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Aquatint

2. History

Source: Oxford University Press

(i) Experiments and prototypes, c. 1650–c. 1760

The first known resin-ground aquatints were made by Jan van de Velde IV (1610–86) in the Netherlands in the 1650s, at the same time as Ludwig von Siegen was developing another tonal intaglio process, the mezzotint. The process, however, did not catch on, and these isolated experiments seem to have had no successors until the aquatint was reinvented in France in the mid-18th century, stimulated by the search for better tonal printmaking processes in response to the demand for reproductions of drawings. Various processes then invented were grouped under the term manière de lavis and have since been mistaken for aquatint proper. In certain early examples it is impossible to discern whether an aquatint ground was used.

In the early 1720s reproductions of drawings were made using mezzotint and wooden tone blocks by Elisha Kirkall (1685–1742). These were followed by facsimiles that used etching and wooden tone blocks, most notably the first volume of the Cabinet Crozat (1729) by the Comte de Caylus, and the Imitations of Drawings (1732, 1736) by Arthur Pond and Charles Knapton (1700–60). Pond also invented the method called Crayon manner, which used a roulette through an etching ground to reproduce the effect of chalk drawings. But crayon manner became widely established only after it was re-invented by Jean-Charles François in 1757 in France, where it was more suited to the taste for chalk drawings among artists and collectors. Many 18th-century prints, including the celebrated colour prints of Jean-François Janinet and Philibert-Louis Debucourt (which were initially called manière de lavis and have also been called aquatints), are actually refinements of the crayon manner method. They were made using a vast array of special stippling tools and roulettes through an etching ground, or directly to the plate (as in mezzotint), to build up a patchwork of dots that imitated the manner of a wash.

Several artists, including Paul Sandby in England c. 1750 and François in France in 1758, experimented with the distinct but related tonal process of lavis (open-bite etching), which consisted of brushing pure acid directly on to the plate. This technique had been in limited use in the 17th century, for instance by Stefano della Bella, but in the 18th century attempts were made to make lavis more controllable. The method invented by the Nuremberg engraver Johann Adam Schweikart (1722–87) used an acidic paste that could be brushed on to the plate in a more controlled fashion than pure lavis, etching the plate in irregular patterns similar to those produced by etching through an aquatint ground. Schweikart’s technique was used from the late 1750s onwards by a school of engravers in Florence to make facsimiles of drawings, most notably in the Disegni originali d’eccellenti pittori esistenti nella R. Galleria di Firenze (Florence, c. 1766) of Andrea Scacciati (1725–71) and Stefano Mulinari (c. 1741–c. 1790).

(ii) Development, c. 1760–c. 1800

The first prints to be made in France with an actual aquatint ground were probably those made in 1761–2 by François-Philippe Charpentier (1734–1817) and his Swedish pupil Per Gustaf Floding. An examination of the prints suggests the application of a very fine aquatint ground to the whole plate and the subsequent use of stopping-out varnish to define the areas of shading. Floding returned to Sweden in 1764 and made no more prints in this manner. Charpentier continued to use the method between 1763 and 1766, including a large number of plates for the second edition of the Cabinet Crozat (1763), and then again in 1778–9. The next group of aquatints was made probably in 1766 by the Abbé de Saint-Non, who learnt it from somebody else (presumably Floding or Charpentier) and was sworn to secrecy. Whereas Charpentier was restricted by the need to draw negatively with a stopping-out varnish, Saint-Non must have made use of some equivalent to lift-ground, which enabled him to brush his design positively on the plate.

Although preceded by Charpentier and Saint-Non, the artist usually credited with the invention of the resin-ground aquatint process is Jean-Baptiste Le Prince. In 1769, after experimenting with various methods of achieving tone, including drypoint hatching, lavis and uncontrolled resin tone, he arrived independently at a highly individual method of aquatint. After the outlines were etched, he covered the plate with a new ground, then brushed his design with a special solvent ink that weakened the ground so that it could be wiped off. The patches of exposed metal plate were then brushed with a sticky solution of soap and sugar on to which pulverized resin was shaken from a silk bag held above the plate. The resin was held by the sticky solution until it was fused to the plate by heating. The plate was then etched in the normal way. The process could be repeated many times, and sometimes stopping-out varnish was also used. The considerable success of Le Prince’s aquatints was due to the freedom of drawing that resulted from the positive brush process. His method found no real followers in France, perhaps because the wash drawings it was best suited to reproducing were not popular there. The most extraordinary aquatints produced by a Frenchman in the last decade of the 18th century were actually made in Sweden by Louis Jean Desprez.

The first British aquatint artist was Peter Perez Burdett ( fl c. 1770–73), who exhibited his first aquatints in 1772. His technique varied from any of the French methods, suggesting that he developed it himself. He drew by brushing acid on to an aquatint ground, using stopping-out varnish merely to define large areas of flat tone. Other early aquatints were made in England by François-Xavier Vispré in 1774, Francis Jukes in 1775, Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg in 1776, James Barry, whose long series of aquatints began in 1776, and Thomas Gainsborough, who used the process by 1780. But the most important early aquatint artist in Britain was Paul Sandby, who made his first prints in the medium in 1774 and published them in the Twelve Views in South Wales (1775). He learnt the basic technique from the Hon. Charles Greville (1749–1809), who in turn may have learnt it in France (from Charpentier or Saint-Non) or from Burdett. Sandby himself introduced significant developments to the aquatint process. He was the inventor of the spirit-ground, which he laid over the entire surface of the plate. He then brushed his design on to the ground with a sugar solution and laid a coat of varnish over the top. The varnish lifted off when the plate was immersed in water. This is the basic lift-ground technique, which was subsequently preferred to Le Prince’s more complicated method, itself brought to Britain by Robert Adam when it was first made public in 1782. Although the spirit-ground became popular, since the end of the 18th century most aquatint artists have preferred the dust-ground.

