Metal, Acid, Line: Etchings from the Loeb

Daniel Hopfer, German, 1471–1536, Portrait of Kunz von der Rosen, ca. 1515/18, Etching on paper, Gift of Mrs. Felix M. Warburg and her children, 1941.1.52

The prints in this exhibition share a common medium: etching. Around 1500, Daniel Hopfer in Augsburg first applied etching, already in use for decorative metalwork including armor, to printmaking. In this early form, it consisted of images made by lines incised with the aid of acid on metal plates. These were inked and run through a press with paper, resulting in the transfer of image to page. This practice, along with subsequent related innovations, continues to be performed by artists today. The works on view, co-curated with Christina Tenaglia (Art Department), originate from Asia, Europe, and North America, and range in date from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century. The selection was made in conjunction with Art 209, a studio course that teaches the fundamentals of intaglio printmaking including the techniques of etching and drypoint as well as aquatint, engraving, embossing, and stippling. One aim of this exhibition is to show both the complexity achieved by master etchers as well as the accessibility of the medium to those new to the print shop and artist’s studio. 

Armin Landeck, American, 1905–1984, Studio Interior #1, 1935, Drypoint on paper, Gift of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, 3rd (Blanchette Hooker, class of 1931), 1952.3.9.




Process is the guiding theme of the exhibition. While the production of an etching presents practical challenges, artists manipulate and test such constraints to achieve a wide variety of effects. To highlight this dynamism, the groupings of works are based not on subject, artist, or place of origin, but rather on categories particularly relevant to practitioners like cross-hatching, texture, and movement. This approach solicited a search through the collection for technically masterful and varied works, resulting in the display of several rarely seen in the galleries. Viewers are invited to engage with these prints as an artist might—seeking out not only form but the marks that construct it, not only color but the value that enlivens it, and not only line but the hand that made it. 

This exhibition was held in the Focus Gallery, spring 2020.

Crosshatching for Value

Layering of line is foundational to etching. This trio of works demonstrates the ways in which such layers lead to variation in value. Value is a term used to describe gradations of light and dark, apart from color. These etchings share the common medium of black ink on paper, yet they range from high contrast (Palmer), to mid-range contrast (Villon), to monotone (LeWitt). Together, these works also reveal the flexibility of crosshatching to serve images that are representational or abstract. Through skillfully manipulating layers of lines, these artists created alternately a bright moon against a night sky, a voluminous form suggestive of the human body, and a plane of dizzying yet uniform geometry.  

Creating Texture

Produced by artists from Japan, Italy, and Sweden, these small-scale heads not only have a common subject, but also showcase the potential of intaglio techniques to create texture. In Portrait, Komai produced a tactile effect in part through his use of contrast, namely between the smooth, inky planes of the face and the crinkly veins of the leaf “moustache.” Meanwhile, Tiepolo obscured the visage of his figure in favor of accumulating short strokes of the etching needle to depict a wild head of long hair and a massive beard. This coarseness extends to the background, also occupied by a frenzy of tiny, irregular marks. Finally, Zorn achieved in his self-portrait the virtuoso feat of portraying, with specificity, two types of fur in his hat and coat respectively, both of which appear soft and touchable in comparison to the roughness of Tiepolo’s work.

Gesture and Movement

Artists have long been attracted to etching because of its potential to replicate movement, as manifested in both subject matter and conveyance of the individual hand that created it. Using a needle against the pliable, heated surface of resin permits great freedom, allowing etching to capture in reproducible form the spontaneity of drawing. Artists who have mastered the technique harness this sense of movement in a variety of ways. Consummate etcher Rembrandt varied his handling within Death of the Virgin to create distinct earthly and heavenly realms, the latter comprised of more gestural lines that appear almost to unravel the composition. Klinger, in contrast, created a nearly static scene save for the ballerina’s skirt made up of swirling circles of drypoint that generate for the eye a pinwheel effect. Less intense but equally haunting are the swaying branches of Mangold’s tree, created through the burnishing, or attempted erasure, of drypoint lines of tree limbs that likens her winter scene to a slow, almost cinematic panorama.


