Muses Gone Wild!

POSTED BY , ON October 02, 2015, 0 COMMENTS

The rock star god of classical antiquity, Dionysos reigned supreme over wine and theater, with maenad groupies and satyrs following in his wake. But what happened when his followers found a little too much inspiration in the grape? Come take a closer look at the Renaissance prints in Dionysos Unmasked: Ancient Sculpture and Early Prints to find out!

The nine muses, who live placidly with the god Apollo on Mount Olympus, are usually content to inspire theater, poetry, and the other arts from a safe distance, or sometimes put hubristic challengers in their proper place. In the famous Raphael fresco in the Vatican (about 1511), they inspire the poets through song and music. Everything is tranquil, orderly and serene—in short, the perfect setting for creativity. Or so one would think from our Marcantonio Raimondi engraving after the fresco:

Raphael Raimondi

Shortly after this well-known print was published, however, a still-unidentified artist, the Master HFE, parodied the composition in such a visceral way that his version could only be known as Parnassus Profaned.

HFE Parnassus Profaned

In this version of Parnassus, the god of wine has left his intoxicating mark. Instead of perching on separate mounds, here the muses, poets, and even the trees are violently intertwined. The goats and sheep mingling throughout the composition demonstrate their legendary lecherousness even more clearly, and, as onlookers gasp, even Apollo’s trusty steed Pegasus flies away in disgust. The Art Institute’s Department of Prints and Drawings was very lucky to be able to acquire this exceptionally rare engraving earlier this year, but even this lusciously printed, deeply black impression on creamy paper does not tell the entire story.

Indeed, an even rarer-surviving impression of the print (now in the British Museum) pulled before the artist burnished out select details shows the extent of the drunken chaos. The muses and poets are indistinguishable in their fumbling, while some of the trees respond rather humorously to the carnal appetites of their woody neighbors. In the London impression, Dionysos has even intoxicated the forest, making Parnassus home to the world’s most botanical bacchanal.

muses and poets


Marcantonio Raimondi, after Raffaello Sanzio, called Raphael, Apollo on Parnassus, 1517/20, engraving. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Potter Palmer, Jr.

Master HFE, Parnassus Profaned, after 1520, engraving, second state. The Amanda S. Johnson and Marion J. Livingston Fund.

Master HFE, Parnassus Profaned, details from engraving, first state. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Bookmark and Share | Permalink

Why the Wine-Dark Walls?

POSTED BY , ON June 19, 2015, 4 COMMENTS

Museum visitors may be wondering what’s coming next in the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art. Here’s a peek behind the screens where Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections was recently deinstalled.

Dionysos 1 small

Our next exhibition, Dionysos Unmasked: Ancient Sculpture and Early Prints, opens on July 11 and these wine-dark walls will host not only the ancient Greco-Roman sculpture that usually frequents this space, but also artworks from the Department of Prints and Drawings based on ancient sculptural sources, some with a gap of 1,500 years between them!

For this innovative, interdepartmental collaboration, we chose the wall color, evocatively titled “cranberry cocktail,” to celebrate the hero of our exhibition, Dionysos, god of wine and theater. And here Dionysos is, in an amazing Hellenistic or Roman bronze sculpture from 100 BC to 100 AD. This fantastic long-term loan appears front and center at the crossroads between the Michigan Avenue building, the Rice Building, and the Modern Wing.

Dionysos2 small

The construction you see behind Dionysos is the building of a large temporary wall that will control the natural light so we can include 15th and 16th-century prints in all galleries of the Dionysos Unmasked exhibition. While the space looks much different than it did with windows backing the sculpture, we hope this temporary change will make our visitors curious about other ways of looking at our encyclopedic collection across departmental boundaries.

Dionysos3 small

Dionysos4 small

With the epically-proportioned and classically-inspired Charles Ray: Sculpture, 1997–2014 exhibition down the hall in the Modern Wing until October 4, we’ll have plenty to compare.

Bookmark and Share | Permalink

Powerful Prints: Warrior Saints and Holy Kings

POSTED BY , ON May 20, 2015, Comments Off on Powerful Prints: Warrior Saints and Holy Kings


In the Buddhist Japanese and Christian European traditions, historical religious figures could be just as effective miracle workers after their deaths as when they were alive. Posthumous miracles due to a saint’s intercession were in fact required for Catholic canonization. The touch of a relic torn from their martyred bodies could cure illnesses, but sometimes even the sight of a modest printed image of a holy person could do the same.

