Revealing the Light: Mezzotint Engravings at Georgetown University

Charles Marvin Fairchild Memorial Gallery


Drawn from the holdings of Lauinger Library’s Special Collections Research Center, this exhibition focuses on the uncommon and technically demanding art form of mezzotint print making, first introduced in Holland in 1640. Mezzotint’s unique tonal qualities (the word derives from the Italian mezzotinto, or half tint), ideally suited to capture painterly effects, enabled the reproduction and distribution of popular paintings and portraits in the centuries prior to photography. Mezzotints are characterized by a rich, velvety surface with blended tones of light and dark, without the delineating lines found in etching and other intaglio techniques.

Before the artist can create an image, the entire surface of a metal plate is covered with a multitude of pin-sized pits using a hand-held tool called a rocker. The rocker’s curved and serrated cutting edge, composed of anywhere from 30 to as many as 100 teeth per inch, is evenly rocked back and forth over the plate for several hours in a methodical pattern by holding the tool almost perpendicular to the plate and exerting pressure. As the tool rocks its way over the plate, its small teeth indent the copper surface and throw up a tiny burr of metal that enables the plate to hold ink. If the print were pulled at this point the result would be a rich, velvety black throughout. Several mezzotint tools are displayed in the exhibition including roulette wheels, which were used to prepare the surface of the plate in the earliest mezzotints before the invention of the rocker in 1657.

To create the image, a tool called a burnisher is rubbed over the plate to smooth desired areas of the pitted surface, where light will be revealed when the print is pulled. In this method the artist works from dark to light, and the deeper he cuts into the plate, sometimes using a pointed scraper, the lighter that area will be when printed. Color mezzotints, introduced in the 18th century, require a separate plate for each color and a final key plate to print the black ground.

Ironically, the wide success of mezzotint as a reproductive medium ultimately led to its demise, as aquatint and other painterly etching techniques became more popular for the creation of tone in printmaking. With the development of photography and mass reproductive techniques in the 19th century, the laborious and time-consuming mezzotint process fell out of favor. In the last century, however, it enjoyed a resurgence of interest among the more venturesome and talented fine print makers, who successfully took the process on to newer heights in the production of original works of art. This exhibition highlights several contemporary masters, including Frederick Mershimer, whom we celebrate here with his newly published catalogue raisonné. Georgetown is honored to have the largest institutional collection of Mr. Mershimer’s work, with 27 outstanding impressions.