Mezzotint is the spookiest medium. This engraving process is perfect for nocturnal effects, as it starts with a roughed-up printing plate that prints in pure black. Any light sources—especially candles, fires, and glowing ingots—are added by burnishing in smoother areas, which print in lighter tones. Two exhibitions opening at the Art Institute this spring feature an abundance of mezzotint engravings. Fans of society portraiture will appreciate the velvet textures and pearl-strewn accessories lavished throughout Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design 1690-1840 (opening March 17 in Regenstein Hall). For those seeking a more sinister bedtime story, Burnishing the Night: Baroque to Contemporary Mezzotints from the Collection (opening February 21 in the Prints and Drawings Galleries 125-127) revels in artificial light, Old Testament lightning bolts, and garishly colored disembodied heads.
Yet two of the scariest head studies to 18th-century eyes might not have been Jacques Gautier d’Agoty’s Cranial Dissection. Instead, they are the Irish artist Thomas Frye’s Young Man with a Candle (top image), whose bulging eyes scan the room for inexplicable horrors, and the English artist Philip Dawe’s Female Lucubration (image immediately above), which hangs next to it in the show. Dawe’s maidservant, reaching up for a book in the dead of night, is clearly up to no good. Is she is actually “lucubrating” (studying at night using artificial light)? Or is she simply pilfering her mistress’s saucier novels (perhaps the banned Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure). The “Novel-Reading Panic” throughout Europe in the 18th century expressed the moral anxiety over what, and if women were reading, just as the first Gothic novel was published. Literacy was a deeply frightening topic.
As the popularity of the mezzotint continued (the latest item in the show is from 2007), in 1905, the English writer M. R. James wrote a short story, called “The Mezzotint,” in which an image of an anonymous country house changes of its own accord. While the story does not refer to a real print, Allaert van Everdingen’s Baroque Landscape in the Dark Manner (above) gives a similar feeling of ambiguity. Like the children in Roald Dahl’s The Witches ,who vanish into paintings and grow old in them, or Doctor Who’sWeeping Angels, who only move when no one is watching, a kidnapping or murder is reenacted within the space of the print. From "The Mezzotint":
At last, some time past midnight, he was disposed to turn in, and he put out his lamp after lighting his bedroom candle. The picture lay face upwards on the table . . . What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now that if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit. But, as that did not happen he was able to put down the light on the table and take a good look at the picture. It was indubitable—rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o'clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all-fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.
The protagonist, a print curator at Oxford or Cambridge, keeps watch as the print turns from day to night, the ghostly figure enters the house, and then sneaks away, with a child under his arm. The curator buys the print for his collection, but keeps a careful eye on it. As with any mezzotint, the textures lead to multiple interpretations. Once the tragic story within the mysterious print ran its course, however, that was that: “. . . though carefully watched, [the mezzotint] has never been known to change again.” In the flickering candlelight of Burnishing the Night, who knows what you’ll see?
Thomas Frye. Young Man with a Candle, 1760. Gift of Dorothy Braude Edinburg to the Harry B. and Bessie K. Braude Memorial Collection.
Philip Dawe. Female Lucubration: Étude Nocturne, 1772. Gift of Langdon Pearce
Allart van Everdingen. Landscape in the Dark Manner, 1657–61. Alsdorf Fund