The Painter and the Print

Rubens understood the value of prints in spreading an artist's fame and fostered close relationships with printmakers, attempting to make them sensitive to his needs and mould their style. Jordaens too exploited the medium, and Van Dyck – whose work is explored in a separate section – devoted considerable effort to it. Printmaking was collaborative, painters calling upon the services of other artists and craftsmen to assist them. Every print exhibited here was the result of an often complex process of creation. The creators' respective roles are often signalled by text inscribed on the prints themselves, yet much went unsaid.

The majority of these prints are engravings, a demanding technique requiring the artist to turn to a highly skilled printmaker. After the design was transferred to the surface of a copper plate, the printmaker would use a special tool to cut narrow channels into the metal; these channels held the ink. The lines of an engraving are precise and controlled, the black of the ink contrasting strongly with the white paper. The style is formal and "professional," revealing the hand of the trained engraver and his mastery of the craft. Engravings would normally be credited to both the artist who had created the composition and who – in the case of Rubens ­– carefully oversaw the process, and the printmaker who had "translated" the image into another medium – very different from the anonymity of workshop assistants, and a testament to the importance of the engravers, independent artists.

In contrast, etching required less professional training, and was well-suited to an amateur: a copper plate would first be coated with a layer of wax, through which the artist would draw with a point, revealing the metal below. Acid would then be applied, eating away the exposed copper (hence "etching"); the plate would then be cleaned, and the resulting troughs bitten into the plate would hold the ink. The line is freer, responsive to the painter's hand, but unable to easily convey emphasis. Its simplicity meant that painters had sometimes turned to it.

Rubens is known to have been interested in the technique and, although the attribution has been disputed, St. Catherine is likely by him, assisted by a printmaker.1 It dates to the early 1620s, at a time when Rubens was working on a cycle of ceiling paintings to decorate the newly built Jesuit church in Antwerp. The print is a close variation on the corresponding painting, even retaining its perspective, as if we are looking up at the saint above us.2 Rubens drew through the wax with a stylus to locate forms, then worked up the composition with hatching; a few pentiments, such as the drapery that once partly covered the saint's left arm as in the painting, are visible. 3 Etching the plate in acid required some experience and, although the result shows some imperfections, Rubens likely turned to a printmaker. Rubens then had a counterproof made, which he marked up with pen and ink to show where he wanted changes made 4 A trained printmaker then finished it, adding lines and little flecks by engraving to strengthen the shadows and modify form, subtly transforming the image. The copper plate was later engraved with the statement "P. Paul Rubens made [it]," ignoring the unknown engraver's contribution. It is unclear when this claim of sole authorship was added to the plate, and whether it was made by Rubens himself.

In the hands of the painter, etching was valued for its autograph qualities – the artist could create without relying on an engraver to act as intermediary. In the case of the St. Catherine, we know this was something of a fiction. Little is known about the public's perception of this print, however, given that the print lacks a privilege – effectively a warning that the design was not to be copied – we know it likely never entered the marketplace during Rubens' lifetime. It may have circulated privately among Rubens' circle of friends and acquaintances as a gift – assuming it was printed in any quantity. Its viewers would have recognized the model and been struck by the difference between this etching and the engravings made after Rubens' other paintings – a deliberate exercise on the artist's part following the precedent of painters who had turned to the medium before him. Rubens' print was informal, less polished and perhaps, to a man like Rubens, conscious of his public persona and dignity, more private and so unsuitable for widespread sale.5

The technique of etching also interested etchings are sometimes attributed to him, the subjects taken from religion, mythology and proverbial wisdom, giving a taste of his range. Certain compositions derive from paintings, others seem to have been made for the prints.6 The examples exhibited here show a proverb, " The master pulls the cow out of the ditch by its tail," meaning that if you want it done, you must do it yourself,  and a scene from mythology, the infant Jupiter being fed, greedily drinking from a goat's dugs.

The inscriptions simply claim Jordaens as the "inventor" of the images, not that he also made them. The division of labour between invention and execution was the foundation of the workshop, yet it is rarely stated so clearly as on prints. This group of etchings was attributed to him at least by the early eighteenth century, undoubtedly because of their technique and their roughness.7 These were considered the hallmarks of a painter's – not a professional printmaker's – work, where direct expression was more important than refinement and polish. We can easily imagine Jordaens making, or having made, these etchings in emulation of such painters' prints – if it were not for that fact that Jordaens did not make this claim. He ran a large, productive workshop and, in this context, the division between "inventing" and "making" was clear.8 Unlike Rubens, Jordaens seems not to have worked closely with printmakers; etching may have been a means of bypassing them, as it required less training and could be done in the artist's studio. For all their kinship to painters' occasional experiments in printmaking, perhaps these prints were simply meant to be different: rougher images made at Jordaens' direction, perhaps targeted at a different audience.

