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Jacques Callot

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Jacques Callot
French
(Nancy, France, 1592 - 1635, Nancy, France)

Jacques Callot, French engraver and draughtsman, has been revered for over 300 years by artists, collectors and critics alike as one of the greatest graphic artists of all time and the "father of French etching". (1) Callot was one of the first major artists to work solely in the graphic arts, and the quality and quantity of his output is a testament to his greatness. This greatness, as explained by Callot scholar Edwin Bechtel, "cannot be explained by his heredity or local background. His genius was as inexplicable as any biological mutation." (2) He etched over fourteen-hundred plates during his short life of forty-three years, depicting a wide range of subjects including battles, sieges, hangings, fetes, and hunts and various types of people from kings and noblemen to gypsies, beggars and actors. He is highly regarded both for the eclectic character of his subjects, and for his ability to convey deep human emotion and the atmosphere surrounding specific activities with accuracy and consistency. While working for kings, dukes, bishops, friars, book publishers and printsellers in several countries, he created a diary of the life and times of the early seventeenth century.

Callot's life began in 1592 in the provincial town of Nancy in the Duchy of Lorraine. Artistic ambitions lured him away in 1608 when he journeyed to Rome with his father who, because of the important office he held at the Duke Charles IV's court, was appointed to lead the delegation sent to the papal court after Charles' death. The young, aspiring artist stayed in Rome for three years, and then proceeded to Florence in 1612 where he remained contentedly for ten years. He was chosen by the Grand Duke Cosimo II to join the multitude of artists sponsored by the Medicis, but unfortunately, after Cosimo's death in 1621, the Medici empire suffered financial hardships making it necessary to dissolve many artist sponsorships, including Callot's. Heavy hearted, he arrived back in Nancy on May 15, 1621. In provincial Nancy, etchers were not in high demand, and the ducal court was not willing to hire him, so he began etching drawings he had done in Florence and re-etching worn plates. Finally in 1627 he left for the Netherlands to fulfill a commission for the Infanta Isabella, Governess of the Spanish Netherlands. For two years he travelled between Nancy and the Netherlands in order to complete this commission. From 1629 to 1631 he made two visits to Paris, where he fulfilled other commissions and made drawings for his own pleasure. Callot returned to Nancy in 1631 and spent the remainder of his life there until his death in 1635.

The influences on Callot's oeuvre were many. His life began in Nancy, the capital of the independent Duchy of Lorraine. Its geographic location placed it near important trade routes, along which artists from the north and south passed on their way to Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. To its detriment, however, its location also made it vulnerable to warring forces that left death and destruction in their wake. Furthermore, Nancy, being independent of France, experienced its own share of battles and sieges during Callot's time. The terror and horrific experiences that accompany war no doubt left emotional scars on the young boy that became apparent later in his work. Callot was introduced to art and to court life at an early age because his father was a painter and, for some period of time, an officer of heraldry at the Duke's court, for which he designed coats of arms and helped organize court fetes and other ceremonies. His parents first apprenticed him to a goldsmith and engraver in Nancy under whom, Edwin Bechtel points out, he would have received "expert training" in using a burin and would have studied masters of engraving. (3) Because of his father's position, he had contact with the court painters, Claude Henriet and Jacques Bellange, who instructed him in drawing. From Bellange, Callot would have been introduced to the Mannerist style with its elongated figures and distorted scale and perspective. Also with these two painters Bechtel believes he may have come in contact with and been influenced by the works of Frederic Brentel, who engraved "striking, expressive, vertical figures", and Matthieu Merian's topographical landscapes. At this same time he may have studied Martin Schongauer's engravings whose compositions include many intricately composed figures and minute detail. (4)

