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Hollar's Encyclopedic Eye Exhibition at the VMFA Explores the Intersection of Art and Science

etching of dragonflys and butterflys
Dragonfly and Four Butterflies, 1647, Wenceslaus Hollar, etching, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Promised gift of Frank Raysor, Photo: David Stover

If you are looking to explore both art and science this weekend, you should definitely check out the new exhibition at the VMFA.   "Hollar's Encyclopedic Eye: Prints from the Frank Raysor Collection"features over 200 etchings inspired by mid 17th century European landscapes, insects, historic events and people and were created by one of the most prolific printmakers of the Baroque period,   Wenceslaus Hollar (Bohemian, 1607-1677). In this article, we delve into the science and chemistry required to create etchings.

Alchemists called it “aqua fortis,” Latin for strong water. It was colorless and had about the same viscosity as water. They used aqua fortis in their quests to turn base metals, such as lead, into gold.  Today we call it  nitric acid(HNO3) and use it to make fertilizer and explosives, among other things. Artists long ago found a use for this strong acid to etch copper plates with designs that could be reproduced as prints.

Wenceslaus Hollar (after Jan Meÿssens), 1645, Wenceslaus Hollar, etching, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Promised gift of Frank Raysor, Photo: Sydney Collins

Rembrandtproduced hundreds of prints using this method. Lesser known, but even more prolific, was  Wenceslaus Hollar a contemporary of Rembrandt.  Underrated during his lifetime, Hollar produced thousands of etchings in his 50-year career.

More than 200 examples of Hollar’s work are on display in an exhibition titled  “Hollar’s Encyclopedic Eye" now through May 2 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA).  The exhibit is free and open to the public.

The etchings are from the extensive collection of retired businessman Frank Raysor who has amassed more than 10,000 prints, approximately 2,500 of them by Hollar. “Frank has the fifth largest collection of Hollar prints in the world”, said  Dr. Colleen Yarger, co-curator of the exhibit. “Hollar’s profile has always been less than that of Rembrandt. We are trying to raise his profile.” “If you are interested in someone who was like a cultural barometer of the time, this is it,” Yarger added.  His subject matter varied widely from butterflies and other insects to political commentary and architectural renderings. Hollar may have witnessed the  Great Fire of London in 1666and produced etchings of the event.

St. Paul’s Burning, 1666,  Wenceslaus Hollar, etching, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Promised gift of Frank Raysor, Photo: Sydney Collins

Some artists of the day created designs on copper plates but hired craftsmen to do the actual etching with acid. However, Hollar made his own etchings which were his primary source of income. His work could have been more lucrative but he was “very humble and self-effacing, and people took advantage of him,” according to Yarger.  It is said that Hollar once delivered a piece of work for which he had been paid in advance and offered to return some of the money because he felt he could have done a better job.

Hollar was self-taught and perfected his work through trial and error, Yarger said. Some biographers say Hollar was blind, or nearly blind,  in one eye. “We don’t know the extent of it. There does seem to be a consensus that he had an eye defect.”  It is said that he covered one eye while he etched so that he only used his good eye. “Another thing that biographers tell us is that he used a magnifying glass to get the level of detail that he wanted.” Magnifying glasses are provided in the exhibition so visitors can see the minute detail that Hollar was able to achieve.

The Long View of Prague, 1649, Wenceslaus Hollar, etching on three plates, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Promised gift of Frank Raysor, Photo: Sydney Collins

In Hollar’s day, as today, etching started with a metal plate, such as copper. A waxy substance not affected by nitric acid was applied to the plate and allowed to dry. Using a needle-like tool, the artist scratched the design into the coating, down to bare metal. The plate was then placed in a nitric acid bath. The chemical etched the lines into the plate but left the areas covered by the wax unaffected.

After a specified time, which varied from minutes to hours depending on the effects the artist wanted, the plate was removed from the bath and the wax wiped away with solvent, revealing the design in the metal. Next the artist covered the plate with ink and wiped off the excess, leaving ink only in the etched lines. The inked lines were then transferred onto paper with a high-pressure printing press. Many impressions of the image could be made from a single plate.

Artists today use essentially the same process Hollar used 500 years ago to create etchings, although some of the technology and safety has improved.  Ferric chloride(FeCl3), an acidic salt, is commonly used to etch copper plates instead of nitric acid, “but it’s still going to hurt you,” Yarger said. Nitric acid is readily available today and is still used to etch iron plates. In Hollar’s time,  artists made their own. “They’re not exactly sure of the recipe,” Yarger said. “They had a recipe to etch iron, but they didn’t have one for copper.” The concentrated acid was diluted, usually one part acid to four or eight parts water. The diluting process itself was hazardous because, as students learn in Chemistry 101, always add acid to water. Pouring water into acid can create an exothermic reaction, causing the solution to boil and splash out of the container.

The Hollar exhibition at VMFA helps visitors appreciate the beauty of his work as well as the level of technical skills that he and other artists of the day had to master.

For more information on the history of insects in art and the prints of Hollar, check out this week's  What's Bugging You? radio report with Entomologist Dr. Art Evans and WCVE producer Steve Clark.

Join  Dr. Evans and Steve Clark for a companion lecture, "Bugs! Fearful symmetry in Hollar's Insect Portraits" at the  VMFA on Friday, March 22 at 11:00 a.m.  Lecture is free, but tickets are required.  More information and tickets can be found  here.