The painting, included in the exhibition “Aquatint: from its origins to Goya”, uses the techniques of etching and aquatint, but it owes its dramatic side to the latter, which produces areas of tonal rather than lines. You can see the aquatint in the landscape receding into the distance in faded shades of brown – or in the muddy foreground rolling towards his feet like an eerie mist. Her robes, depicted with contrasting shadows, hang over her, while her off-white chest appears in contrast, as if drained of color and air. At the bottom of the page, a caption reads: “I feel like I’m out of breath.
Popularized in Europe in the 1700s, aquatint, named for its resemblance to watercolour, introduced new textures to printmaking. (It works by exposing an acid copper plate through a layer of granulated resin, leaving an evenly pitted surface that creates a wide range of tones in the final print..) Clouds appear luminescent and watery; the smoke spreads over the page, ghostly and gassy; the water seems fluid and dynamic. Francisco Goya, the most famous artist associated with the technique, embraced the haunting potential of aquatint to create harrowing images that confused politics and society in his “Los Caprichos” and “Disasters of War” series.
The rise of aquatint is perhaps not so different from any modern innovation in image making. Some say that color television has reduced the psychological distance between the viewer and the events on screen. And TikTok, a social app full of short ambient videos paired with music, has been credited with a renewed sensitivity to “vibes,” or the emotional energy of a place.
A look at the mysterious “Tomb with Standing Death” (1779/1784) by Louis-Jean Desprez, which shows smoke rising from an altar, or the cozy “Self-Portrait with Wounded Foot” by Joseph Fischer from 1798, which depicts the artist reading in the dark, and you can see how aquatint not only captures the “what” of a place, but also its atmosphere. With a grainy texture and rich shading, aquatint is suitable for the atmosphere – ideal for depicting moonlight dancing on a calm sea or a flickering flame in a claustrophobic interior.
These days, when you can buy “Starry Night” socks and “Great Wave” T-shirts, it’s hard to imagine a time when the art couldn’t be easily replicated. But part of the excitement around aquatint was that it could mimic the qualities of other artistic mediums: painterly brushstrokes, subtle ink tones, flowing watercolors. Compared to older printmaking techniques, which relied on lines and created images with a more mechanical look, aquatint prints appear machine-independent, closer to the artist’s hand.
As expressive as painting, but as reproducible as a woodcut, the process of aquatint was perfected in the 1760s by Jean-Baptiste Le Prince – the first “celebrity of aquatint”, according to the text of the wall – who tried to keep his methods a secret. It was in vain.
As aquatint spread in Europe, it found pragmatic uses. In the show, there is an advertisement in a catalog for a fireplace; works by art collectors who have used it to document their objects; and prints by artists who used it to study other artists. In a way, what is presented are 18th century fixations, the images that people wanted to multiply: a healthy dose of neoclassical imagery; copies of old masters; popular Russian scenes from The Prince; and the occasional volcano – which could be rendered with greater scientific accuracy through aquatint.
But the aquatint did more than reproduce the past. The medium seems almost skewed towards darkness, and ultimately the darkness of the present became its most compelling subject matter.
In 1797, Giovanni De Pian was commissioned by the Venetian government to make engravings reflecting the decrepit and inhuman state of the prisons. They show figures of exaggerated dimensions, crammed into small underground cells, whose damp walls seem to be crushed on all sides. Here, the medium’s dark, cloudy texture appears as a constricted vision at the edges of the view.
Francisco Goya, the longtime Spanish court painter, could surely have adopted the aquatint process for the same reasons as some earlier artists: as an expression of technical skill. But instead, he created surreal, almost unbalanced scenes that criticized politicians, war and inequality.
In “Nada” (1810/1820), from the “Disasters of War” series, a skeletal figure lies, half-buried, as if struggling to rise from the grave. His white lips and black eyes are raw with pain – his chest fuzzy and blotchy, as if lit by headlights, just outside the frame. “And they still don’t leave!” (1799) shows a single, emaciated man struggling to prevent a wall from collapsing onto the mutilated, emaciated figures at his feet. Above, a grayness hovers in the sky, ready to descend with unwavering finality.
Like any new technology, aquatint, in its early days, embraced an idealism, found in prints depicting fantasies of classical antiquity. But Goya and De Pian took it beyond that, exposing injustices hidden in public view – and often in the conscious mind – with gnawing nihilism. Their subjects were the outcasts and the depraved. Paradoxically, because it tends towards obscurity, aquatint has the power for them to bring to light the darkest truths of reality.
Aquatint: from its origins to Goya
National Gallery of Art, West Building, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-737-4215. nga.gov.