In the mid-18th century, European artists, art admirers, and collectors were keen to view the finest artworks from across the continent, in the comfort of their studios, homes, and studies, respectively. Prints fulfilled that need, and as the demand for fine art prints grew, printmaking innovations blossomed.
One such innovation was a painterly printmaking technique that you’ve probably seen but maybe not heard of: aquatint. Aquatint is an intaglio printing technique (involving incisions applied to a metal plate) used in conjunction with etching, which allows artists to effectively mimic the subtle tones of ink, wash, and watercolor.
Rena M. Hoisington, curator and head of the department of old master prints at the National Gallery of Art, explains in a press video that the aquatint prints are made when rosin (pulverized pitch from tree sap) is applied across the surface of a copper plate. Heat applied underneath the plate causes the rosin to fuse to the metal. The plate is then placed in an acid bath and the acid eats away at the areas of exposed copper, but the rosin is left untouched. The rosin creates speckled areas which, when inked, appear as different tones.
In the 18th century, aquatint wasn’t new; artists in the Netherlands had discovered the printmaking technique in the 1650s. But 18th-century artists elevated aquatint to new artistic heights.
The National Gallery of Art’s exhibition “Aquatint: From Its Origins to Goya” is the first U.S. exhibition to explore aquatint’s development in France, England, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain. Exhibition visitors will be able to see over 100 aquatints from the museum’s collection and learn how the medium aided an increase in art publishing, art appreciation, leisure travel, and drawing instruction. Prints also promoted the neoclassical style emerging at the time.
One interesting aspect of the exhibition is that it introduces key artists from across Europe who refined the aquatint process: painter-printmakers François-Philippe Charpentier and Jean-Baptiste Le Prince in France, Paul Sandby in England; and professional printmakers Johann Gottlieb Prestel and Maria Catharina Prestel in Germany.
Aquatint prints were made by a variety of different makers. Painter-printmakers created prints from their own drawings and paintings, often refining them in the process, and professional printmakers excelled at imitating masterworks.
In addition, amateur printmakers made prints for pleasure, learning the aquatint technique to deepen their knowledge of art history by copying artists’ works. For them, learning the process meant connecting with artists whose work they admired and often collected.
France, the Epicenter of 18th-Century European Culture
In parallel to Charpentier, Swedish engraver Per Gustaf Floding (who went on to become the Swedish royal engraver) was also perfecting the process. Floding developed his engraving skills at the French Academy when he was only 16 years old, and it was Charpentier who taught him.
In 1762, they placed a joint ad in a French journal that included six of their aquatint prints (three from each artist) to promote their new processes. One of those included in the ad was Charpentier’s aquatint of “Perseus and Andromeda.” The print, which is on display in the exhibition, imitates the famous mythological painting of the same name by French artist Carle Van Loo.
The two popularized aquatint. For instance, Charpentier demonstrated the process and also trained artists in the technique. One of his students was an amateur printmaker named Jean-Claude Richard, who was also known as the abbot of Saint-Non. Saint-Non gifted his prints to influential friends and acquaintances, such as diplomat and inventor Benjamin Franklin. Saint-Non even showed Franklin how to make aquatints and suggested he gift Saint-Non’s aquatints to his friends.
In the 1770s, Jean-Baptiste Le Prince “set the bar for European aquatint,” Hoisington said. She playfully calls Le Prince “the first aquatint celebrity,” who modestly exclaimed that he didn’t invent the technique—he perfected it. And as an artist-printmaker, Le Prince had full control of his prints, often perfecting his compositions and the aquatint process as he worked.
Le Prince used aquatint to transform his drawings and paintings—many of which were exhibited at the French Academy—into portable prints that promoted his works.
His aquatint prints were popular not only because of his artistic virtuosity but also because of their subjects. Having spent six years in Russia, he specialized in creating Russian scenes and subject matter, which quenched the public’s growing curiosity to see the Westernization of Russia.
A selection of Le Prince’s aquatint prints are in the exhibition, including “The Fisherman,” where fishermen in Russian dress are tending to the day’s catch. Le Prince expertly created a crisp, clean landscape scene that could easily be mistaken for a watercolor drawing.
The Founding of Exquisite English Aquatints
A decade or so after Le Prince, influential English landscape artist Paul Sandby set about perfecting aquatint in England. Sandby was a founding member of the recently formed Royal Academy of Arts in London, and Hoisington counts Sandby as laying the foundation for aquatint in England.
Sandby found aquatint easier and more pleasurable than drawing, Hoisington explained. His artistic brilliance shows in his moonlit aquatint titled “Caernarvon Castle (Night),” which is believed to be the first aquatint of a nighttime scene. The Welsh castle exists but the scene is imagined. In this print, Sandby managed to convey the darkest of nights while carefully illuminating the imaginary scene with spots of fire, smoke, and moonlight.
German Printmakers Master the Process
Meanwhile, in Germany in the 1790s, husband and wife printmakers Johann Gottlieb Prestel and Maria Catharina Prestel and their apprentice were creating some of the most astonishing aquatints, imitating some of the most brilliant works held in German collections.
Hoisington calls “The Triumph of Truth Over Envy” by Maria Catharina as the epitome of Prestel’s works. She faithfully replicated the painting right down to the gold paint. The innovative print demonstrates Prestel’s intimate understanding of aquatint and her confidence in adapting the process to achieve astounding painterly effects.
Hoisington explained how Prestel achieved such a work. Prestel used two different copper plates for the print. The first plate was etched and aquatinted and then printed in brown ink. Then that piece of paper went through the press again, but this time a different plate was applied that had been etched and had ochre ink applied to it. While the paper was still wet from the second pressing, Prestel sprinkled fine gold leaf powder over the print to mimic the gold paint in the original painting.
The NGA has a set of 36 of Prestel’s prints; these are the third series she made that were mounted and framed in albums. Hoisington loves imagining how these prints were enjoyed: On the back of each print is the name of the original painting and the printmaker, whereas previous prints had that information on the front, so viewers must have enjoyed guessing the original works.
By the 1790s, aquatint treatises and manuals further streamlined the process of making the prints. And in England, aquatint technique became commonplace in published works such as drawing books, travel books, and topographical maps.
Even today, artists and printmakers learn and use the aquatint technique to create marvelous, painterly prints. This centuries-old printmaking technique endures despite technological advances such as the internet, television, and the digitization of modern printing, which replaces the initial purpose of these types of prints—to disseminate fine art. Aquatint’s enduring appeal is testimony to the artists who refined and continued to hone the practice.
The “Aquatint: From Its Origins to Goya” exhibition runs until Feb. 21. To find out more, visit NGA.gov