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From Drawing to Print

Explore drawing details

About the imaging process

Thaw Conservation Center

Thaw Conservation Center

From Drawing to Print: Abraham Bloemaert's Danaë Receiving the Golden Rain

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Abraham Bloemaert (1564–1651). Danaë Receiving the Golden Rain, ca. 1610. Pen and brown ink, brown wash, heightened with white, mixed with touches of red, over black chalk. 7 1/4 x 9 7/8 inches (184 x 251 mm). Collection of Clement C. Moore.


Until the nineteenth century it was common for works of art to be disseminated in the form of prints. But how was an artist's work transferred from paper to printing plate? In this online feature, we take a close look at a seventeenth-century drawing by the Dutch painter, draftsman, and printmaker Abraham Bloemaert (1564–1651) and the engraving derived from it. Using a specialized digital photographic technique known as Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), conservators and curators uncovered physical evidence of the process by which engraver Jacob Matham marked Bloemaert's drawing, allowing the work to be transformed into another medium.

Explore drawing details
About the imaging process
About the drawing

Bloaemart's drawing, probably made about 1610, illustrates the Greek legend of Jupiter and Danaë. According to the myth, an oracle foretold that King Acrisius of Argos would be killed by a male child borne by his daughter Danaë. In an effort to evade this fate, the king locked his daughter in a fortified tower. Jupiter, however, managed to gain entrance to Danaë's bedchamber disguised as a shower of gold coins. Impregnated by Jupiter, Danaë gave birth to Perseus, who went on to fulfill the prophecy by accidentally striking Acrisius with his javelin.
About the print

In 1610, Jacob Matham (1571–1631) was commissioned to create an engraving after Bloemaert's drawing of Danaë and Jupiter. Matham (the son-in-law of Hendrick Goltzius) was one of the few engravers that Bloemaert trusted to produce high quality printed copies of his finished drawings. Printed copies directly benefited the artist in two ways: they provided a source of income as well as a way to disseminate work to a larger audience.

The compositions of Bloemaert's drawing and Matham's print are nearly identical, though the printed image is reversed and there are a few obvious changes (for example, the arm of the cherub in the upper left is visible in the print but not in the drawing). To create a print so close to the original drawing, Matham needed to carefully transfer Bloemaert's image to a hammered and polished copper printing plate to use as a template for the engraving process. After transferring the image, Matham used burins, sharp metal tools used for engraving, in several different profiles to carve Bloemaert's design into the printing plate. He first engraved the compositional lines of the drawing, then the complex linear patterns he devised to translate tonal washes into a graphic language.
The transfer process

Matham most likely followed standard engraving techniques of the seventeenth century as outlined in William Faithorne's 1662 manual The art of graveing, and etching: wherein is exprest the true way of graveing in copper.

The plate was first heated and coated with a thin layer of white wax. Next, a dry black transfer medium, such as black chalk, was rubbed onto the verso of the drawing. But there is no evidence of black chalk on the verso of Bloemaert's drawing, so Matham must have used an intermediary sheet of paper with one side coated in a black substance, much like old-fashioned carbon paper. The coated side was laid down on the waxed plate and then the drawing placed on top.

Next, the engraver inscribed the drawing by tracing the compositional lines with a metal stylus. Once fully inscribed, the coated transfer paper was removed, leaving a linear black image on the plate to be used as a template for engraving. Close examination of Bloemaert's drawing using RTI reveals incised lines throughout the entire composition that precisely follow his pen and ink lines, indicating that Matham transferred the image to the plate using a stylus firmly dragged over the drawing.

This online presentation was created in conjunction with the exhibition Rembrandt's World: Dutch Drawings from the Clement C. Moore Collection, on view January 20 through April 29, 2012, organized by Linda Wolk-Simon, Charles W. Engelhard Curator and Head of the Department of Drawings and Prints, and Esther Bell, Moore Curatorial Fellow. The technical examination of the Bloemaert drawing was led by Lindsey Tyne, Sherman Fairchild Post-Graduate Fellow in the Thaw Conservation Center.

The exhibition is made possible in part by the Rita Markus Fund for Exhibitions.

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The programs of The Morgan Library & Museum are made possible with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

Background images: Photography by Todd Eberle unless otherwise noted. © 2006 Todd Eberle.