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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Hendrik Goltzius

Lot Being Seduced by his Daughters, 1616, Hendrik Goltzius
Hendrik Goltzius Self-portrait, 1590-92
Very often in writing about western art, I've made mention of the so-called Dutch Golden Age of painting, which roughly coincides with the 17th century following the Eighty Years War and the establishment of the Dutch Republic in 1581. Within less than a generation, what we now term the "low countries" united to become the most prosperous nation in Europe. As I've often noted, but it bears repeating, peace begets prosperity and prosperity begets art. But what about the art and artist who came just before the Golden Age, who, in effect, trained the artists of the Golden Age. We don't much talk about them. One of them we don't much talk about is Hendrik Goltzius (right).
The Physician as God, 1587, Hendrik Goltzius, the first of a series of four intaglio prints
depicting the various incarnations of a doctor. The second and third depict an angel and an ordinary man, while the fourth (below) depicts the doctor as the devil collecting his fee.

The engraver's tools
Hendrik Goltzius was born in 1558 in the Netherlands near the German border. About a hundred years earlier, the Germans had invented a method of printmaking called intaglio (pronounced: in-TAL-eo). Why the Germans gave it an Italian name, no one seems to know. For those not familiar with the term, the method involves the coating of a zinc or copper plate with an acid-resistant resin (usually wax or tar). Once that surface is dry, the artist uses a burin (a pointed metal stylus) to scratch into the surface coating the image he or she wishes to print. It's a long, tedious process, but suffice to say, once the image suits the artist, the plate is submerged in a nitric acid bath which "bites" into the exposed metal of the etched lines to create a groove in the plate.
Inscribing the image into the
resin coating of the plate.
Once the groove is deep enough, the plate is removed, washed, and the resin coating dissolved. The plate is then polished with talc then covered with an oil-based ink. The ink is then wiped from the surface (absolutely no fun at all) leaving a tiny amount in the grooves. The plate is then printed using a heavy, damp paper under the high pressure of a crude printing press. The paper is forced down into the grooves of the plate where it picks up the ink remaining there. The image is thus transferred to the paper. If the artist is not satisfied, the whole process begins again as more etching (and a darker print) ensues (called proofing). The artist may also work over the plate without the coating and etching steps in a technique called "dry-point." Intaglio is the exact opposite of relief printing and far more intricate than this, but to make a long story short, Hendrik Goltzius was an expert engraver.
The Physician as Satan (in collecting his fee), 1587, Hendrik Goltzius
Study of a Hand, Hendrik Goltzius
(his own).
When young Hendrik was a child of three, his right hand was severely burned, causing a deformity that that later was to severely handicapped his ability to hold and manipulate the all-important burin. Despite this, over the course of the first forty-two years of his life, Goltzius is credited with having created some 388 prints, with a further 574 more etched by other printmakers after his designs. His engravings cover the whole range of common subject matter of his time from religious works to mythology, portraits, history, and genre, even household pets. The complex, time-consuming etching and printing process dictated that artists made prints the emerging Dutch middle-class could and would buy. Although engraving was a highly respected artists' profession, painting was considered the ultimate art. So, around 1600, at the age of forty-two, Hendrik Goltzius gave up printmaking in favor of painting.
The Sleeping Danae Being Prepared to Receive Jupiter, 1603, Hendrik Goltzius
Hercules and Cacus, 1613.
Hendrik Goltzius
As might be expected, Goltzius' first paintings were a bit rough but as his 1590-92 self-portrait (top, right) attests, he had the knack. Basically, his subject matter changed little as he changed media. He tended toward mythology and biblical stories such as his Lot Being Seduced by his Daughters (top), from 1616. His most famous work was his 1603 The Sleeping Danae Being Prepared to Receive Jupiter (above). Apparently mythological eroticism was a big seller too. His Hercules and Cacus (left) seems to have been painted first without the head of Hercules, which was added later, possibly copied from a painted portrait. The flesh tones seem mismatch, as is the angle of the head. The daughter on the left side of Goltzius' Lot Being Seduced by his Daughters (top) has a similar problem, except it appears too small for the body. It contrasts sharply with the portrait-like detail of the other two faces in the painting.

The Fall of Man, 1616, Hendrik Goltzius. Notice, the snake in the tree has
a female face (as did that of Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling snake).
The Fall of Man (detail), the cat is nude too.
Likewise, both heads in Goltzius' The Fall of Man (above), from 1616, seem slightly out of proportion with the massive nude figures. Each of the animals depicted are said to have an allegorical meaning regarding the scene but if so, any such meaning would seem to be a thin, moral rationale attempting to justify the painting of socially acceptable nude figures during that era. I do like the cat, though.


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