apparently struggled with the fact that etching did not offer options or innovations that were considerably different or better than the techniques and styles they already worked in. In Lucas’ case etching lacked, "a certain firmness and exactness that he achieved by adding degrees of engraving."4 Vellert was already able to produce engravings with a, "loose and sketch-like" style.5 In fact, Orenstein even reveals how a number of prints by Dirck Vellert, which have always been described in the past as a mix of etching and engraving, were in fact entirely engraved.The etchers from the second group – who all may or may not have worked for Margaret of Austria in Mechelen – produced dozens of etchings. They thus, "took advantage of the potential of working bigger with etching", and experimented with strokes and effects to distinguish forms and surfaces that could compete with engraving.7 With these first six etchers described together, it becomes apparent just how instrumental the former court city Mechelen was in the first phase of the expansion of etching in the Netherlands.

In the following decades – discussed in Orenstein’s final essay, ‘The professionalisation of etching: The Netherlands in the 1550s’ – the primary source of employment for etchers in the Netherlands shifted to Antwerp. Orenstein vividly describes, how the rapidly expanding market for prints began to see the potential of etching by the mid-1550s. Compared to engraving, producing an etching was easier and thus saved time and money; plus, etched plates were a good investment, for "at least a thousand good impressions could be pulled from a well-etched plate."Publishers like Hieronymus Cock and Bartholomeus de Momper invested in the etching technique at a time when the Antwerp print market was still dominated by woodcuts. They paid some of the most important Netherlandish artists of the day to produce designs, which skilled etchers such as Johannes and Lucas van Doetecum, Frans Hogenberg and Peter van der Borcht expertly transferred to copper plates. Within a decade, hundreds of etchings – depicting Roman ruins and Netherlandish peasant scenes, proverbs and landscapes – entered the marketplace and were beloved for their linework and sharpness, which resembled engraving. In addition to this category of professional etchings, publishers also saw the potential of 'more drawing-like etchings by painters’. Original etchings by painter-etchers Hans Bol, Bruegel and Frans Floris had a different market appeal than the etchings that reproduced their designs. It was the vision of these early-Antwerp publishers that ensured that the etching would not disappear from the scene, for some time. Well into the nineteenth century, we come across both types of etchers: the professional and the painter-etcher.

In the catalogue, only a small amount of attention has been devoted to the part of the buyer (read: collector) of these early single sheet etchings. Yet, as beautifully formulated by leading print expert Antony Griffiths (not a contributor to this catalogue) in his book The print before photography: "Without a group of purchasers, the entire production of prints would become superfluous."9 Buyers determined the viability of a product of artistry. In this particular case: the viability of a new technique, which was competing with the much beloved printing techniques of woodcutting and engraving. Only in the essays by Catherine Jenkins on the Italian etchers, has more thought been put in the buyer’s side. In Italy, etching enjoyed a certain popularity among art collectors, for it was, "tied to a growing appreciation for drawings."10 Jenkins lists a number of Italian "scholars, noblemen and amateurs from diverse social strata", who loved etchings for their direct reflection of an artist's genius and creativity, similar to a drawing in pen and ink.11 But what about early-German and Netherlandish etchings?

One is left to wonder who made sure the technique could thrive in the North. Since the majority of the prints that remain today have survived due to their safekeeping inside books and albums, the question is prompted: which early buyers made sure the first etchings produced in the North were kept safe? Unfortunately, there are no known names. We can only hypothesise and generalise about the first buyers who may have shown interest. It is to be expected that of the different categories of single sheet etchings, "the professional etching that is clean and precise, often reproduces the design of another artist, and evokes the rich and exacting lines of engraving; and the more freely sketched etching that was associated with the painter-etcher who creates original imagery,"12 attracted different types of buyers, and were acquired for different purposes. This includes, for example, artists who collected etchings as examples for use in their workshops, humanist scholars who gathered them out of passion and an eagerness to learn, along with wealthy bourgeoisie – who bought prints to decorate their homes, and fill their print albums.13

Both this catalogue and the exhibition were organised chronologically, as well as geographically. This proved to be a perfect set-up to successfully visualise a true revolution in printmaking. With its insightful essays and entries by an impressive and knowledgeable group of expert-contributors, covering the first six decades in which the etching technique made its way across the European continent, this publication hands researchers all the necessary tools for further research into the fascinating world of the early-etched print.

Joyce Zelen
Jacoba Lugt-Klever Research Fellow
RKD/Fondation Custodia


1 Due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, the second venue, the Albertina Museum, unfortunately, had to close its doors to the public on 11 March, just a month after the opening of the exhibition. They extended the exhibition until 1 November. I was fortunate enough to be able to see the exhibition in Vienna just before the unexpected closure.

2 C. Metzger et al., Daniel Hopfer: ein Augsburger Meister der Renaissance. Eisenradierungen, Holzschnitte, Zeichnungen, Waffenätzungen, Munich 2009.

3 M. W. Ainsworth ed., Man, myth, and sensual pleasures. Jan Gossart’s Renaissance, New York 2010.

4 N. M. Orenstein, ‘Tentative beginnings: Etching in the Netherlands from 1520 to 1550’, in: The Renaissance of etching, New Haven/London 2019, p. 67.

5 Orenstein 2019 (note 4), p. 69.

6 In the past this was wrongly described by Arthur E. Popham, and in the Hollstein series. F. W. H. Hollsteinetal., Dutch and Flemish etchings, engravings and woodcuts, ca.1450-1700, Amsterdam (1949-2000), vol. XXXIII, pp. 187-209.

7 Orenstein 2019 (note 4), p. 73.

8 N. M. Orenstein, ‘The professionalisation of etching: The Netherlands in the 1550s’, in: The Renaissance of etching, New Haven/London 2019, p. 241.

9 A. Griffiths, The print before photography. An introduction to European printmaking 1550-1820, London 2016, p. 363.

10 C. Jenkins, ‘Drawing on the plate: Parmigianino and early etching in Italy’, in: The Renaissance of etching, New Haven 2019, p. 129.

11 C. Jenkins 2019 (note 10), p. 134.

12 Orenstein 2019 (note 8), p. 241.

13 See for example, I. M. Veldman, Images for the eye and soul: function and meaning in Netherlandish prints (1450-1650), Leiden 2006, pp. 30-32.

Joyce Zelen, 'Review of: The Renaissance of etching', Oud Holland Reviews, August 2020.