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National Gallery of Art examines aquatint as a cross-cultural phenomenon in landmark American exhibition
Paul Sandby, Caernarvon Castle (Night), 1776. Etching and aquatint printed in brown on laid paper, plate: 23.9 x 31.6 cm (9 7/16 x 12 7/16 in.), sheet: 29 x 37.2 cm (11 7/16 x 14 5/8 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of Ruth B. Benedict. 1994.60.58



WASHINGTON, DC.- Aquatint is a printmaking technique that first gained popularity in 18th-century Europe for its unique ability to evoke the subtle tonalities of ink and wash drawings. The first exhibition of its type in the United States, Aquatint: From Its Origins to Goya explores the medium as a cross-cultural and cosmopolitan phenomenon that contributed to the rise of art publishing, connoisseurship, leisure travel, and drawing instruction, as well as the spread of neoclassicism.

This landmark exhibition features some 100 early and exceptional impressions of erupting volcanoes, amorous couples, mysterious tombs, biting caricatures, and moonlit vistas—many of which have recently been acquired by the National Gallery. A lavishly illustrated book of rare works from the museum’s collection of early aquatints accompanies this presentation. Aquatint: From Its Origins to Goya will be on view in Washington from October 24, 2021, through February 21, 2022, in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art.

“This exhibition offers a fresh look at an innovative printmaking technique that reflects the era of the European Enlightenment," said Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art. "We are grateful to the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust, whose generous support made this exhibition and its companion book possible."




A tonal intaglio printmaking technique, aquatint supplemented the line work of etching and mimicked the subtle variations of ink, wash, and watercolor drawings. Printed in a variety of brown and black inks, the images engaged viewers with depictions of faraway places, scientific phenomena, and imaginary visions. Produced in multiples and distributed widely, the prints circulated various ideas and information across Europe during the Enlightenment. Three kinds of artists played a distinctive and significant role in publicizing, disseminating, and advancing the aquatint medium: professional printmakers, amateurs, and painter-printmakers. Professional printmakers combined it with other intaglio printmaking techniques to reproduce highly prized drawings by old master and contemporary artists. Amateurs, an elite group of like-minded collectors who made prints for enjoyment rather than to earn a livelihood, embraced drawing, etching, and aquatint to expand their historical artistic knowledge and cultivate relationships with artists. Peintre-graveurs (painter-printmakers) revisited, re-created, and circulated their designs in aquatint to build their reputations and broaden their audiences, dramatically expanding the formal vocabulary and expressive potential of the medium.

The exhibition begins by contextualizing the European development of aquatint and the growing interest in and market for reproductions of drawings. In Paris during the 1760s, several enterprising printmakers and print publishers experimented with and used aquatint to interpret the sought-after drawings of other artists in private collections, including those of their contemporaries, such as François Boucher (1703–1770), Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806), and Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805). The painter Jean-Baptiste Le Prince (1734–1781) developed a secret aquatint process to multiply his own compositions of Russian figures and landscapes.

Interest in aquatint spread across Europe through the circulation of prints and periodicals as well as the interconnected circles of artists and cosmopolitan collectors. Among the notable artists on view are Paul Sandby (1731–1809), whose extensive network of artists and patrons provided a foundation for aquatint’s development in England, especially through his atmospheric landscape vistas. Sandby also coined the term aquatinta for this new printmaking medium. Amateur Cornelis Ploos van Amstel (1726–1798) used aquatint to show his commitment to studying and collecting Dutch graphic arts, the enjoyment he took in developing his own distinctive printmaking processes, and his association with the Dutch cultural elite.

In Germany, one of the few prominent female practitioners of aquatint, Maria Catharina Prestel (1747–1794), ran a professional printmaking studio with her husband Johann Gottlieb Prestel (1739–1808). Together they created more than 100 reproductions of old master drawings from German collections using a customized combination of printmaking techniques, often printed from more than one plate inked in different colors. Inspired by costume, travel, and tradesmen, painter-printmaker Giovanni David’s (1743–1790) series Divers Portraits (1775) depicts different “types” of people associated with Venice and its culture. Louis-Jean Desprez’s (1743–1804) mysterious print series (1779/1784) depicts massive tombs with figural sculptures and Egyptian elements. Richard Cooper II’s (1740–after 1814) aquatints from the series Twelve Views of Rome illustrate large-scale views of tourist attractions including St. Peter’s Basilica and classical ruins. Giovanni De Pian’s (1764–1800) series The "Wells" and "Leads" of Venice portrays the city’s notorious prison system. Johann Carl Richter’s (1759–after 1832) aquatint captures the drama of an erupting Mount Vesuvius. Also on view is Francis B. Spilsbury’s (1756–1823) pocket-sized book that was one of the first instructional publications on aquatint technique.

Francisco Goya’s (1746–1828) experimentation with and mastery of aquatint allowed him to achieve a remarkable range of formal and pictorial effects with an unprecedented emotive drama and technical virtuosity. His renowned series Los Caprichos (1799) gave Goya a way to expand on the genre of the capriccio and to showcase his inventiveness and imagination. In The Disasters of War (1810/1820), Goya exposed the horrors of conflict and the upheaval and widespread devastation and aftermath of Napoleon’s invasion of Spain during the Peninsular War (1808–1814). Informed by newspaper accounts, the testimony of fellow Spaniards, and firsthand experience, Goya’s prints feature generalized settings that would have resonated with the experience of people across Spain. The exhibition closes with two impressions of two states of Eugène Delacroix’s (1798–1863) A Blacksmith (1833) showing the powerful figure working in a dark and dramatic setting.










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