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Techniques

Etching

Like mezzotint, etching is a form of intaglio printing. In intaglio techniques the image is incised into a metal plate with an etching needle or with acid. In an etching a waxy coating known as the ground is applied to the smooth printing plate, and the image is incised into this layer using special etching tools. The plate is then dipped into a mordant, an acid solution, which bites into the metal where the wax has been scratched away, leaving an incised line. The ground is then removed to reveal a plate with lines chemically etched into the surface. The artist inks the plate and wipes off any excess ink. The incised lines hold the ink, and the rest of the plate is smooth and clean. Escher experimented with the process as a student, but soon stopped using it. We know of only two etchings made by Escher.

M.C. Escher, Railway bridge across the Rhine at Oosterbeek, etching (first state), 1917
M.C. Escher, Mascotte, etching (second state), January 1917
Albrecht Dürer, Agony in the Garden, etching, 1515. Collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Parmigianino, The Lovers, etching, 1527-1530. Collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art

History

The first etchings were made in Germany around 1500. The technique came from the Medieval tradition of engraving metal objects. It is believed to have been invented by Daniel Hopfer (circa 1470-1536) of Augsburg, Germany. Hopfer was a craftsman who decorated armour and used the method for printmaking. The first etching is said to have been made in 1513, by a Swiss printmaker named Urs Graf (1485-1528), though there is some dispute over the precise year. The most famous artist of this period is Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), also a German, who made his first etchings around 1515. Others who followed his example included his compatriot Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538), the Italian Renaissance artist Parmigianino (1503-1540) and artists from the School of Fontainebleau (circa 1540, including Antonio Fantuzzi). The first artist to use the etching technique in the Netherlands was probably Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533). A hundred years later Rembrandt’s etchings demonstrated his incredible mastery of the technique.

Thereafter the technique fell somewhat into disuse, though it was still used by certain artists, including Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Francisco Goya and James McNeill Whistler. The printmaker Piranesi was renowned for his etchings. Goya also made countless etchings, often in combination with the aquatint technique. Etching experienced a revival between 1850 and 1930, when handicrafts and traditional skills became ‘hip’ again in response to industrialisation and the advance of modern technologies like photography. A lively collector’s market emerged, with work by the most sought-after artists commanding very high prices. Many big-name artists made etchings during this period, including Jean-Baptiste Corot, Paul Signac, Camille Pissarro and Odilon Redon. From 1930 to 1937 Pablo Picasso created a series of a hundred etchings for art dealer Ambroise Vollard. The Vollard Suite is regarded as a late highlight in the history of this technique.

Lucas van Leyden, Cain Killing Abel, etching, 1520. Collection: Rijksmuseum
Daniel Hopfer, Drei deutsche Soldaten bewaffnet mit Hellebarden, etching plate, 1510. Collection: National Gallery of Art, Washington
Antonio Fantuzzi, The Dispute Between Neptune and Athena, etching, 1540-1545. Collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Rembrandt, Self-portrait with Curly Hair and White Collar: Bust, etching, 1628-1630. Collection: Rijksmuseum
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, L'Astrologo e il Giovane Soldato, etching, ca. 1735-1740. Collection: The Royal Collection Trust
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Veduta della Piazza del Popolo, etching, ca. 1750. Collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Francisco Goya, Disparate – Los Ensacados, aquatint and etching, 1815-19. Collection: Museo Nacional del Prado
James McNeill Whistler, First Venice Set - Nocturne, etching, 1879–80. Collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art