It has been said that Callot experienced his artistic awakening in Italy. (5) When he arrived in Rome in 1608, he began taking drawing lessons from the very popular Florentine engraver/painter, Tempesta and soon after became an assistant to Tempesta's friend Philippe Thomassin, a successful French artist and printseller in Rome. Thomassin taught Callot much about the artistic use of the burin, and by the time Callot left Rome, his works proved he was mastering the tool. (6) During his time with Thomassin, he was able to copy engravings of the masters and received much experience with religious subjects in order to supply the shop with the large editions of engravings of religious paintings that were in such great demand. Also at this workshop, he came into contact with Villamena, a well-known engraver of this time, who frequented Thomassin's workshop. From him Callot got the idea of putting large figures in the foreground to give distance to the landscapes in the background and was influenced by the style of his engraved beggars. A most notable influence on Callot's technique obtained in Rome and later applied in his Florentine etchings was Agostino Carracci's method of spacing and curving parallel lines and of swelling and tapering individual lines to represent light and shade, a practice of most engravers in Italy at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Bechtel tells of the possibility of Callot acquiring firsthand knowledge of this technique when he points to the fact Thomassin retouched several of Carracci's engravings during Callot's stay at the workshop. (7) In 1611, Callot was hired by Tempesta to help execute twenty-six drawings for The Funeral Book of the Queen of Spain, and, once completed, sent Callot to Florence to deliver them to Giulio Parigi at the Medici court.

Giulio Parigi was one of the best-known artists sponsored by the Medici. He was an architect, mathematician, military engineer, designer of court festivities, teacher and one of Italy's first etchers. Callot apprenticed under Parigi and began to learn the fine art of etching. While documenting the many court festivities designed and organized by Parigi for the flamboyant Cosimo II Callot received experience in drawing and etching. In less than two years, Callot's artistic ability afforded him a sponsorship with the Medici. While serving them for the next ten years, he continued to spend much of his time making official visual records of court festivities and theatrical performances, and illustrated many books, the most important being the Guide Book to the Holy Land, for which he had to draw buildings and topographical details. In addition, he recorded battles, fetes, construction sites, naval battles, and ballet scenes. There in Florence, one of Europe’s most renowned art centers at the time, Callot was exposed to the styles of various artistic traditions including the late Renaissance, Mannerist, baroque, and the realism of Caravaggio. Callot was happy in Florence, but unfortunately, after Cosimo II's death, he had no choice but to return to his native Nancy, which he did in 1621. Sadly, he was never able to fulfill his dream of returning to the place that had provided him with so much artistic knowledge and experience and great personal enjoyment.

The people, places and events Callot experienced during his lifetime shaped his art, and his prints in turn greatly influenced many of his contemporaries and future generations of artists. A. Hyatt Mayor tells us he was "the first inventive international printmaker, who discovered new subjects for art with new techniques for presenting them." (8) Callot introduced two technical innovations that revolutionized printmaking using copper plates. While experimenting with etching in Florence, he began using the hard varnish of the lute-maker, as opposed to the typical hard, waxy ground used by etchers to stop out the copper plate. This hard varnish ground was not as prone to flaking and gave Callot more control over his lines, allowing him to stop out and re-bite whenever necessary. He also developed an instrument known as the échoppe, a steel cylinder honed to a slant at the end that gives the etcher more freedom of execution and makes it possible to imitate engraved lines. These advances spread throughout Europe mainly due to the publication in 1645 of a treatise that focused on the use of these techniques. However, even before this treatise, many artists were familiar with and influenced by Callot's expertise. Perhaps the most notable was Rembrandt Van Rijn. Dr. Otto Benesch, director of the Albertina Museum in Vienna, noted that, "without Callot, Rembrandt's early style of drawing and etching is unthinkable." (9) It is known that Rembrandt owned a portfolio of Callot’s etchings and adopted the subject of beggars in the manner of Callot. Another Netherlandish artist affected by Callot was Anthony Van Dyke. Soon after Callot visited the Netherlands in 1627 and Van Dyke painted his portrait, Van Dyke began using the hard etching varnish for his portrait etchings. Wenzel Hollar, a Bohemian etcher, introduced Callot's techniques and subject matter into England. William Hogarth, an English painter and printmaker, was influenced by and collected Callot’s work. In addition to these and many others, it is known that Velasquez saw Callot's great etching, The Siege of Breda before printing his in 1634/35, and that Goya was influenced by his last great series of etchings, Grandes Miseres de la Guerre. Writers including Goethe, Sir Walter Scott and the German romanticist E.T.A. Hoffman, refer to Callot in their works, and Gustav Mahler composed a "Dead March in Callot's Manner" in his Symphony in D Major No. 1. It is understandable why Callot is considered "one of the most significant graphic artists of all time". (11)