These verdant still-lifes—in which houseplants appear to multiply spontaneously before our eyes—are in fact four states of the same etching. States refer to different versions of a print that result from a change made by the artist to the matrix (a general term for the object on which the design of the print is made). Because the ground layer and image reversal process can make it challenging to discern fully a design as it is being composed on the plate, artists use state proofs to periodically assess a composition in progress. Pulling a proof is the only way to determine  how much ink is being held by an etched line, and how values, achieved by the density as well as depth of line, relate to one another across the entire image. When several states of a single print are brought together, viewers can appreciate both the tangible artistic process and the iterative, even meditative, nature of printmaking.

Combining Line and Shape

Line and shape work in tandem in these prints. In some areas, the artists made marks with etching or drypoint tools, while in others they employed aquatint, an etching process in which areas coated with powdery resin—or more recently spray paint—are bitten to hold ink on the plate. The mottled texture and wash-like hues of aquatint achieve a solidity of color and tone that is not possible through line alone. The differences and complementary characteristics of these two etching techniques can be easily recognized in the print by Delaunay-Terk, as she placed side by side shapes made by aquatint and those made by line. Through aquatint, a range of effects can be achieved, including gradations in color (as in the print by Mikkigak) or crisp forms (as in the print by Ali).

Activating the Paper

Skilled etchers can transform the support of their prints, often a blank piece of paper, into dynamic components of their compositions. In these works, Peterdi and Smith both created powerful constellation-like effects enhanced by the negative space of the image. In Sunken Treasures, a muted, but not entirely uniform, gray plate tone dominates, while Bird with Stars is composed of dark-gray forms that appear to float on (or in?) a bright white field. Further enhancing this weighty three-dimensionality is the depth created by embossed borders of the stars. Both works also employ the traditional medium of etching while showing signs of departing from conventionwhether it is Peterdi employing stencils for color, or Smith and her printers using multiple plate cut-outs for the bird and stars.

Artist as Printmaker

Charles Meryon, French, 1821–1868. Le Tombeau de Molière (The Tomb of Molière), 1854. Etching and drypoint on laid paper. Purchase, Matthew Vassar Fund; 1976.36.

Unlike those who turn to professional printmakers to realize their compositions, the artists in this group all printed their own works. Meryon was a technically prodigious etcher, and his mastery of the medium drove him to work doggedly with a single copper plate, creating multiple states and varied impressions by adjusting his wiping of the ink. Bellin, on the other hand, made this snowy rooftop scene using drypoint, incising his line directly into the plastic plate also on view. Hassam likewise made his own impression, recorded as a “proof pulled by the artist.” As the page shows, this serene woodland scene (in which light skirts among birch trees and a wood-shingled barn) is in fact the product of manual labor. Evidence of Hassam’s effort includes a fingerprint at the paper’s edge and the pin holes along all four sides, which would have helped flatten the page after it had been dampened and run through the press.

How to Make an Etching

You will need a metal plate, waxy ground material, etching needle, acid, ink, water, and access to a printing press. 

  • Cover the plate on one side with a layer of ground (traditionally made of wax, resin, and tar) 
  • Make lines or marks on the ground with a needle or other tool, exposing areas of the plate to form desired image 
  • Place the plate in an acid bath, so that the acid “bites” into only the exposed lines creating grooves in the metal
  • Remove the plate from the acid and clean off the remaining protective ground layer
  • Ink the entire plate so that any etched marks below the surface become filled with ink
  • Wipe the plate so that ink remains only in the lines and marks etched by the acid, or leave additional areas of ink to create “plate tone”
  • Dampen a piece of paper and run it on top of the plate through the heavy rollers of a printing press
  • The image that appears on the paper, in reverse, is called an etching

Artist's Lecture: Kiki Smith