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Recent Acquisitions of Italian Renaissance Prints: Ideas Made Flesh

June 7 – October 4, 2015
West Building, Ground Floor, Galleries 22 and 22A

Gian Jacopo Caraglio, Fury, c. 1525, engraving on laid paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Ruth Cole Kainen

This exhibition is no longer on view at the National Gallery.

Overview: Prints were a primary form of artistic expression in sixteenth-century Italy. Better than any other art form, prints satisfied an exploding demand for the images of the day. They ranged from depictions of the remains of antiquity, to creations inspired by modern humanist thinkers, to religious imagery supporting the Catholic Church’s response to the Reformation. Interpreting works in other media, prints transmitted styles across Europe, filling the contemporary imagination and establishing an enduring canon. Engravers and woodcutters reproduced designs supplied by great masters, notably Raphael and Titian. A few painters, such as Parmigianino and the Carracci, put their hands to etching, thereby conveying their own graphic personalities. These two approaches, of systematic reproduction and spontaneous expression, would define the poles of all later printmaking.

While the roles and uses of sixteenth-century Italian prints are generally recognized, their inherent aesthetic quality is often undervalued. This is due in part to the Italian printmakers’ emphasis on the concept underlying an image or the essence of a model they were interpreting, whether a drawing or painting. The materials and execution of a print were usually a secondary concern: plates and blocks were frequently handled with less care, and individual impressions pulled with less consistency. Even those who collected Italian Renaissance prints long after their creation tended to value invention and composition over diligence and finish. The striking beauty the prints can attain — the sensuousness with which they express ideas — remains unfamiliar except to specialized scholars and discriminating collectors.

This exhibition is an opportunity to appreciate both the importance and the quality of sixteenth- century Italian prints. It presents some thirty works, all recently acquired, that represent the principal techniques, types, and phenomena of the period: the extravagant invention of Roman and Florentine artists early in the century; the refined artifice of Parmigianino and his interpreters; the technical advances and incipient naturalism of Venetian printmakers; and the compelling expression of masters associated with the Counter-Reformation, especially the Bolognese. Many of the prints are rare, and most of the impressions are exceptionally fine, of the kind briefly printed and seldom seen.

Organization: This exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art.
Sponsor: The exhibition is supported in part by a generous grant from the Thaw Charitable Trust.

Attendance: 47,978