How to identify old prints with a mouse click Wednesday, Apr 2 2014 

All print connoisseurs and scholars look away now: This is how to identify unknown prints with just a mouse click. All you have to provide is a digital version of your print in decent quality, say this one:15006074

 

Read on how to identify the artist and name of this etching by just clicking on it.

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Abkupfern, or how to crib a post Thursday, Feb 27 2014 

We live in a world where texts are copy-pasted, images are being downloaded and uploaded again, tweets are re-tweeted and blog articles are re-posted. Standard multiplying procedures in the digital age. A few hundred years ago, the common procedure to multiply pictorial works on paper was to get prints first from woodcuts and later on from engravings on copper plates.

The modern German language offers some phrases and words which originate from these times. Let us have a somewhat nostalgic look at them.

The German word for the metal “copper” is “Kupfer”, thus we have:

  • abkupfern”: Verb, meaning “to copy in a plagiary way”, to crib1. Often used in the present perfect form “abgekupfert” (copied).
  • gestochen scharf”: Adjective, meaning “pin sharp”. “Gestochen” is the present perfect of “stechen”, meaning “to engrave”. This is related to the sharp edges of the lines engraved in the copper plate, creating a pin sharp image.
  • Mein lieber Freund und Kupferstecher”: Literally “my dear friend and engraver”. A lightheartedly phrase used in the sense of “my dear old chap”.
  • “Die Presse”: “The press”, nowadays rather called “media”. Still widely used in the German words Presselandschaft and Pressesprecher.

The modern use of abkupfern and gestochen scharf is probably not too different from their original meaning. The derogatory touch of abkupfern may be related to the notion that engravers at the time had not only the necessary skills for faithfully copying works of art, but also for counterfeiting banknotes.  This went along with the impression of engravings being mainly reproductive works lacking any creativeness.

The phrase “Mein lieber Freund und Kupferstecher” may have been in use much longer, but we know that the German poet Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) used it as the opening words in letters to his dear friend and engraver Carl Barth (1787-1853), whom he devoted one of his rather cumbersome poems.2

Carl Barth - Engraver The German novelist Theodor Fontane (1819-1898) used it in his play from 1892, “Frau Jenny Treibel”: “Das hat so sein sollen, Freund und Kupferstecher; mitunter fällt Ostern und Pfingsten auf einen Tag” – “Sometimes, dear old chap, Easter and Pentecost happen to be on the same day.” It is rather doubtful that these quotations were the only source for the widespread use of the phrase, as Lutz Röhrich pointed out.3

The widespread profession of an engraver has been long gone, but the charming, old-fashioned  abkupfern  and gestochen scharf are still in use today4. It is still perfectly normal to say that a blog entry has been abgekupfert, although no copper plates are involved in the process anymore, just buzzing photons in fiber cables.

I am sure other languages feature similar words originating from the analog age of engravings and printing presses, as the English word press5 itself.
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1 A side note on the verb “to crib”: The verb exists already in 1605, with the transitive meaning of “to put something into a crib” or “support it with a framework of timber”. It would be certainly interesting to retrace the story behind its intransitive form of “to plagiarize”.

2 “An den Gevatter Kupferstecher Barth / Wenn du dich gestochen müd am Stechtisch / Wie ich mich gesprochen matt am Sprechtisch / Laß uns sitzen sprechen und ausstechen / Reinen Rheinweins eine Flasch am Zechtisch / Freien Künsten stehen wir zu Dienste / Laß uns ihnen dienen nicht zu knechtisch.”

3 Lutz Röhrich, Lexikon der sprichwörtlichen Redensarten, Herder (Freiburg-Basel-Wien, 1991, 1994, 1999), Vol. 3, p. 911.

4 See the Retropedia for more nostalgic examples.

5 See the Online Etymology Dictionary with interesting notes on the press.

The Rembrandt in the bathroom Sunday, Apr 25 2010 

Not really the first place you would look for an original etching: Last time, it was the kitchen, now it is (or rather: was)  the bathroom of the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. As reported by the Washington Post (and mentioned in numerous other places as well), a framed, potentially original Rembrandt etching, was discovered under a pile of junk in a bathroom twelve years ago. The print now has been confirmed to be an impression from the original plates, although it remains unclear in which year the print was made.

Judging from the photos, the print itself is not in a very pristine condition: foxing and tiny holes are witnesses of the not so optimal storage conditions this specimen had to withstand. It is quite curious that in the news coverage the print is referred to as the “mysterious Rembrandt” and nothing much is said about the etching itself . The translated french inscription “The bust of an old man with a great beard seen about most of the face…” is quoted to shed some light on the authenticity or the depicted character. Well, “a old man with a great beard” applies to a number of Rembrandt etchings, including his self portraits.  What we have here is an imprint of the plate “Old Bearded Man in a High Fur Cap”, created in 1635 (B., Holl. 290; H. 130; BB. 35-3).  The Detroit Institute of Arts web page features a nifty “zoom-in lens” of their specimen.

The etching at CUA can be seen in a small exhibition at UAC, Washington D.C., USA. There is also a short video on the history of the discovery (or should we rather say: unexpected find).

First painting by Michelangelo inspired by a contemporary engraving Thursday, Jun 18 2009 

Schongauer Saint Anthony

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

“When a copper engraving by Martin of St. Anthony beaten by the devils reached Florence, Michelangelo made a pen drawing and then painted it. To counterfeit some strange forms of devils he bought fish with curiously coloured scales, and showed such ability that he won much credit and reputation. He also made perfect copies of various old masks, making them look old with smoke and other things so that they could not be distinguished from the originals. He did this to obtain the originals in exchange for the copies, as he wanted the former and sought to surpass them, thereby acquiring a great name.”

