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Sunday 5 August 2012

Passion in a Line: Rembrandt, Courtry & Chauvel

How can an artist show passion in a stroke?

Arguably the first printmaker who sought to contrive the appearance of natural energy, or what I wish to describe as passion, in his strokes is Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1431–1498) as seen in his remarkably large engraving, Battle of the Nudes, c. 1470 (see a wonderful article on this print published by the Cleveland Museum of Art at Why I choose the word “contrived” in terms of exhibiting passion is because Pollaiuolo (and his equally famous peer, Andrea Mantegna) engraved zigzag patterns of lines created out of individually laid strokes replicating the appearance of fluid return-strokes (i.e. a strong downward mark followed by the trace of a mark leading back to the beginning of the next strong downward mark) that artists achieve when working quickly with a pen (see illustration of the return-stroke below). What Pollaiuolo was consciously emulating is the “look” of speed and confidence. In short, he had found a way to capture one of the hallmarks of passion even though the process necessary to achieve the effect in engraving is far from a naturally spontaneous hand gesture with the burin.

Pollaiuolo’s return-stroke digitally modified from a detail 
Interestingly, the type of passion that Paollaiuolo exhibits in his carefully crafted return-strokes was taken a step further by Francesco Rosselli (c. 1445–before 1513) whose line work retains the “hooks” of the return line (i.e. the twist at the start and conclusion of each return-stroke as shown in the illustration below) without showing a fully inscribed zigzag of lines (see Landau, David and Parshall, Peter 1994, The Renaissance Print 1470–1550, Yale University Press, New Haven, p. 73.)

Rosselli’s hook-stroke digitally modified from Pollaiuolo’s return-stroke
Although the return-stroke epitomises natural fluidity of how an artist’s hand lays down a zigzag network of lines when shading—often described as “blocking-in” tones—there is more to exhibiting passion then leaving a trail of “z” marks like Zorro. Natural phrasing of the line also plays a role. Regarding phrasing, here the passion is revealed by the artist’s inherent propensity to vary the pressure when making each stroke resulting in changes of tone, opacity and thickness to the line along its length. Equally critical to exhibiting passion in natural phrasing of a line is the artist’s personal signature-style where each stroke is given a slight curvature.

Martin Schongauer (c.1448–91) is acclaimed to be the first printmaker to use phrased strokes, in terms of curved cross-hatched lines (see illustration below digitally extracted from his engraving, Christ as Man of Sorrows; half-length behind a balustrade between the Virgin on the left St John on the right, and angels above, 1469–82). Not only do variations in the length and thickness of his lines help to describe his subjects’ surface contours but the subtle shaping of each mark also hints at the spirit of the artist who laid each stroke.

digitally modified detail from the torso of Schongauer’s Christ as Man of Sorrows showing curved cross-hatching 
Rembrandt brought together the passion that Paollaiuolo sought with the return-stroke and the subtle phrasing of Schongauer’s curved strokes in his signature style. He uses this amalgam of the two strokes in an approach that may be described as haptic, in the sense that his strokes are applied in a sensory way (as opposed to a strictly visual way) to “feel” his portrayed subject into a visual form. In The Return of the Prodigal Son (shown below), for example, Rembrandt’s free use of the return-stroke (see detail further below) not only suggests the texture, tone and decoration on the cloak of the figure stepping out of the doorway but the marks also animate the curvature of his gown.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69)
The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1636
Signed and dated “Rembrandt f. 1626”
Only state
15.3 x 13.5 cm (plate); 28.3 x 20 cm (sheet)
Bartsch 91

This print has been sold

view of full sheet
Rembrandt, (detail) The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1636
With regard to Schongauer’s curved cross-hatching, note in the detail of the father’s gown shown below how Rembrandt applies a set of lines to shape the downward flow of the material along the father’s back and legs. Moreover, note how Rembrandt explores the opposing directional flow of the gown as it wraps around the father’s legs with another set of lines at almost right angles

Rembrandt, (detail) The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1636
One way to appreciate the subtle life in Rembrandt’s lines is to compare his line work with that of Charles Courtry’s (1846–97) in his engraved translation of Thomas de Keyser’s La Femme Du Bourgmestre (shown below). Both artists employ lines that curve according to the contours of the subject depicted (see detail of Courtry’s print further below) but the difference lies in the implied freshness of Rembrandt’s marks exhibited by their tiny hooked ends—Rosselli’s hook-stroke (compare the details of both artists’ lines shown further below).

Charles Courtry’s (1846–97)
after Thomas de Keyser’s painting, La Femme Du Bourgmestre
engraving with etching (and drypoint ?) on cream laid paper
32.9 x 26.5 cm (sheet)
Condition: strong impression without foxing or other blemishes with slight age toning. There are faint plate marks on the left and right sides but the print has either been cut at or within the plate mark on the top and bottom.  

(left) detail of Courtry’s contour strokes without Rosselli’s hook
(right) detail of Rembrandt’s contour strokes with Rosselli’s hook
(click to enlarge)
There is one final component giving passion to a line and it is to do with how an artist thinks about the negative space contained by each stroke (i.e. the space of paper that a curved stroke partially encloses). For calligraphers this is an important consideration as by not enclosing a pocket of space in the formation of a letter shape the overall design of a word becomes too open and the eye may not easily recognise the word-shape. As an example of this principle one of the world’s great calligraphers, Carl Rohrs, kindly wrote the word “Bounce” to demonstrate “closed” space and “Horse” to demonstrate “open” space (see below).

Carl Rohrs
Bounce, illustrating the principle of “closed” space to letter shapes
Horse, illustrating the principle of “open” space to letter shapes
In creating images the same principle is equally important, as closed spaces give coherence to the portrayal of a subject. Going further, the act of framing space around a subject shows that an artist is thoroughly engaged with the experience of looking and understanding the subject’s form. One of the best artists to demonstrate this idea of ensuring that each pocket of space contained within a line is important is the somewhat historically overlooked artist, Theophile Chauvel (see Environs de Rouen and Tronc d’arbre below). His choice of subject matter may lean to a romanticism of a fading age but the way that Chauvel arcs each of his strokes is like a sculptor passionately modelling and finding his forms in space as if they were clay. 

Theophile-Narcisse Chauvel (1831–1909)
Environs de Rouen, 1873
Etching on cream laid paper
Published by Cadart
15.8 x 23.6 cm (plate); 24.1 x 33.9 cm (sheet)
Condition: pristine.

Chauvel, (detail) Environs de Rouen, 1873
Theophile-Narcisse Chauvel (1831–1909)
After painting by Narcisse Diaz, Tronc d’arbre, 1890
Etching on cream laid paper
28.7 x 21.8 cm (plate); 42.2 x 29.3 (sheet)
Published by Cadart
15.8 x 23.6 cm (plate); 24.1 x 33.9 cm (sheet)
Condition: excellent.

Chauvel, (detail) Tronc d’arbre, 1890
Chauvel, (detail) Tronc d’arbre, 1890