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Capturing Life: The Prints And Process Of A Seventeenth Century Etcher

Visitors Viewing "Hollars Encyclopedic Eye" © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Visitors are provided magnifying glasses with which they can view the fine details in Hollar's etchings. Courtesy of VMFA

Hundreds of years before the invention of photography, artists made etchings to create multiple images with great accuracy. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is showcasing one of these artists whose skillful use of the medium allowed him to vividly convey life four centuries ago. WCVE’s Peter Solomon has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Details on the exhibit Hollar's Encyclopedic Eye can be found here


Wenceslaus Hollar carefully etched the large and small details of seventeenth century life. One print depicts a panoramic view of his native Prague. Another shows the spectacle of a public execution. Other etchings display the minute characteristics of various insects:caterpillars, butterflies, and moths. There’s even a dead mole.  

Colleen Yarger:  He did over 2,500 etchings over the course of his life, which is astronomical.

Explore the Image Plates: Click on the plus and minus icons to enlarge or reduce the image. Click and hold the image to move it around. Click the 4-arrows icon to view full screen.

Wenceslaus Hollar, Und., Wenceslaus Hollar (Bohemian, 1607–77), etching printed in black ink on laid paper. Promised gift of Frank Raysor. Photograph © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Plate FR.4182

That’s VMFA curator Colleen Yarger. The exhibit  Hollar’s Encyclopedic Eye  includes more than two hundred fifty framed prints. Even more of his work is compiled in fifteen books.Hollar was born in Prague 1607 and lived to be 69. In those seven decades, he experienced the brutal religious conflict known as the Thirty Years War. He lost a child to the plague and lived in England during the buildup to the English Civil War. Yarger says Hollar’s art makes this turbulent period come alive.  

Yarger:  OK, in this tiny little print, which is just over the size of a credit card, you're looking at a side view of Saint Paul's cathedral and it is in the process of being burned.

In 1666, a great fire consumed thousands of  structures, including that famous medieval church. Eight years earlier, Hollar was commissioned to make illustrations of its interior and exterior for a history of the building. Other panoramic prints preserve in great detail what the city looked like before the fire.

Yarger:  He's willing to do history for us and he's willing to capture moments in history and make you feel like you are there.

St. Paul's burning, 1666, Wenceslaus Hollar (Bohemian, 1607–77), etching printed in black ink on laid paper. Promised gift of Frank Raysor. Photograph © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Plate FR.3921

So how did Hollar make his etchings? To learn how, I visited with a local printmaker.  

Sam Guerin:  My name is Sam Guerin

Guerin teaches printmaking at the Visual Arts Center, just down the street from the VMFA. He says that the basic procedure for making an etching hasn’t changed much since Hollar’s time.

Guerin: S o the plate is polished mirror-smooth and then prepared with something called a ground.

Guerin holds up a needle that he uses to scratch away at the ground, or acid-resistant material that covers a copper plate.

Guerin: A nd then that ground is taken away by the hand of the artist to create the image . So either by scratching away at through the surface or blocking out certain sections and leaving others open, that's the way that you're able to vary how the plate is worked in the acid.  

The plate is submerged in a corrosive chemical. In Hollar’s day it would have been nitric acid.

Guerin:  Acid pits the copper. What looks like lines are actually a series of small corrosions in the surface of the plate.

Guerin rubs ink into the grooves of the plate. The next step takes a few minutes. He uses a starched cheesecloth to rub away the excess.

Guerin:  Fortunately, it’s a very silent and zen medium, you spend a lot of time lovingly staring at this thing.

Now, it’s ready to print.

Guerin:  so I've set my plate on the bed of the press

From here, dampened paper is laid on top of the plate and covered with blankets to ensure that pressure is evenly distributed when its run through.  

Guerin:  The drum in the press is pulled all the way down to the surface of the bed and it's really putting in a immense amount of pressure on the plate. And this is the method from getting the ink on the plate onto the paper

It’s a delicate process with plenty of opportunity for mishaps. Guerin has been producing etchings for eight years. He appreciates the direct connection between the hand of the artist and the plate.

Guerin: E very part of the process from a carving through the ground to actually inking in the plate is done with the hand and that allows for a lot of variability and personality,  not only in how the image is made, but how it's printed.  

A group of muffs and articles of dress on a table, 1647, Wenceslaus Hollar (Bohemian, 1607–77), etching printed in black ink on laid paper. Promised gift of Frank Raysor. Photograph © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Plate FR.4911

VMFA visitors can use a magnifying glass to better appreciate the intricate details of Hollar’s etchings and get a better idea for how he employed the process. His print  Fur Still Life shows a pile of fur and lace accessories. Colleen Yarger says the variety of subtle effects that Hollar achieves in the picture  from the luster of the furs to the delicacy of the lace  shows why he was without peer as an etcher.

Yarger: T he reason why this work is just so stunning is because of his technical virtuosity. The way that he's able to capture the difference in the texture between the lace and the fur and all the different shades of gray and black that he was able to get in this etching and it's superb.

Samantha Sheesley:  We're able to see even the individual ink lines and how they sit proud of the paper surface.

prepares a conservation plan for each work of art and has to carefully study each print under a microscope.

Sheesley: S eeing the layers of lines and the crosshatching, it's really phenomenal to be able to see all of that.

The Long View of Prague, 1649, Wenceslaus Hollar (Bohemian, 1607–77), etching on three plates printed in black ink on laid paper. Promised gift of Frank Raysor. Photograph © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Plate FR.3837.1

Some printmakers were commissioned to make etchings of valuable works of art. In  Hollar’s Encyclopedic Eye there are examples. Printmaker Sam Guerin was impressed by two of them: a portrait by Flemish painter Anthony Van Dyck and a still life by another Flemish artist, Peeter Boel, who specialized in images of animals, landscapes and dead game.

Guerin:  I just thought it was fascinating how, uh, one etcher can convey so strongly the artistic styles of two different painters

And, says Guerin, doing so within the constraints of etching, where the details come from simple scratches on a copper plate. Hollar’s Encyclopedic Eye is on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts through May 5th. For Virginia Currents, this is Peter Solomon, WCVE News. 

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