Callot's oeuvre represents the life and times in which he lived, and can generally be divided into five categories. The first division, labeled Ambience by Callot scholor Diane Russell, consists of several different subjects. Included are fetes, large, often open air entertainments, many of which were held in Florence under the patronage of Duke Cosimo II. Dedicated to the Duke in 1619 was the great etching, L'Impruneta (The Fair at Impruneta), "his greatest achievement in Italy and perhaps his entire career," with over eleven hundred people, forty-five horses, sixty-seven donkeys and one hundred and thirty-seven dogs. (11) Also included in this subject category are hunts, funeral and marriage ceremonies, punishments (such as hangings, disembowelings and beheadings), and portraits of the nobility and beggars. One of Callot's most famous series is The 25 Beggars from which Rembrandt acquired his manner of etching beggars.

Another category is the military subjects, a small yet significant part of his oeuvre. During Callot's time, military confrontations in Europe where a constant, and Callot was commissioned to record three important battles, The Siege of Breda, depicting the Spanish defeating the Dutch in 1625, The Siege of the Isle of Re, depicting Cardinal Richelieu leading the defeat of the British in 1627, and The Siege of La Rochelle, picturing Richelieu's defeat of the Huguenots in 1628. These works are three of his largest and greatest etchings. Callot also portrayed imaginary events documenting the common atrocities of war. The best known of these is the series The Large Miseries of War depicting events in the life of a soldier.

The category comprised of Callot's religious subjects represents his largest body of works with 580 etched between 1631 and his death in 1635. His subjects are taken from the New Testament and histories of saints and martyrs.

Out of fourteen hundred prints, only fourteen are pure landscapes forming two series, The Four Landscapes and Various Italian Landscapes. Most of his experience in this genre was gained during his time with Parigi. His first landscape drawings were made around 1618 to 1620 and resemble Parigi's with their horizontal format and buildings and leafy trees placed close to the picture plane. His landscapes picture farmhouses, churches, chateaus, ports, riverbanks, bridges, gardens, grottos and village streets.

Callot’s theatrical prints are considered a very significant part of his body of work. Most of his theatrical prints were executed in Florence and offer an historical account of early seventeenth-century performances. In addition to recording court performances or carnival festivals that celebrate events in the life of his patrons such as the Medici, he depicted characters from low-life (a series known as the Varie Figure Gobbi) and street theatre, the commedia dell’arte.

(1) Edwin De T. Bechtel, Jacques Callot (NewYork: George Braziller, Inc., 1955) (endflap)
(2) Bechtel, p. 11.
(3) Bechtel, p. 11.
(4) Bechtel, p. 10.
(5) Bechtel, p. 11.
(6) Bechtel, p. 14.
(7) Bechtel, p. 13.
(8) A. Hyatt Mayor, Prints & People: a social history of printed pictures (Connecticut: The Meriden Gravure Company, 1971), p. 454, 460.
(9) Bechtel, p. 5.
(10) H. Diane Russell, Jacques Callot ,Prints & Related Drawings (Connecticut: The Meriden Gravure Company,1975), p. xvii.
(11) Bechtel, p. 21.

Laura Pace, July, 1996 (rev. MLA 30 July 2007)


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