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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Wenceslaus Hollar

The Coronation of Charles II, 1662, etching by Wenceslaus Hollar.
When we think about art, painting and drawing seem to be the first things to come to mind. Only secondarily do we consider areas of art such a sculpture, architecture, product design and any number of literary and "performing arts." Even in considering drawing as one of the two "primary" forms of art (very little in the way of art can be accomplished without drawing skills), we tend to think almost exclusively of the old No. 2 pencil on some kind of snow white paper. Yet such drawings, using whatever form of carbon is handy, are thought of mostly as a means to an end--an intermediate stage necessary for evolving and firming up the artist's ideas. However, drawings are also an end product. I've undoubtedly sold more drawings (portraits) than I've ever sold paintings. And, during the past several hundred years since the invention and perfecting of intaglio printing techniques, far more etched drawings have been printed and sold than all the other two-dimensional forms of art combined. Just ask any art dealer.
Christ before Pilate, 1650, etching by Wenceslaus Hollar.
Self-portrait, ca. 1635-40
Wenceslaus Hollar was a Czech etcher born in 1607. As an artist precisely in the middle of the Dutch Golden age, he is perhaps unique in the fact that, so far as I know, he never touched a paint brush in his entire life. Even his etched self-portrait (left) was copied from a painting of him by another artist. Does that make him any less of an artist? Of course not; perhaps even more of an artist, in fact. How many other artist of that era could boast over 2,700 works of art created over a forty-year span in their careers? That, by the way, counts only etched plates, not the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of prints each plate generated.
A Hollar etching from 1645 based upon
Albrecht Durer's 1498 self-portrait.
Hollar was a great admirer of Durer.
So, what did this super-prolific artist/etcher/publisher put out to make him so popular with the the northern European masses? Well, just about everything and anything he thought might turn a pound, mark, guilder, or any other form of legal tender his way. Literally, he produced everything from maps (bottom) to caps and hogs to dogs. You name it, Hollar, at one time or another, created or copied it (in the days before copyright laws). Pictures of high-fashion ladies were quite popular. So were exotic zoo animals (like an elephant), bugs and butterflies, roads and toads, portraits, religious scenes, landmarks, current events, livestock, pets, and virtually any illustration any publisher had need for.
Pigs and Donkeys, 1632, Wenceslaus Hollar
African Boy,
Wenceslaus Hollar
Though born in Prague, Hollar left the Bohemian area at age twenty and traveled all over Germany, soaking up wherever he went painting, sculpture, the landscape, and the technical demands of the German-invented, but Italian-named art of Intaglio (pronounced in-TAL-eo). In 1635, Hollar went to England the protege and employee of Thomas Howard, the Earl of Arundel who had a very extensive art collection. He wanted Wenceslaus Hollar to document and catalogue each painting with an etching. The Earl had hundreds of pieces so, of course, the task was never completed. But the portion of the English nobleman's noble collection Hollar was able to document has been a unique and highly valuable asset for art historians in the centuries since. They are the only surviving images of some works.

Five butterflies, a moth, and two beetles, 1646, Wenceslaus Hollar
--anything that would sell.

High fashion in the 40s
(the 1640s, that is).
Hollar was wise enough, or lucky enough, to have left England around 1642 (some sources say 1644) before the just months before the little tiff between Charles I and Parliament erupted into all out civil war, but not before publishing a book of fashion plates titled: The Ornatus Muliebris Anglicanus, or The Severall Habits of English Women and the /Seasons (1640). Hollar settled in Antwerp where he continued doing etchings and illustrations for book publishers. Around 1652, Hollar returned to England, but it was not the same England he'd left. The war had changed things. So tied to the "old" England were his fortunes as an artist that the war left him devastated financially. Wenceslaus Hollar died a pauper in 1667. His last words were a plea for the authorities not to carry away the bed he was dying on.

Map of London, 1633, Wenceslaus Hollar--before the underground.


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