exhibition small

Two prints illustrating this idea appear side-by-side for the first time in the interdepartmental Asian Art and Prints and Drawings exhibition Spreading Devotion: Japanese and European Religious Prints (on view in Gallery 107 until June 21), showing how the fascination with holy figures extended far beyond their lifetimes, and well beyond anyone remembering their true likenesses. Though sometimes said to have intrinsic healing powers, these powerful images did not always celebrate healing, instead glorifying righteous, bloody conquests. Warrior saints and kings could be equally renowned for their tactical prowess, real, or imagined.

warrior scroll

The tall print above is a 17th-century woodcut of the sword-wielding Heavenly King Indra, which was printed much later, around 1845, and mounted as a hanging scroll. The other, horizontal composition (below) is a detailed engraving from 15th-century Germany showing Saint James the Greater—who is also armed to the teeth—routing a Turkish army in an imaginary battle in Spain 800 hundred years after his death around AD 44.

The woodcut is said to have originated from the hand of the monk Nichiren, founder of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism in the thirteenth century. According to legend, he carved a woodblock with a crude image of his patron deity, the god Indra, holding a sword. The block was rediscovered at Daikyōji temple in Shibamata near Tokyo in 1779; during a famine in 1783, ninth-generation head priest Nikkyo carried this woodblock around in the streets, and it had healing effects. The image became famous, with smaller versions sold to pilgrims to the Daikyōji Temple.  Many versions of the print exist. The Art Institute’s print is believed to have been made from the oldest surviving woodblock of the image from the 17th century, and carries the signature and ciphers of the 12th generation head priest Nikki (1800-1859), and the next priest Nittei, who became the head priest in 1845.


In contrast, the engraving showing Saint James in the middle of a battle that never occurred was itself not known to have performed any miracles. Yet the scallop shell on James’s hat refers to the pilgrimage his many devotees made to visit his relics at Compostela, Spain, after making their penitent way through much of Europe. The saint initially became the patron of Spain in part because of his supposed role in driving the Turkish army out of that country. While this print lacks the personal seals of its printers as seen in the Indra print, the signature at the bottom, M+S, suggests it was made by the famous German engraver Martin Schongauer (active 1470s-90s). This association, like the fictitious subject matter, is not entirely trustworthy; in fact most scholars agree that it was done by others in Schongauer’s workshop, who adopted his style and signature.

Whether medieval, 17th, or even 19th century in origin, these rare prints show us the fervor of belief in both cultures, as well as the common desire to be able to own a piece of the history of these charismatic, dangerous, and above all, holy, individuals.

Spreading Devotion: Japanese and European Religious Prints was curated collaboratively by Janice Katz, Roger L. Weston Associate Curator of Japanese Art, and Suzanne Karr Schmidt, Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings.

After Nichiren. Heavenly King Indra, 17th century, printed around 1845, gift of Martin A. Ryerson.

School of Martin Schongauer, Saint James at the Battle of Clavijo, late 15th century, bequest of Mrs. Potter Palmer, Jr.

Bookmark and Share | Permalink

250 Shades of Gray

POSTED BY , ON April 02, 2015, 1 COMMENTS

josey bw

As you stroll through Burnishing the Night, the atmospheric Prints and Drawings exhibition of mezzotint engravings currently on view in Galleries 125-127, you might notice a cameo appearance by one of art history’s most famous moms, Whistler’s mother. But what you’re looking at isn’t the larger-scale painting by James McNeill Whistler meant for public exhibition; rather, it’s a smaller black and white mezzotint created by the lesser-known Richard Josey (under Whistler’s supervision) intended for display in private homes.

You might be surprised to discover that the expatriate American painter and printmaker extraordinaire James McNeill Whistler did not even consider his 1871 painting of his mother to be a portrait. He thought of it as a study of tone, and gave it the title Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 as an allusion to musical terminology. The word “mother” doesn’t appear anywhere. Indeed, to him, public interest in its sitter and literal subject, rather than the way it was painted seemed irrelevant:

Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an “Arrangement in Grey and Black.” Now that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?

            Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1890, p. 128.

While Whistler pretended not to comprehend why the painting’s identity as a simple picture of his mother would interest the public more than its artistry, he was also a consummate businessman. He was closely involved in the production of this mezzotint about eight years after he produced the original oil on canvas. Josey’s plate may in fact have been steel-plated after it was engraved, allowing for hundreds, or even thousands of impressions of the same quality to be pulled from it. In fact, the medium of mezzotint was especially prized for its usefulness in reproductions of paintings, and the painterly quality of this print does not disappoint. Nowhere is the lack of color and its subtle gradations between values more intentional.

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 5.13.04 PM

Here’s a closer look at the color range in engraver Richard Josey’s rendition, a mezzotint entirely printed from a single kind of black ink. Far more than the proverbial 50 shades of gray, these include up to the maximum of 256 different shades shown in the Photoshop-generated color table above.

