The Early Modern Painter-Etcher
September 1 - October 29, 2006

The Early Modern Painter-Etcher features prints by Durer, Bruegel, Rubens, Rembrandt, Boucher, Goya, and a host of other master painters.  The exhibition surveys etchings from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries by more than sixty European artists who took up the challenge of making works on paper.  It highlights “experimental” sheets, which, in some cases, feature the single printed work an artist made. 

For roughly half a century after its introduction in Europe, printmaking remained the province of a specially trained group of professionals, artists who either worked primarily in that medium or practiced printmaking while pursuing careers as metal smiths. What changed this situation was the invention, in the early sixteenth century, of etching. With etching, artists no longer had to master the difficult task of directly working a woodblock or metal plate. As etching allows an artist’s print design to be drawn into a softer ground with a needle, and then eaten into the plate with acid, virtually any competent draftsman could try his hand at it. Painters were particularly drawn to the possibility; as a result, we now have a wide-ranging corpus of major Renaissance and Baroque graphics made by artists who, though famous in other fields, were novices in the medium they were employing.

For many of the painters who tried etching, the medium offered a field for experimentation. The works included in this exhibition often feature techniques and subject matter that set them apart from the prints made contemporaneously by professionals. In many instances, the artists who produced the prints on display gave up etching after only a short period of interest.

The exhibition intentionally avoids focus on the stylistic development of individual masters and on the hallmarks of particular regions, aiming rather to invite consideration of the non-professional etcher across periods and in an international context. Because prints were easy to transport, painters often knew what their counterparts in different regions were doing on paper much better than what they were doing on panel or canvas. The partly technological impulses behind various painters' decisions to experiment with etching, moreover, were similar in different times and places and defy the limited geographical and chronological borders assigned by the study of painting. The exhibition illustrates the surprisingly broad range of painters who etched and surveyed the tradition between the period around 1500 when the technique was invented and the moment three centuries later when lithography took over many of its traditional roles.

The Early Modern Painter-Etcher was co-curated by Michael Cole, Associate Professor and Graduate Chair in the Department of the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania, and Madeleine Viljoen, Director of the La Salle University Art Museum.  The etchings on display are on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Gallery of Art, The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Princeton University Art Museum, the Arthur Ross Foundation, the Smith College Museum of Art and other major public and private collections. There is a fully illustrated hard-cover catalogue available at the SCMA Shop.

The Early Modern Painter-Etcher was organized and circulated by the Arthur Ross Gallery of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.  Presentation of this exhibition at the Smith College Museum of Art has been made possible with support from the Louise Walker Blaney 1939 Fund for Exhibitions.

>> read New York Times review of September 8