The Renaissance’s Etchings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A new artform that embodied the era’s pioneering and innovative spirit
December 31, 2019 Updated: January 10, 2020
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NEW YORK—The New Year is synonymous with new beginnings, resolutions, and growth. You look to your past to craft a better future. The Renaissance was similar. The Renaissance, or “revival,” rediscovered classical Greek philosophy and perspectives on art that would lay the foundation for a new wave of innovation and, in time, merit its reputation as the West’s Golden Age. 

So the new era, married with the past, would guide mankind for centuries in its developments of art and expressions of deep, thought-provoking themes, often expressing spirituality. The artform of etching, which took off in the Renaissance as painters gravitated toward the new medium, was a microcosm of the era’s spirit for exploration, experimentation, and most of all, beauty. 

These understandings came to life as soon as I walked into The Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “The Renaissance of Etching,” showing until Jan. 20. The exhibition itself is a labor of love, much like the artwork from this era. In a phone interview, Nadine Orenstein, one of the exhibition’s curators and the Drue Heinz Curator in Charge of the Department of Drawings and Prints, explained that the exhibition took 10 years to produce. 

“I don’t know if we were cursed,” Orenstein said with a laugh. But the long duration of time may, in fact, be a reflection of its virtues. 

“A lot of the works in the show are really rare,” she said. Many of the early experiments in printmaking haven’t survived, so The Met carefully sourced works from old European collections. “Quite a lot of these works you just never see, certainly not in this country.”

A Pioneer: Daniel Hopfer

In the late 15th and early 16th centuries in Europe, etching transitioned from an artform used to decorate armor to printmaking on paper. The German armor decorator Daniel Hopfer was one of the early pioneers in this new medium.

His “Portrait of Emperor Charles V” grabbed me as soon as I entered the exhibition. I just stood there examining it, impressed that its endless detail wasn’t a sketch but an etching. With engraving, you just cut straight into the printing plate with a sharp tool. With etching, in contrast, you carve into a wax-like material laid over a metal plate; you pour acid to create grooves in the metal where the wax is missing; then ink is added, you press it with paper, and you get a print. Etching offers more room for exquisite detail, such as in this early print by Hopfer. 

etching of Charles V
Portrait of Emperor Charles V, circa 1519, by Daniel Hopfer. Etching. Gift of Junius S. Morgan, 1919; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)

“Around the profile portrait are concentric circles of ornament that mix simple acanthus leaves against a dark field with beastly hybrids and cherubim frolicking in winding tendrils and endless vines against a blank or crosshatched ground,” states the exhibition’s companion publication, “The Renaissance of Etching,” by Catherine Jenkins, Nadine M. Orenstein, and Freyda Spira.  

The outlining of foliage, figures, and text was achieved with techniques Hopfer developed for intricate designs on armor, known by historians as “Hopfer style” armor. For finer designs, he would first paint on the “ground”—the wax-like substance covering the plate; then he would etch the delicate interior details with a stylus. 

Hopfer’s use of negative space—such as the bright white space around the head—and deep, dark lines juxtaposed with detailed ornamentation create a striking, lifelike three-dimensionality. The concentric rings around the profile of Charles V almost seem to pulse. 

Hopfer’s experimentation continued in his equally enchanting print “Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women.” Two noble ladies gaze at themselves in a mirror, as Death waits behind them with a skull and hourglass, hinting that time is running out for them to awaken to their spiritual growth. But the most captivating figure is the Devil, behind Death. 

“Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women
“Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women,” circa 1510–15, by Daniel Hopfer. Etching. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1951; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)

“It’s an allegory on vanity, a very traditional sin at the time … Life is short, and you better spend your time doing other things [besides] preening and looking in the mirror,” Orenstein said. “The way [Hopfer] did that Devil is where you can see how experimental he was. Everything else is black lines on white, but the Devil is the opposite—it’s black with white lines.”

Hopfer seemingly portrayed the women and Death as the same color—white—since they are part of the natural cycle of life. The black Devil, in contrast, embodies evil—the inverse of life and the natural order. The Devil’s darkness is also especially eye-catching, warning viewers—don’t overlook the alluring, hidden modus operandi of evil. 

Paintings on Plates

As word spread throughout Europe that there was a new medium of art to be experimented with—and, of course, improved upon—Italian painters took interest. One such Venetian artist was Battista Franco, who was considered the leading practitioner of disegno in central Italy. 

“Disegno”—the Italian word for drawing or design—distinguishes the artist, when both meanings are taken together, who has both the ability to make the work as well as the ingenuity to invent the design. The disegno artist becomes a mirror or microcosm of God of sorts, in that the artist can both conceive the concept and manifest its creation. 

As Franco turned toward etching, he took experimentation to a new level, combining etching, engraving (for darker, more exaggerated lines), and drypoint, which is a printmaking technique that uses a hard-pointed needle for extra-fine detailing. 

In “St. Jerome,” Franco depicts a popular Italian Renaissance theme—the ascetic saint in the wilderness with his faithful companion, a lion, from whose paw he removed a thorn. The detail in St. Jerome’s anatomy, curved body, and exaggerated musculature not only takes your breath away, it also suggests the influence of Michelangelo. 

A detail from “Saint Jerome
A detail from “Saint Jerome,” circa 1550-60, by Battista Franco. Etching, engraving, and drypoint, second state of three. Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1953; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)

As with a Renaissance painting, you can feel St. Jerome’s spirit, sincerity, and devotion, especially through his tender but serious gaze, and body contorted by an overwhelming trance in the presence of divinity. 

“It’s a really stunning print,” Orenstein said. 

While the 10 years of hardship Orenstein had to endure to bring this exhibition to fruition is reminiscent of St. Jerome’s own devotion, maybe the timing was also divinely arranged. “The Renaissance of Etching” aligned perfectly with the now-closed exhibition “The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian,” which covered the same era and even some of the same artists. 

“So, in fact, if we could’ve picked the time, this would have been the best time to do it,” she said. 

I guess making something timeless just takes time. 

The Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “The Renaissance of Etching,” is showing until Jan. 20.

J.H. White is an arts, culture, and men’s fashion journalist living in New York.