Whistler built up the muted tones of his original composition through brushstrokes on canvas. In contrast, Josey reductively made the printing matrix by burnishing light effects into a previously roughened plate that would otherwise print in solid black. In addition to the color table mentioned above, the following diagram also pinpoints the amount of black present in several areas of the print—from a near 100% black for the shadows of the skirt (point nr. 1) to the 59% black, grayed-out midtone of the wall (point nr. 3). The brightest highlight within the print at 10% appears in the fold of the handkerchief in the sitter’s hand (point nr. 4), but the 4% tone of the paper support is even brighter (point nr. 2).

gray details

Perhaps in part due to the proliferation of Josey’s print, the painting known as Whistler’s Mother has now been considered the Victorian Mona Lisa, and may well be one of the best-known (and parodied) paintings by an American artist, much like the Art Institute’s own American Gothic. Now that’s a fancy bit of printing, even one in monochrome.

Image Credit: Richard Josey, after James McNeill Whistler. Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Mezzotint, 1879. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Many thanks to Liana Jegers for her help in troubleshooting the Photoshop color mapping.

Bookmark and Share | Permalink

It Was a Dark and Stormy Mezzotint

POSTED BY , ON February 20, 2015, 3 COMMENTS


Mezzotint is the spookiest medium. This engraving process is perfect for nocturnal effects, as it starts with a roughed-up printing plate that prints in pure black. Any light sources—especially candles, fires, and glowing ingots—are added by burnishing in smoother areas, which print in lighter tones. Two exhibitions opening at the Art Institute this spring feature an abundance of mezzotint engravings. Fans of society portraiture will appreciate the velvet textures and pearl-strewn accessories lavished throughout Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design 1690-1840 (opening March 17 in Regenstein Hall). For those seeking a more sinister bedtime story, Burnishing the Night: Baroque to Contemporary Mezzotints from the Collection (opening February 21 in the Prints and Drawings Galleries 125-127) revels in artificial light, Old Testament lightning bolts, and garishly colored disembodied heads.


Yet two of the scariest head studies to 18th-century eyes might not have been Jacques Gautier d’Agoty’s Cranial Dissection. Instead, they are the Irish artist Thomas Frye’s Young Man with a Candle (top image), whose bulging eyes scan the room for inexplicable horrors, and the English artist Philip Dawe’s Female Lucubration (image immediately above), which hangs next to it in the show. Dawe’s maidservant, reaching up for a book in the dead of night, is clearly up to no good. Is she is actually “lucubrating” (studying at night using artificial light)? Or is she simply pilfering her mistress’s saucier novels (perhaps the banned Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure). The “Novel-Reading Panic” throughout Europe in the 18th century expressed the moral anxiety over what, and if women were reading, just as the first Gothic novel was published. Literacy was a deeply frightening topic.


As the popularity of the mezzotint continued (the latest item in the show is from 2007), in 1905, the English writer M. R. James wrote a short story, called “The Mezzotint,” in which an image of an anonymous country house changes of its own accord. While the story does not refer to a real print, Allaert van Everdingen’s Baroque Landscape in the Dark Manner (above) gives a similar feeling of ambiguity. Like the children in Roald Dahl’s The Witches ,who vanish into paintings and grow old in them, or Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels, who only move when no one is watching, a kidnapping or murder is reenacted within the space of the print. From “The Mezzotint”:

At last, some time past midnight, he was disposed to turn in, and he put out his lamp after lighting his bedroom candle. The picture lay face upwards on the table . . . What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now that if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit. But, as that did not happen he was able to put down the light on the table and take a good look at the picture. It was indubitable—rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all-fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.

The protagonist, a print curator at Oxford or Cambridge, keeps watch as the print turns from day to night, the ghostly figure enters the house, and then sneaks away, with a child under his arm. The curator buys the print for his collection, but keeps a careful eye on it. As with any mezzotint, the textures lead to multiple interpretations. Once the tragic story within the mysterious print ran its course, however, that was that: “. . . though carefully watched, [the mezzotint] has never been known to change again.” In the flickering candlelight of Burnishing the Night, who knows what you’ll see?

Image Credits:

Thomas Frye. Young Man with a Candle, 1760. Gift of Dorothy Braude Edinburg to the Harry B. and Bessie K. Braude Memorial Collection.

Philip Dawe. Female Lucubration: Étude Nocturne, 1772. Gift of Langdon Pearce

Allart van Everdingen. Landscape in the Dark Manner, 1657–61. Alsdorf Fund


Bookmark and Share | Permalink