Excelling in eerie effects and seductive textures, the late 17th-century medium of mezzotint blossomed from an amateur fascination and hobby of members of the nobility to the 18th century’s most popular reproductive printmaking method. Mezzotint engraving allowed artists to burnish soft highlights and volume into a textured copper plate that would otherwise print in a solid tone. This shading method contrasted dramatically with the standard intaglio medium, which involved either painstakingly incising engraved lines with a burin (a metal-cutting tool) or etching looser lines into a plate with acid. Ideal for nocturnal scenes, portraits, reproductions of paintings, lush landscapes, and garish anatomical and botanical studies, the versatile medium later lent itself to color printing and remains in use today.
Burnishing the Night brings together mezzotint prints, books with mezzotint illustrations, and other works on paper from the permanent collection that span the medium’s predominantly Northern European origins through its worldwide use in the 20th century. Several works in the show are by Irish mezzotint engravers, especially Thomas Frye, whose imaginative head studies will also be featured in this spring’s highly anticipated exhibition Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840. Frye’s evocative Young Man with a Candle from 1760 demonstrates the liquid effects made possible by the mezzotint medium, from the bulging, startled eyes to the dancing candlelit shadows and dripping wax. The viewer waits with bated breath along with this startled youth, enjoying the theatrical uncertainty of a ghost story, printed in velvet tones.
A complementary and concurrent installation in Gallery 208A, Printing Darkness and Light in the Dutch Republic, details how Rembrandt and other artists created their own dramatic “Dark Manner” or “Night Pieces” without the use of mezzotint.