In this colorful excerpt from the Lives of the Artists, Italian biographer Giorgio Vasari provides an interesting detail of the early years of Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564) as a painter: He used a contemporary engraving by the German artist Martin Schongauer (ca. 1445-1491) as the model for his first steps as a painter. The engraving is one of Schongauer’s earliest prints (he was around 30 when he made it) and depicts Saint Anthony tormented by the Demons.

It is interesting to note here  that in this case the engraving forms  the original work of art providing the model for a painting; in later centuries (especially in the 18th century) prints would be the objet d’art par ecxellence serving as a faithful copy of a painting or a drawing.

In the recently opened exhibition Michelangelo’s First Painting, you now have the opportunity to first take a look at the original Schongauer engraving (unique in its collage of fantastic beasts and figures, reminiscent of later Pieter Bruegel paintings) and then decide for yourself whether those fish heads bought at the market indeed surpassed the copies.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Michelangelo’s First Painting. June 16, 2009–September 7, 2009. European Paintings Galleries, 2nd floor.

Print news from around the world Monday, Mar 23 2009 

A short roundup of print news from around the world:

Youenoch has an aminated version of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.

Mercuriuspoliticus was delighted to see  “The Headless Horseman”, an engraving by Pierre Lombart which underwent some drastic changes.

Clara Lieu spotted the grouchiest looking putto ever in the etching/engraving Allegory of the Arts by the Italian Andrea Giovanni Podesta (1608-~1674).

The iconic woodblock print  In the well of the great wave off Kanagawa by Katshushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was sold at Christie’s for $68’500. The equally beautiful The Tama River in Musashi province from the same series Fugaku sanjurokkei (The thirty-six views of Mount Fuji) fetched $5’000.

Edward Sozanski shows us When European prints went supersized.

“Your print has been Schweidlerized” Tuesday, Mar 17 2009 

Max Schweidler - The Restoration of Engravings, Drawings etc.

Picture yourself having just acquired an old master print (say, a Rembrandt etching) at an auction. The print is in a exceptional good state, and you bought it at a reasonable price (“reasonable” meaning in reasonable relation to the size of your wallet, of course). After the auction, this well know old print conaisseur which you watched lingering around the specimens shown at the pre-sale exhibition approaches you and tells you with that calm voice expressing a life full of old master print expertise: “Madam/Sir, I have to to tell you: your print has been Schweidlerized“.

Schweidlerized? What does he mean?

  1. The print is a fake (“swindle”)
  2. The print has been skillfully repaired, virtually invisible to the eye, or
  3. The print was sold (at an auction etc.) at a much higher price than what it is actually worth.

Read on for the solution and the rediscovery of a tremendously valuable book.

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First edition Goya etching found in kitchen Friday, Nov 28 2008 

An early impression of the aquatinta etching “Muchachos al avío” (“Lads making ready”) by Francisco de Goya was found in the kitchen of the former residence of Slobodan Milosevic in Beograd. The plate 11 of the series “Los Caprichos” has been confirmed to be a first impression, published in 1799.

The plate had been part of the collection of former President Josip Broz Tito, for whom the residence originally was built. At the moment it is both unclear how it got there and what the wherebouts of other “disappared” items from the mentioned collection are.

A controversial engraving as an early version of a picture story Friday, Nov 28 2008 

A detail from a 17th century engraving shows English businessmen John Guy meeting Beothuk in Trinity Bay

A detail from a 17th century engraving shows English businessmen John Guy meeting Beothuk in Trinity Bay

An interesting dispute about a copperplate engraving published in 1628 depicting merchants from the Old World trading with Native Americans seems to be settled for now. Canadian archaeologist William Gilbert challenges the traditional interpretation of the scene taking place in New England, but rather interprets it as an early encounter of the English merchant John Guy with Beothuk Indians in Newfoundland, thus making it a part of early Canadian history.

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“Investing in Old Masters in Economic Hard Times” vs. “Why Old Masters Might Not be a Good Investment” Friday, Nov 14 2008 

In the context of this blog, we generously regard Old Master prints as a subset of the so called Old Masters, which at the same time can stand for Old Master Paintings/Drawings/Etchings/Engravings or for the actual creators of these. Whic is actually a strange case of pars pro toto: you would never use “shoe” synonymously with “shoemaker”.

It is often an amusing pastime to read comments about the current and future state of the Art market regarding Old Masters. Let us first have a look at an article by Felix Salmon, a finance blogger and Editorial contributor to Portfolio.com. (more…)

Set of Albrecht Dürer’s “Apocalypse” woodcuts sold for $1.4 million Thursday, Nov 13 2008 

from Albect Dürer's "Apocalypse"

The National Gallery of Art has recently acquired a complete set of Albrecht Dürer’s 16 woodcuts illustrating the Apocalypse for $1.4 million. It is one of only a few surviving specimens of the 1498 edition. The New York Times article states the Swiss dealer August Laube as the seller.

The most famous woodcut of the Apocalipsis cum figuris (“Apocalypse with pictures”,”Die Heimliche Offenbarung Johannes”), which was published at the same time in Latin and in German, are the Four Horsemen, depicted here. For the first time, each of the woodcuts bears the famous AD monogram. Thirteen years later, Dürer produced a second edition, but it is apparently the first edition which causes Museum and Art Gallery directors to invest large sums of their budgets.

This website (in German) gives a fine overview of all 16 woodcuts along with some short commentaries.

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