Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The Printed Image in the West: History and Techniques

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  • In an environment permeated by almost infinitely multiplied images—in newspapers and magazines, on billboards and computer screens—it is hard to imagine a world in which every image was unique. Yet prior to the fifteenth century, images were not only one-of-a-kind but rare, generally found locked away in palaces, to which few had access, or affixed to the wall of a church. The technology of printmaking, which first fell into place around 1400, suddenly made it possible for hundreds or even thousands of essentially identical images to be produced from a single matrix of carved wood or metal. When this invention was followed in the mid-fifteenth century by the introduction of movable type, so that the first printed books could be produced, the possibilities for the spread of knowledge and ideas expanded in an unprecedented manner. The study of science was advanced through accurate transmission of the forms of medicinal herbs and the results of anatomical investigations (38.52; 28.52.2); the art of engineering took a great leap forward as detailed diagrams of newly invented machines were duplicated and dispersed throughout Europe, accompanied by instructions. Yet for all the far-reaching results of the capacity to multiply images, the initial demand driving the early print market was the desire for playing cards and inexpensive devotional images. Prints provided a means of mass-producing these objects that brought them within the reach of even the poorest members of society.


    Prior to the fifteenth century, images were not one-of-a-kind but rare, generally found locked away in palaces, to which few had access, or affixed to the wall of a church.

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    By the early sixteenth century, the potential of the print medium was being fully exploited and had a decisive impact on the history of art. Prints replaced drawn medieval model books as an inexhaustible source of motifs—figures in every position (17.50.99; 19.74.1), architectural models (41.100.126.19), ornamental designs (29.16.1; of 49.95.41)—that could be incorporated into other works of art. The Renaissance revival of classical antiquity was fueled by prints that spread knowledge of ancient Roman buildings and sculpture (49.97.114) throughout Europe. Prints provided a new outlet for artists to explore their own interests, whether in classical antiquity (1986.1159; 41.71.1.7.20; 1996.328.2), tales of magic and witchcraft (41.1.201), landscape (1993.1097), everyday life (26.72.156; 1979.525.1; 16.2.5), or fantastic visions (35.42; 20.30.6). Woodcuts, engravings, and etchings also publicized the inventions of painters (49.97.537), spread knowledge of new styles (32.105), and facilitated stylistic comparisons.


    While many of the techniques necessary to produce prints were known before the fifteenth century, it was the widespread availability of paper that made printmaking feasible. The first paper mills in Germany and Italy opened by the 1390s, around the same time that the first woodcuts were produced. By the middle of the fifteenth century, prints were also being produced using the intaglio (cut or incised) technique.


    In the intaglio process, the lines cut into a metal plate are filled with ink, the surface of the plate is wiped clean, and dampened paper is pressed against the plate with such pressure that it is forced into the grooves and picks up the ink. Although some early intaglio prints appear to have been produced by rubbing the paper against the plate, perhaps with a metal spoon, in most cases the pressure required to force the paper into the finely cut lines entailed the use of a special press equipped with rollers (49.95.870[10]). Three intaglio processes were in use during the Renaissance: drypoint, engraving, and etching, but engraving was by far the most popular. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, etching became the preferred medium of painters and of innovative printmakers such as Rembrandt, Stefano della Bella (59.570.379.3), and Piranesi, while engraving came to be used primarily for reproducing paintings and sculpture (28.22.36), and for book illustration (67.828).


    As printmakers searched for new ways to introduce shades of gray into the typically black and white print, new techniques were developed. Mezzotint, invented in the seventeenth century, became especially popular in the eighteenth, a period of great experimentation. Many new techniques evolved in the eighteenth century to enable prints to mimic the appearance of drawings. Aquatint, which approximated the appearance of wash drawings, was the most popular. Printmaking in the nineteenth century was characterized by an even greater variety of media. Many artists found ways to introduce color into their prints and experimented with combined techniques (21.46.1), while an entirely new method of printing, lithography, allowed artists the most direct means of creating multiple images from drawing (20.17.2).

    Wendy Thompson
    Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art