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Fine lines

Sarasota's Ringling Museum exhibits an impressive and far-reaching collection of etchings from the 16th through 18th centuries. Plan to see it - quickly.

Published July 16, 2006

[Images from Ringling Museum of Art]
Federico Barocci, The Annunciation, 1584, etching with engraving and drypoint.
Peter Paul Rubens, Saint Catherine, 1620-21, etching.


The 20th century Swiss artist Paul Klee said a dot is a line out for a walk. If you joined all the hatchings, crosshatchings and contours in "The Early Modern Painter-Etcher" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, they would probably walk halfway around the world.

The exhibition, organized by the University of Pennsylvania using loans from many prestigious institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the New York Public Library and the Yale University Art Gallery, has an interesting premise. Its point is not always to show the most brilliant examples of Baroque printmaking but to look at the specific type of printmaking - etching - as it was learned and practiced by artists who were primarily painters. It contains some of the most famous names from the 16th through the 18th centuries, bloopers and all. Though as bloopers go, the ones here will look awfully good to the casual observer.

A little background about etching's methodology. An artist, using a needlelike stylus, carves into a metal plate coated with wax or varnish. It's immersed in an acid bath that eats into the exposed lines. The coating is removed, and the plate is inked and put through a press. That's a basic description of a technique that requires significant skill to do well. Still, it isn't as technical as engraving, which has a similar look but is more difficult because the metal itself is carved. In etching, the image is drawn only into the softer coating, allowing a sometimes freer, looser composition. The difference attracted artists untrained in the esoteric craft of engraving, which, along with woodcuts, was the common form of printmaking before the 16th century.

So begins "Painter-Etcher," with Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), a giant of the northern European Renaissance, a painter and master engraver and woodcutter who briefly tried his hand at etching (he created just six). Landscape With Canon is his last and largest etching. In it, you can see how he and subsequent artists used lines and one color to simulate painting's multihued variations. Unlike most of the other etchings in this exhibition, the shadings in Durer's Landscape are realized with parallel lines rather than crosshatching. To achieve perspective, he made the foreground darkest, lightening up as the vista recedes to mountains and sky.

Compare it with a work nearby by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525/30-1569). The Rabbit Hunter also uses lots of parallel lines to suggest contours but doesn't have the heavy outlines to delineate individual elements. It's more delicate, more like a painting.

Ringling's exhibition curator, Joanna Weber, has grouped the etchings to suggest thematic or technical comparisons among artists throughout Europe rather than a strictly chronological grouping. Among them is a section called "Flawed Experiments." They range from Bartolomaus Spranger (1546-1611) forgetting that the printing process reverses the image (which caused his inscription to read backward) to the serious examples of "foul biting," in which new practitioners blur lines. Ludovico Carracci's Madonna and Child demonstrates the difficulty painters sometimes had in creating the subtle tonal differences that separate a good etching from a great one. Carracci (1555-1610) was an exquisite painter, and you can see his skill in this etching, except for the cherub's wings in the upper left corner, so heavy and crude compared with the rest of the drawing; they look like shrimp tails rather than feathers.

Then you have Federico Barocci (1535-1612), who taught himself the process in a matter of months and after three years produced The Annunciation, one of the largest and most beautiful etchings in the exhibition. Like many works here, it was based on a painting he completed earlier. The modeling of the angel and Virgin is exquisite, dusted with tiny dots instead of lines, as is the dramatic crosshatched drapery suggesting motion; the sleeping cat is pure charm.

Saint Catherine by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was also a copy of an earlier painting. It is ravishing, with the martyr represented as a voluptuous, triumphantly self-assured pinup girl. Another replication, a self-portrait by Michael Sweerts (1618-1664), a duplicate (in reverse) of a painting, is one of the etchings that really seems to try to be a painting. The subtly painted background of sky and clouds, for example, is imitated with a few black slashes. He uses white, unhatched areas as one would use paint for reflective contours.

As the galleries roll by, we're treated to Goya, Tiepelo, Canaletto, Boucher, Stubbs, Gainesborough and Fragonard, buttressed by dozens of other etchings by other painters. They illustrate the technique's range and limitations. (Note on the wall labels that some of the etchings are beefed up with engraving or other printing methods.) What you will mostly see, though, is a variety of experimentation and certain fearlessness in their undertakings. We end with Rembrandt, a worthy bookend for Durer.

"Painter-Etcher" is dense, demanding and cerebral, with more than 60 works. Prints have always been challenging for many viewers because of their monotones, their smaller sizes, their detail that asks to be read minutely rather than taken as a whole. And an inexplicable prejudice exists against them because they are considered multiples rather than originals. Even if that last complaint has validity, fine prints, even multiples, are not like a pop star poster reproduced in the millions. They are limited editions. Etchings, their plates less durable, usually have a very small edition. And a 300-year-old print is a rarity under any circumstances.

The exhibition has a short run at the Ringling because the prints are too fragile to remain outside their dark, protective storage drawers for long. You won't see as fine a survey in the Tampa Bay area for a long time. Book extra time into your visit to enjoy and study it.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or

[Last modified July 14, 2006, 10:55:55]

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