Britain has the strongest tradition of aquatinting because the technique was ideally suited to the reproduction of late 18th-century British watercolours, usually made up of outlines and flat washes. In some cases a specialist aquatint artist would add aquatint to the lines etched by another printmaker. Most of these prints were topographical and many illustrated the series of colour-plate books published in large numbers throughout this period, such as the three-volume Microcosm of London (London, 1808–11). After 1780 aquatint was often combined with etching in satirical caricatures. Thomas Rowlandson was a notable exponent in both fields.

In the last 30 years of the 18th century the technique of resin-ground aquatint spread rapidly to most European countries. Although it is not clear how the information was disseminated, it is likely that it stemmed from France. The earliest practitioners in Germany worked at the Leipzig academy. They were the architect Johann-Friedrich-Karl Dauthe (1749–1816) in 1770, Ernst Gottlob (1744–89) in 1772, Johann Gottlieb Prestel (1744–89) and Maria Prestel (1747–94) in 1775. In Italy the only notable 18th-century practitioner was Giovanni David; his Divers portraits à l’eau-forte were published in 1775, although the aquatint may have been added later.

(iii) Subsequent use, c. 1800 and after

The invention of lithography in the final years of the 18th century produced a technique better suited to the reproduction of certain types of drawings, particularly those in ink and chalk. Aquatint thus began to lose its status as a reproductive medium everywhere except Britain, where watercolour imitations continued to be produced in the first half of the 19th century. Aquatinted plates wore out too quickly for a wide commercial application, especially in comparison with steel-engraving and lithography, and by the second or third decade of the 19th century lithography was also more popular as an original printmaking medium. That aquatint survived at all as an artist’s medium has much to do with the inspiration of Francisco Goya, who used it with etching for most of his print series: the Caprichos (1799), the Disasters of War (c. 1810–20), the Tauromaguia (1816) and the Disparates (1820). Only the Caprichos and the Tauromaguia were published during his lifetime. It is not known how Goya learnt the basic technique displayed in his earliest aquatints (1778), but it has been suggested that he was inspired by Giovanni David. Goya developed his range of techniques to include acid washes and the extensive use of burnishing. One plate, The Colossus (c. 1812), is one of the few in the history of printmaking to be made entirely in burnished aquatint. Goya’s aquatints are unparalleled in their expressive strength. Few other aquatints have used chiaroscuro to such dramatic effect. In the Disasters of War even the substandard plates available to Goya in wartime were exploited to produce aquatints of technical imperfection but profound power.

The influence of Goya’s aquatints was most strongly felt in 19th-century France, first in the work of Eugène Delacroix, particularly in The Blacksmith (1833), and later in the work of Edouard Manet. Towards the end of the 19th century aquatint again became more widely used when its delicacy was exploited for Impressionistic and then Symbolist purposes. Degas used it for its flat tonal properties, while it was the more subtle atmospheric effects that appealed to Pissarro. In Germany Max Klinger was the most effective exponent of aquatint. In 1891 Mary Cassatt made a set of ten colour-printed aquatints ‘in imitation of Japanese prints’ which exploited the medium’s potential for the effect of delicate flat washes. Partly in response to the popularity of colour lithographs, around 1900 several other artists made colour aquatints, some of the best and most sophisticated being those by Jacques Villon. At the same time the growing school of professional reproductive engravers in France also started to use colour aquatint. The plates could be steel-faced to print a large edition.

In the 20th century aquatint has been either used for its painterly properties or subsumed in mixed method prints. Georges Rouault started to rework photogravures for which he made drawings in 1916, but it was only in the mid-1930s that the printer Roger Lacourière (d 1967) showed him how colour might be added to his prints by means of aquatint plates. Lacourière actually made the colour plates in the same way as he did when making a reproduction of a watercolour. Rouault simply drew the black plates, usually in lift-ground etching. It was also Lacourière who in 1936 introduced aquatint to Picasso, who used it for the last of the Vollard Suite (assembled 1937, but offered for sale only in 1950) and a number of subsequent prints . Picasso also favoured lift-ground, which he used with dust-ground resin and also with lavis (or open-bite etching as it has become known in the 20th century). In 1938–9 Picasso attempted colour-printed aquatints of his companion, the Surrealist artist Dora Maar (b 1909).

Picasso’s use of aquatint can be related both to the expressive tradition deriving from Goya and to the narrative use of the technique, for it has been employed to a large extent in 20th-century book illustration (many of Rouault’s colour aquatints, for example, were book illustrations). David Hockney, some of whose earliest and most impressive prints used aquatint, employed it to great effect in his Illustrations for Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm (1969). The flat wash properties exploited in these prints also led to the increased use of the medium by abstract artists in the 1970s. The most subtle aquatints ever made are those of the North American Minimalist artists Robert Mangold, whose flat geometric shapes are enlivened only by the texture of the aquatint, and Robert Ryman, whose white aquatints depend for their variety solely on the density of the ink and its edges. At the opposite extreme, artists such as Gerhard Richter have used aquatint to modify photo-engravings of the real world. Aquatint has also been used in commercial photomechanical printmaking, particularly in photogravure.

Craig Hartley
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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