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White Gray Black


2. c 1430–c 1500

Source: Oxford University Press

(i) Northern Europe

Important engraving centres developed along the Upper Rhine from Konstanz and Basle to Colmar and Strasbourg. The earliest engravers did not generally sign and date their prints, and their works have been attributed to various hands on stylistic grounds. Scholars have ‘named’ hundreds of these anonymous engravers after characteristic elements or subjects in their prints, such as the Master of 1446, after the earliest date on an engraving, and the Master of the Playing Cards. Although their real names remain unknown, individual styles and hands are distinguishable, and many of them were highly accomplished artists. Later engravers began signing works with monograms, hallmarks and symbols, and eventually their names. The increasing importance of the engraving and the individual who designed it is reflected in the fact that by c. 1460 Master E.S. was the first printmaker to sign some of his prints with his monogram, and from c. 1470 Martin Schongauer monogrammed almost all his prints.

Because engraving was not so much invented as joined to the new technology of printing, one cannot speak of a ‘primitive’ phase; goldsmith-engravers continued to use techniques developed previously. Fifteenth-century northern European engraving is firmly rooted in the Gothic style. The earliest engravings are not purely linear but incorporate texture, shadow, modelling and pattern, which is unsurprising, since goldsmiths had been dealing with such pictorial problems for centuries. While many early engravers were trained as goldsmiths, others, however, seem to have been trained as painters, judging from their broader handling of form and detail. In the work of such an engraver-painter as the Master of the Playing Cards, contours were firmly engraved with a descriptive and restless line, and internal forms, such as facial features, were cut with delicacy. Certain mannerisms taken from drawing and also seen in early woodcuts, such as the ‘fish-hook’ end to a line in drapery, were used by this master and his contemporaries. Early engravers used a variety of cuts to create tonality and modelling. These include laying down hundreds of tiny straight strokes, with no particular reference to the direction of a plane, long hatchmarks and random crosshatching, with or without stippling.

The Master E.S., believed to have been a goldsmith, was active near Lake Constance and produced over 200 prints. He seems to have been the first to turn his plate against the burin as he cut modelling lines, resulting in a more logical system that followed and expressed form sculpturally. He also developed a systematic method of crosshatching that responds to form and produces a greatly enriched range of darks. Developments in northern European engraving after 1450 included increased interest in light, shade and environment, construction of pictorial space and use of the expanded narrative series as a focus for human drama.

Many early engravings were scenes from the Life of Christ, the Passion and images of the saints. These were sold as souvenirs at pilgrimage sites and were often used for personal devotion. Other prints had secular functions, such as New Year’s greetings, playing cards and amorous and chivalric images. Although most engravers would have been well trained in drawing, the engraver did not necessarily design the image. Some engravings clearly reproduce paintings and have strong stylistic connections with known painters active in a given locale. Goldsmith designs were handed down through copying, so the reproduction of an image was intrinsic to the goldsmith-engraver’s craft. Engravings were frequently copied by other engravers and so exist in more than one version. Engraving became a medium of stylistic diffusion, as these portable objects were used as reference material in artists’ workshops. Early engravings have been identified as the sources of images produced by 15th-century artists working in other media, such as book illumination and sculpture. In comparison with early woodcuts, engravings were a luxury item, more expensive to produce and made by more highly trained artist-engravers. Perhaps because of their relative value, more engravings were preserved at the time, pasted into books or boxes. Early engravings have survived, often in more than one impression. The cheaper, ephemeral, early single-sheet woodcuts were less likely to have been saved by their original users and consequently are rarer today, with many known only in unique impressions.

The most important northern European engraver in the last quarter of the century was Martin Schongauer. The son of a goldsmith, he worked primarily as a painter but also produced about 100 engravings. His early graphic technique stressed black line against the white ground of the paper, with form articulated by hundreds of tiny strokes and dots. He gradually incorporated some of the Master E.S.’s innovations, eventually surpassing him and developing an immaculately crafted, masterful graphic language capable of expressing form, tone, space and surface. As his art developed, he moved from complexity to clarity and monumentality, exploring both Flemish gravity and Germanic expression, for example in his mature engraving, the two-part Annunciation (c. 1490beginend). His engravings are characterized by a feeling of constant movement as the eye is led by the gesturing figures and the ceaselessly exploring contour line. Schongauer extended engraving’s range of tonalities, creating visually rich images, which were often copied and much imitated. Artists strongly influenced by Schongauer include the south German Master L.Cz., whose energetic and spontaneous burin work created colouristic surfaces that sparkle with contrasts and whose style combines the delicate solemnity of Schongauer’s figure types with a greater sense of landscape space and delight in the luxuriance of the natural world. The prolific Israhel van Meckenem (ii) was the son of the engraver Israhel van Meckenem (i), known as the Master of the Berlin Passion (an identification that is now in question). Van Meckenem (ii)’s works comprise mainly copies after such engravers as the Master E.S., but he also engraved c. 150 images after his own designs. Many of these show a great interest in secular subjects and contemporary life and style, drawn in a lively manner. After c. 1480 he used a very dense crosshatching system, introducing new levels of rich blackness. Many of his later works have a breadth of conception comparable to panel painting but exploit engraving’s ability to show the tiniest details. His enormous output shows that engraving was well established commercially by the late 15th century. It has been plausibly suggested that another engraver in this workshop was his wife, Ida van Meckenem, known from his engraved self-portrait with her, making her the earliest-known woman engraver.

