The French artists who, during the etching revivals of the nineteenth century, sought to breathe new life into this form of printmaking were part of a rich tradition.
Great historical artists like Rembrandt and Goya had used etching to create artistic wonders.
By the eighteenth century, however, the technique had become primarily an auxiliary medium, used to reproduce paintings and drawings.
Printmakers like Félix Bracquemond, Henri Guerard and Félix Hilaire Buhot wanted to change that, and so they joined together in the Société des Aquafortistes and experimented freely to create etchings that were fully-fledged works of art.
A drawing with multiple copies
Drawing with an etching needle in the soft ground layer laid on top of the copper plate is very similar to drawing with pen on paper, enabling the artist to work quickly and freely.
For that reason, the champion of etching, Phillipe Burty, called the tecnnique ‘a drawing with multiple copies.’
The spontaneous character of the etching was seized on in the second half of the nineteenth century by critics, writers and publishers to promote the etching as the most artistic and expressive printmaking technique.
Prints like this, it was said, brought the viewer closest to the personal ‘signature’ and intimate thoughts of the artist.
Free and accessible medium
The fact that etching resembled drawing so closely made it a relatively accessible medium for artists.
They required little in the way of technical knowledge to get down to work, and frequently left the more complex printing process to professional printers like Auguste Clot and Eugène Delâtre.
There were also artists, however, who immersed themselves wholeheartedly in the technical possibilities of etching and took control of the entire process from design to printing.
Félix Buhot showed a boundless urge to experiment, and used not only line etching, but also the drypoint, aquatint and roulette techniques to achieve surprising and often unique prints.
Gabriel P. Weisberg, The Etching Renaissance in France: 1850-1880, tent.cat., Salt Lake City 1971
Alison Mc Queen, The Rise of the Cult of Rembrandt: Reinventing an Old Master in Nineteenth-Century France, Amsterdam 2004
Ad Stijnman, Engraving and Etching 1400–2000: A History of the Development of Manual Intaglio Printmaking Processes, Houten 2012
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