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The mezzotint

Joop Vegter

The word illezzotint (Italian mezza tinta, "halftone") is used to indicate a graphic technique as well as the print produced by it.
In comparison witli other graphic techniques such as woodcut, etching, lithograph and silkscreen, mezzotint is rarely practised, probably because it is an extrenlely laborious and tillie-consuming technique.

Mezzotint was invented by Ludwig von Siegen (born near Cologne in 1609). Around 1640 he stayed in Amsterdam for some time, where he made his first mezzotint in 1642.
His invention was the roughening of the surface of a copper plate with a 'roulette': this is an instrument with a small wheel covered with sharp points or ridges (see fig. 1).

By rolling this wheel across the copper plate with some pressure, small pits and burrs are thrown up in the copper plate.
Variation in the pressure causes the pits to become deeper or less so.
The result in the print is grey tones ranging from white to black.
By flattening the pits and burrs slightly in certain places, so that they held less ink and left a lighter impression, Ludwig von Siegen managed to give his print a great variety of grey tones blending with each other.
Von Siegen stayed in Amsterdam for several years at the time when Rembrandt lived there, and he may well have known Rembrandt's work.
His first mezzotint from 1642 was the portrait of Countess Amalia Elizabeth of Hesse-Kassel, widow of William V of Hesse-Kassel.
Ludwig von Siegen, himself an officer, had been appointed by her as her chamber esquire.
It is believed that Ludwig von Siegen met Prince Rupert of the Palatine in Brussels in 1654.
The latter was the son of Frederick V and Elizabeth Stuart, king and queen of Bohemia during the winter of 1619-1620.

After her husband's early death Elizabeth - 'the winter queen' - lived in exile in the Netherlands for 40 years.
From his mother's side Prince Rupert was a nephew of Charles Il of England.
It is Ludwig von Siegen who must have taught Prince Rupert the mezzotint technique. In 1658 his first mezzotint "The Great Executioner" appeared, which he made with the assistance of the French graphic artist Wallerant Vaillant after a painting by the Spanish painter De Ribera.

In 1660 Prince Rupert returned to England and introduced the mezzotint, which became a highly popular technique there.
The Dutch graphic artist Abraham Blooteling is credited with having invented the 'rocker' about 1675, although there is evidence that Ludwig von Siegen, too, may already have used the rocker.

The rocker is an instrument which is still used nowadays to make pits and burrs in the copper plate.
Mezzotint was highly suited for making reproductions of paintings and has been applied for that purpose almost exclusively.
There are two heydays: the first one was in the Netherlands in the last quarter of the 17th century with artists like Abraham Blooteling, Jan and Paul van Somer, Jan and Nicolaas Verkolje and Gerard Valk.
The second heyday is the great period of mezzotint: the 18th century in England, featuring important mezzotinters like John Raphael Smith, Richard Earlom, Valentin Green, William Pether, to name just a few.

After the middle of the 19th century the mezzotint technique fell into almost total disuse for making reproductions of paintings, due to the rise of the lithograph and of photographic reproduction techniques in particular.
In the past two or three decades, roughly from 1960/70, interest in mezzotint has been on the increase again world-wide, not only among a number of graphic artists, but also among collectors.
Nowadays mezzotint is used exclusively by artists to make their own, original graphic work.

The process of making a mezzotint can be divided into three stages:

  1. the preparation of the copper plate
  2. creating the image on the plate
  3. printing the plate.