In the Lower Rhine Valley and the Netherlands engraving developed in a manner similar to the Upper Rhine, with its major artists appearing slightly later. The Dutch Master IAM of Zwolle engraved animated, startlingly expressive compositions containing angular, rigid and flattened figures. Master FVB produced important works in which the figures were strongly influenced by Schongauer but with less interest in psychological interaction and more in incidental decorative detail. He excelled in contrasting intricate, highlighted forms against dark crosshatched backgrounds.

By the last quarter of the 15th century northern European engraving was capable of a greatly expanded range of pictorial effects. It evolved from a predominantly linear mode, which described static form in an uncolouristic way, to the expression of a rich range of contrasts, as well as textures, by means of linear systems, of which contour was only one element.

(ii) Italy

Italian engraving was also rooted in and influenced stylistically by goldsmithing and niello. Florence was the first major centre, with Ferrara, Bologna, Mantua, Milan and Venice having significant activity later in the 15th century. All the major early Florentine engravers had a background in goldsmithing and were in contact with the niellist Finiguerra. Most, however, did not merely reproduce the niello manner of engraving light against dark but worked in a more open style, emphasizing outline and form against a light ground. Many 15th-century engravings are printed in a pale grey ink, in contrast to the more densely pigmented German inks, so the overall print has less contrast between the line and the paper.

From the outset, Italian engraving was closely connected with drawing in pen and wash. Early Italian engraving shares with contemporary drawing clarity of design, monumentality of form, firmness of outline and rational space. Early Italian engraving prints are traditionally grouped in two categories: ‘fine manner’ and ‘broad manner’. In fine-manner prints contour lines define forms, and fine, delicate hatching and crosshatching strokes express modelling, imitating the effect of pen and wash, as in the work of Baccio Baldini. Broad-manner engraving reflects vigorous pen drawing, with the back-and-forth hatching reproduced by the burin; Francesco Rosselli was one of the most important practitioners of this style. Some engravers worked in both manners, making attributions problematic. The style of well-known artists is often reflected in early Italian engraving, and such artists as Botticelli designed specifically for engraving, including his series illustrating Dante’s Inferno, engraved by Baldini. In addition to imitating drawing, engravers copied other engravings, including northern European prints. The subject-matter of Italian prints is highly varied, including religious, secular, amorous and erotic subjects. Series, such as the planets, the Trionfi of Francesco Petrarch and ‘Tarocchi’ cards, were popular.

Antonio del Pollaiuolo, painter, sculptor and goldsmith, designed and engraved only one surviving print, the Battle of the Ten Nudes (c. 1470–75). It is one of the most important 15th-century engravings and was the largest, most complex plate and also the earliest to be fully signed. Much speculation has taken place on its meaning. The image reveals Pollaiuolo’s ability to render the nude in a variety of positions and views. Although the shallow space and friezelike design owe much to antique relief and to niello, the engraving technique is in the looser ‘broad manner’ startend. This rain of fine parallel hatching defining the musculature, systematically laid down from left to right with little reference to the direction of the form, imitates the pen work of the original drawing.

The Florentine engraver Robetta is associated with c. 40 engravings. The figures in these show the influence of Filippino Lippi and other Italian sources. Robetta often combined these with landscapes derived from prints by Schongauer and Dürer. His original and vigorous engraving style is related to drawing rather than painting. His cutting technique was less systematic than that of many of his contemporaries, and he employed short bursts of fine, curving, parallel lines and flecks to model form. Outlines were built up with multiple cuts, describing outer contours without dominating the tonal areas.

An important group of prints is associated with andrea Mantegna and the Mantegna school engravers Zoan Andrea and Giovanni Antonio da Brescia, among others. Mantegna has traditionally been thought to have engraved only seven prints himself, but his drawings were the basis for many others. In the late 20th century the question of attribution was under re-examination (Boorsch, Landau). Stylistically, many of the Mantegna prints are ‘broad-manner’ engravings and show much influence of Pollaiuolo, but many of the later prints are in a ‘fine’ style. Whether this is a question of evolution or reflects the different backgrounds of the engravers, it is clear that these engravings were meant to imitate Mantegna’s pen drawings. In contrast to those of Pollaiuolo, in such prints as the Risen Christ (early 1470s; Hind, no. 7) and the Battle of the Sea Gods (1470s; Hind, nos 5, 6) the outlines are less fluid, more angular, more varied in width of line and have more interior drawing. The device of leaving white space between hatching and a contour to help round a form is frequently employed, and some of Mantegna’s engravers used it with less understanding than others. Mantegna’s Virgin and Child (c. 1480–85; Hind, no. 1), in which the image appears to have been developed as it was engraved, is convincing as an autograph work. Mantegna and Mantegna school prints include innovative narrative scenes from the Passion, and classicism permeates his vision of both Christian and ancient mythology and history. Mantegna prints were widely influential in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands.

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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