Woodcut was another printmaking technique practiced at this time.9 The printmaker tranfers the design to a piece of wood and, unlike engraving or etching, cuts away only those areas that are not to be printed; the remaining surface is inked and an impression is taken. The technique saw a revival c. 1600 in Italy, which must have influenced Rubens. In the early 1630s, Rubens turned to Christoffel Jegher to make a number of woodcuts; the results are distinctive, and Rubens must have been closely involved in their production. He began with a model, paying particular attention to tonal values, then either he or Jegher would have drawn on the wood block, translating tone into line.10 Susanna and the Elders, exhibited here, relies for much of its effect on parallel lines that describe surface topography, contrasted with the white of the paper, which acts as brilliant highlights on the figures. The swelling and tapering lines are precise and controlled, and the effect is like an engraving, only on a much larger scale. The result is caught between abstraction and description – flesh, fabric and stone are rendered uniform by the carefully controlled line, while the fountain is a tour-de-force, sensitively capturing the optical effects of the water falling into the pool.

The text may strike modern viewers as intrusive: it clearly demarcates the artists' responsibility, stating that Rubens "drew and published," while Jeghers "engraved," meaning carved the woodblock; the hierarchy between the two goes unsaid, but would have been clear to contemporaries. Rubens' privilege, a statement that the image was protected from piracy, is also added, and this print was intended for sale. The result is a remarkable accomplishment: the size of a small picture for a collector's cabinet, it is bold and refined, and among the most successful prints of its kind.


Attributed to Peter Paul Rubens together with an unknown engraver
Saint Catherine  early 1620s
Etching & engraving, 29.4 × 19.9 cm (plate)
Purchased 1931, no. 3848

Hind 1923 A1: state: iii (iii)

After Jacob Jordaens
The Master Pulls the Cow Out of the Ditch by its Tail  1652
Etching & engraving, 22.7 × 31.4 cm (plate)
Purchased 1976, no. 18645

d'Hulst 1993 B99

Here described as state: iii (iii). For an example of the first state before lettering see the impression in the British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings, S.5011.

The title follows d'Hulst in Antwerp 1993, no. B99. The subject is sometimes claimed to be a mythological scene, Cacus Stealing the Cattle of Hercules; the first instance dates to the early eighteenth century, when it was used by the Mariette family of print publishers and sellers (as discussed in the text above). Presumably the Mariettes were misled by the presence of the other mythological scenes among the seven etchings in this group and assumed Jordaens was treating the subject in an almost burlesque fashion.

After Jacob Jordaens
The Infant Jupiter Fed by the Goat Amalthea 1652
Etching, 21.4 × 29.7 cm (plate)
Purchased 1973, no. 17206

d'Hulst 1993 B96: state: i (ii)

Christoffel Jegher after Peter Paul Rubens
Susanna and the Elders
c. 1632–35
Woodcut. 43.7 × 57.5 cm (block)
Purchased 1999, no. 40099

Hollstein vol. ix, Jegher no. 1
Here described as state: ii (iii). The 1st state, a proof, is in the Stedelijk Pretenkabinet, Antwerp.

1 See Hind 1923, Vleighe 1972, no. 75, and Renger 1975, pp. 166–170 for a discussion of the attribution to Rubens.

2 Rubens made a painted model (now lost) in preparation for the work, and would have turned to this when working on the print; the ceiling painting was itself destroyed by fire, but is known through copies, see Martin 1968, no. 26.

3 Judging from what is likely a broadly accurate copy by Müller, reproduced as Martin 1968, fig. 139.

4 The act of printing produces an impression that is the mirror-image of the copper plate; a counterproof reverses this, giving an image on the paper that is in the same orientation as the plate. It is useful for making corrections. proof is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, acc. no. 22.67.3.

5 No census of impression has been made, and so there is little evidence as to the history of printing. It is generally assumed that the inscription was added only after Rubens' death, to prepare it for publication; Renger 1975, pp. 168, 170.

6 See Antwerp 1993, nos. B93–99 for a concise analysis.

7 See the comments by Pierre-Jean Mariette, recording the opinions of his father, in a ms. catalogue of the print collection they assembled for Prince Eugène of Savoy, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, Cabinet des estampes, ms. Ya 2-4-pet fol., tome 4, under Jordaens, "... sont suivant toutes les apparances de la graveure de J. Jordaens, comme elles sont aussi de son invention,["according to all appearances, made by Jordaens, just as they were also designed by him"].

8 For a different view see Jaffé in Ottawa 1968, pp. 239–240.

9 See Renger 1975, pp. 172 ff. on the woodcuts. On the Susanna and the Elders, see pp. 174–177.

10 New York 2005, p. 263 on their respective roles, as seen in a preparatory drawing for the woodcut Garden of Love: A-M. Logan argues that Jegher revised the drawing, marking it up to show Rubens how he would translate tone into line.

Attributed to Peter Paul Rubens together with an unknown engraver, Saint Catherine, early 1620s, etching & engraving, 29.4 × 19.9 cm (plate). Purchased 1931, no. 3848

After Jacob Jordaens, The Master Pulls the Cow Out of the Ditch by its Tail, 1652, etching & engraving, 22.7 × 31.4 cm (plate). Purchased 1976, no. 18645

After Jacob Jordaens,
The Infant Jupiter Fed by the Goat Amalthea, 1652, etching, 21.4 × 29.7 cm (plate). Purchased 1973, no. 17206

Christoffel Jegher after Peter Paul Rubens,
Susanna and the Elders, c. 1632–35, woodcut, 43.7 × 57.5 cm (block). Purchased 1999, no. 40099