Exhibition | Prints at the Frick in Pittsburgh

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on July 18, 2012

From the Frick Art & Historical Center:

In the English Manner: Mezzotint Portraits
Frick Art & Historical Center, Pittsburgh, 16 June — 2 September 2012

Edward Fisher, after Sir Joshua Reynolds, Miss Jacob alias Miss Roberts alias Mrs. Glynn, 1762. Published 1762 by Johnathan Spilsbury. Mezzotint (Pittsburgh: Frick Art & Historical Center)

The temporary exhibition galleries at the Frick is home to three simultaneous exhibitions of prints this summer. Thirty-five etchings by 17th-century master Jacques Callot and his followers form the cornerstone of our summer look at printmaking. Together, the three exhibitions span more than 200 years and provide a look at three different centuries as observed by artists working with different techniques and for different purposes, yet all illustrating the importance of the printmaker in recording, publishing and disseminating a distinct view of the world. . . .

While Callot’s work gives us a look at a slice of 17th-century life and subject matter, a selection of fine 18th-century English mezzotints purchased by Henry Clay Frick in the early twentieth century provides a fascinating look at who-was-who in eighteenth-century England. The majority of these mezzotints are of fashionable society figures whose appeal has endured for collectors. English portraiture in particular was extremely popular with American collectors in the early 20th century. A collection of portraits evoked an appreciation of history and continuity, while conjuring images of a gracious lifestyle to which America’s newly rich aspired. Frick’s mezzotints, purchased from one of his regular dealers, Knoedler & Co, were hung at both his New York residence and his summer home in Massachusetts.

Mezzotint is a printmaking process that dates to the seventeenth century. It quickly gained prominence as the preferred method for creating reproductions of famous paintings. Used with particular success to make reproductive prints of portraits by Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), John Hoppner (1758–1810), and Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830), the process became so popular in 18th-century England that the technique is sometimes referred to as “the English manner.” Mezzotint as a form was prized for its ability to imitate the tonal properties of painting.

The technique begins with a copper plate that is “rocked” over its entire surface. This rocking, done with a sharp, toothed instrument, creates a surface covered with tiny metallic burs which hold the ink—a completely rocked plate prints a rich velvety black. The image is created by flattening the burs, and creating smooth areas in the copper; the smoother or more polished the plate, the lighter the area prints. Even without the use of colors, a mezzotint has incredible depth and richness of tone, which in the hands of a skilled printmaker, creates a painterly feel.

The 13 prints included in this exhibition are almost all of fashionable ladies, some from a series by Valentine Green (1739-1813) published in 1780, Beauties of the Present Age, which featured Green’s mezzotints made after Reynolds’ portraits. An etcher, mezzotint, and aquatint artist, Green was one of the most celebrated and prolific British printmakers of the late eighteenth century. He produced nearly 400 plates in his distinguished career, which included an appointment as Royal Engraver to King George III.

Henry Clay Frick owned a number of significant oil on canvas examples of eighteenth-century portraiture; Yet, Frick and his peers also prized the works of the masters of the mezzotint—artists like Valentine Green and John Raphael Smith (1752–1812) who could take on a Gainsborough or a Reynolds  and translate its power into print.

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