Tag Archives: woodcuts

BMA Voices: Melting into Félix Vallotton

Félix Vallotton. The Lie. 1897. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.298

Félix Vallotton. The Lie. 1897. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.298

Anna Fitzgerald, Temporary Coordinator of Image Services & Rights

Years ago I lived in Charles Village, so I was just a walk away from great art to take me all over the world. I love to wander through museums, letting the art grab me. Vallotton grabbed me.

I loved the way these figures wrapped up around each other; how their bodies were human, but also liquid. They melted into each other and the room. And the title ­– The Lie – that’s a good title.

There is also that red. Vallotton brings this woman to the forefront with her red dress, but the table, and the chair all the way in the back, is red too. The woman not only melts into her lover, but the furniture. It’s as though she could be dusted off, folded up, and put away just like the tablecloth.

I love the reflection of red on her face – on both their faces – after too much wine. I love the shape of her fingers on his back. I love the blob of their hands together, the indistinguishable features of a man all in black. I love the wallpaper, and the light spot in the background where the chairs meet. This gold wallpaper gives this scene a time and a place.

When I first saw this painting, I bought a postcard of it in the BMA Shop. I pinned it to a board near my desk at my home, and later at my workshop, and every now and then fell into it again…

Félix Vallotton. To Edgar Poe. 1894. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.12.375

Félix Vallotton. To Edgar Poe. 1894. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.12.375

During another trip to the museum I went into an exhibition on Edgar Allen Poe. One woodcut in particular seemed to capture the moment of a thought, the direct line to a feeling, in a portrait of Edgar Allen Poe. It was Vallotton again. I would later find out that The Lie, which I love so much, also began as a woodcut, which is in the collection at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. I am drawn to the similarities between The Lie and his woodcuts, where people melt into the background or swirl around like leaves on the sidewalk. We are part of the world, of the sky and the walls, not simply standing out in front of it.

Some years later, when I was studying Puppet Arts at The University of Connecticut, I had an assignment to recreate a landscape painting that would firstly be projected, and must then move. With India Inks and transparencies, I painted Vallotton’s Landscape with Trees. And with a series of blue and orange lighting gels, I could set the painting in motion, completing the sunset Vallotton had started for us. Those colors, too, struck me. He had frozen a sunset, that point in the day when light and color changes every second. Since then, I notice how the color of the sky transforms, how the blues and oranges and pinks warp and melt into each other.

Staring off into the works of Vallotton has changed the way I look at the world. It is that change in me that illustrates one of the many reasons art is important and necessary. As the new year brings new promises for self growth, I invite you to get lost in more art and just see if your perspective doesn’t change.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects. 

BMA Voices: Woodcuts, color and the experience of the visual arts

Albrecht Dürer. Ecce Homo. c. 1498. From the series "The Large Passion". The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Alfred R. and Henry G. Riggs, in Memory of General Lawrason Riggs, BMA 1943.32.271

Albrecht Dürer. Ecce Homo. c. 1498. From the series “The Large Passion”. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Alfred R. and Henry G. Riggs, in Memory of General Lawrason Riggs, BMA 1943.32.271

Thomas Primeau, Director of Conservation and Paper Conservator

The development of the woodcut in Europe during the early 15th century allowed for the mass production and circulation of religious images printed on paper. Most early woodcuts consisted of simply carved outlines that, when printed in dark ink, produced images of limited detail. In order to make these plain pictures more eye-catching and naturalistic, bright colors in the form of water-based paints were brushed on by hand. Trees in the landscape became more recognizable with green leaves, and emotions were more deeply stirred when the blood dripping off the wounds of Christ were painted in deep red.

Color was an important, if not essential, aspect of many woodcuts during the first century of printmaking, however, in the early 16th century Albrecht Dürer began creating woodcuts which were so carefully designed and intricately carved that they were considered complete as black lines grounded on white paper. Erasmus of Rotterdam, a noted humanist and Dürer’s contemporary, celebrated him as “the Apelles of our age” who “could express absolutely anything in monochrome, that is, with black lines only,” and warned that: “if you were to add color (to his prints), you would spoil the effect.” Indeed, most Dürer prints that survive to this day are preserved in black and white and it is commonly considered inappropriate if color was added to them. Still, the earlier tradition of painting woodcuts persisted on into Dürer’s day and beyond, demonstrating how sustaining the desire to see color is to the experience of the visual arts.

In 1511, Dürer published 11 large scale woodcuts depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ. A key image from the series (below) depicts the moment when Jesus, having been scourged and then outfitted with a crown of thorns and a robe, is mockingly presented to the people of Jerusalem as the “King of the Jews.” In the uncolored impression above, the figures and the setting are rendered in fluid outlines given volume and texture with networks of finer lines and cross hatching. The horror of the moment is enhanced by deep shading that envelopes Christ and the mob standing before him. In coloring the print with a vibrant palette of bright blue, red, yellow, green and even gold and silver pigments, the image loses some of its moodiness, but the scene becomes more legible – the people in the crowd are easier to differentiate and the distant landscape comes into clearer view. The coloring also makes the image more visceral as the red paint forces the view to focus on the bleeding figure.

Dürer himself did not color this print, the paint was applied in a carefully controlled style that is more closely aligned with a tradition of manuscript illumination than the somewhat thinner brushwork found in Dürer’s watercolors, but it is likely that print was colored at a time close to Dürer’s lifetime. Chemical analysis of the paints used to color this woodcut indicate that the pigments were all appropriate for a 16th-century work of art, however one pigment, a deep blue cobalt-containing material known as smalt, was not in common use until after 1550. So although the print was colored early, it was illuminated several years after Dürer’s death, perhaps for a collector who wished to celebrate the great artist’s achievements by creating a uniquely enhanced print.

Which version do you prefer?

Albrecht Dürer. Ecce Homo. c. 1498. From the series "The Large Passion". The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Charles W. Newhall III, and Todd Ruppert, Baltimore; and with exchange funds from Garrett Collection, and Gift of Theodore W. Strauel, Pound Ridge, New York, BMA 2000.91

Albrecht Dürer. Ecce Homo. c. 1498. From the series “The Large Passion”. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Charles W. Newhall III, and Todd Ruppert, Baltimore; and with exchange funds from Garrett Collection, and Gift of Theodore W. Strauel, Pound Ridge, New York, BMA 2000.91

For more information on history of hand-colored prints, see the BMA Exhibition catalogue: Painted Prints: The Revelation of Color in Northern Renaissance & Baroque Engravings, Etchings and Woodcuts. (2002)

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.