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An important aspect of 17th century painting was the interest in chiaroscuro, the expressive use of contrasting light and shade, usually with a night-time or tenebrous subject selectively lit (dramatically or intimately) by a single source of light. Mezzotint, invented in the period, creates a similar painterly effect in print. The image is achieved entirely without lines through tonal contrast and subtle continuous gradation of tone (mezzo tinto is Italian for “half-tone”).

Invented in 1642 by a Dutch Soldier and amateur artist, Ludwig von Siegen, another cultivated soldier, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, perfected the technique as it is now still practised by inventing the rocker for grounding the plate. Whereas Von Siegen used a form of roulette (a toothed wheel) to add dark tones only where they were required and left light areas of the plate unworked, Prince Rupert worked the entire surface of the plate to an initial uniform ‘black’ and scraped away the areas that were to be lighter in tone.

The mezzotint engraver grounds his plate in a time-consuming process whereby the rocker, a curved serrated chisel, is ‘rocked’ systematically back and forth across the plate many times in all directions producing a rough burr which holds the ink and prints as a complete velvety black. The design is made to emerge from the dark by scraping away degrees of the burr or burnishing right back to the original smooth copper. These areas hold less ink, or none at all, and print in shades of grey or allow the ‘white’ of the paper to show as highlights.

Dutch artists, such as Dusart, Vaillant, Blooteling, van Somer and Valck, took up the technique enthusiastically for a wide range of subjects, though portraiture came to predominate.

The technique was brought to England by Prince Rupert when he accompanied Charles II on his restoration in 1660. Mezzotint enjoyed such immense popularity in England that its subsequent history is largely British, and in the 18th century it was known as ‘engraving in the English manner’.

Prince Rupert demonstrated the technique to John Evelyn, who recognized its potential for reproducing painted portraits in print, with which it came to be identified throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. All of the leading portrait painters, from Van Dyck and Lely, to Kneller, Reynolds and Hoppner were published in mezzotint.

By the second half of the 18th century new subjects came to be introduced, genre, rustic pastorals, the drama of the developing industrial revolution, interpreted by engravers such as William Ward and Valentine Green after the paintings of George Morland or Joseph Wright of Derby. In the 19th century the expressive tonal potential of mezzotint was exploited by the great Romantic landscape artists, Turner and Constable.

J M W Turner (1775–1851) "Interior of a Church".
Mezzotint with etching, 1819.  (215 x 304 mm)

Mezzotint remained largely an interpretive process for the reproduction of oil paintings. Notable exceptions in the 18th century are the series of twelve original lifesize heads drawn from life by the manager of the Bow China Factory, Thomas Frye, and the delightful studies of sleeping cheetahs, recumbent lions and tigers, and foxhounds on the scent by the artist George Stubbs and in the early 19th century the cataclysmic landscapes of John Martin.

Towards the end of the 19th century, largely through the example of Sir Frank Short, mezzotint was rediscovered by artists for making original prints. Though such English engravers as Short and William Strang largely worked in the traditional method, some artists in Germany returned full circle to Von Siegen’s method and used the tools of mezzotint to create selective tonal areas on otherwise etched plates and exploited constructively the patterning of the incised serrations made in the plate by the rocker.


John Smith, publisher (c1653–1742):

John Smith, publisher (c1653–1742):
"A Cavalier having his Fortune told by a Gypsy".
Mezzotint.  (150 x 194 mm)

Frank Short (1857–1945)

Frank Short (1857–1945)
"When the weary Moon was in the Wane, Dort".
Mezzotint, 1894.  (178 x  250 mm)

Short completed Turner’s "Liber Studiorum" project which Turner himself had abandoned unfinished and this inspired him to revive mezzotint as a creative medium for some of his own prints.

Most of Turner’s mezzotints for his series "Liber Studiorum" (such as Interior of a Church, below left) were etched in outline by Turner and given mezzotint tone by a professional mezzotint engraver. Only ten plates of the series, as with "Interior of a Church", were engraved in their entirety by Turner himself.

Frank Emanuel (1865–1948)
"Moonrise over the Sea".  Unfinished mezzotint.
Inscribed 1st proof. The striations
of the rocker clear at the foot of the plate. 
(154 x 201 mm)


See also :

INTAGLIO PRINTS - A General Introduction

Line Engraving
French Engraving in the Crayon and Pastel Manners
English Stipple Engraving
Soft-Ground Etching

Colour Printed Intaglio Prints

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