The following is a guest post by Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints, Prints & Photographs Division.
Among the Library’s treasures is a special collection of Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts made during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by such master artists as Domenico Beccafumi, Ugo da Carpi, Bartolomeo Coriolano, and Niccolò Vicentino.
Although the chiaroscuro technique was developed in Germany in the first decade of the 1500s, it flourished in the hands of Italian artists beginning around 1516 and came to be identified by the Italian word combining chiaro for light and scuro for shade. This early color printing process involved creating images from multiple woodblocks, using layers of color tone blocks and often a black or dark “key block” outlining the main, linear structure of the composition.
Most of the Library’s chiaroscuro prints were collected by English collectors Philip and Thomas Herbert, the 5th and 8th Earls of Pembroke, and assembled by the latter between 1683 and 1733 into an album that was purchased by the Library in 1918.
Sixteen stellar examples from the Library’s collection were part of an in-depth research project, carried out by Library of Congress former senior paper conservator (current Special Assistant) Linda Stiber Morenus and by Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) curator Naoko Takahatake. Stiber Morenus led an effort to study and re-enact the Renaissance system of creating chiaroscuros in order to better understand aesthetic results of printing variables that shed new light on the history of this art form. Collaborating artist/printmakers included Margaret Adams Parker who carved the blocks, Albert (Scip) Barnart who taught us how to mull inks at Georgetown University, and Tru Ludwig who printed the blocks at Pyramid Atlantic studio with the assistance of Ryan Ives. Dan De Simone, Alan Fern, and Peter Parshall were among scholar advisors for the project.
Linda notes: “Recreating Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts informs our interpretation of historic impressions by demonstrating the relationships between materials, techniques, and visual effects. From inks and papers to woodblocks, ink balls, and platen presses, the materials and tools employed to print chiaroscuro woodcuts produced wide-ranging results. The recreations demonstrate why impressions printed from the same woodblocks can look so different. Moreover, distinguishing the printing procedures typically followed in a particular workshop can help to establish its ‘signature.’ Taken with other art historical evidence, these characteristics can clarify the workshop origin of impressions with questioned attributions.”
The results of this research, including Linda’s findings and essay about her re-creations and Renaissance printing methods, are presented in an exhibition and companion catalogue The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy, edited by Takahatake with further essays by Peter Parshall, Antony Griffiths, and others. Through January 20th, 2019, you can visit the exhibition itself (which opened earlier at LACMA) at Washington’s National Gallery of Art where the Library’s chiaroscuros are featured alongside over 100 exceptional examples from nineteen different collections in America and Britain.
- Read more about the chiaroscuro prints in the Pembroke Album Collection Overview.
- View over 100 examples of chiaroscuro woodcuts in the collections of the Prints and Photographs Division.
- Enjoy learning more about the Library of Congress’ collections of works of art on paper: “Collections of Works of Art on Paper in the Library of Congress.” Edited by Katherine Blood, special issue, Washington Print Club Quarterly 47, no. 4 (Winter 2011-2012):2-28. Online, //www.loc.gov/rr/print/resource/Washington-Print-Club-Quarterly-Winter-2011-2012.pdf [PDF]
- Read more about the ‘Pembroke’ Album in these publications:
- Fern, Alan M., and Karen F. Beall. “The ‘Pembroke’ Album of Chiaroscuros.” In Graphic Sampler, compiled by Renata V. Shaw, 10-28. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1979. Online, https://archive.org/details/graphicsampler00unse/page/10
- Griffiths, Antony. “Print Collecting in Rome, Paris, and London in the Early Eighteenth Century.” Harvard University Art Museums Bulletin (Spring, 1994): 37-59.
- Explore the project to recreate Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts:
- Stiber Morenus, Linda. “Recreating the Italian Chiaroscuro Woodcut.” In The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy by Naoko Takahatake (Editor), with contributions by Jonathan Bober, Jamie Gabbarelli, Antony Griffiths, Peter Parshall, and Linda Stiber Morenus. Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Munich; New York, NY: DelMonico Books, an imprint of Prestel, 2018. [catalog record]
Building upon the beauty of Japanese Wood Cuts that I recently learned of, I really enjoyed this article..I find the communications from the Library of Congress a wonderful source of adding to my wonder…. May everyone who is involved be blessed with the knowledge of just how important and joyful it is to receive a LOC Learning Opportunity Creatively…..
Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comment. I feel the same way (you put it beautifully) about the potential for wonder, creativity, knowledge, and joy inherent in the Library, its extraordinary collections, and resources. Let me also share this link in case you might like to explore our collection of Japanese prints and drawings further as well: //www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/jpd/. With appreciation and best wishes, Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
The chiaroscuro technique had been developed in Italy about 100 years (or more) before the Japanese Ukyio-e prints which were made using the same multi-blocs technique. Is there any evidence that this was imported into Japan through european merchants (Dutch, Portugese ?)
That’s a great question without a simple answer. Woodblock printing was in use in Japan by the 8th century and developed on a parallel path in Europe beginning in the 15th century. Western chiaroscuro prints begin in the 16th century and Japanese color prints called nishiki-e (brocade pictures) in the 18th century. Japanese color prints later became a major influence in Europe and America during the 19th century and beyond. I’m adding links below to a few online resources that may be helpful or of interest. I am happy to offer further resources and answer additional questions if you’d like to be in touch via our Prints & Photographs Reading Room Ask a Librarian (//ask.loc.gov/prints-photographs/.)
Color woodblock printing history: https://www.library.georgetown.edu/exhibition/color-relief-wood-block-prints-origins-abstraction
Nagasaki-e (Nagasaki pictures): https://www.viewingjapaneseprints.net/texts/topics_faq/nagasakie.html
Ukiyo-e, translated as pictures of the floating, or sorrowful, world: //www.loc.gov/exhibits/ukiyo-e/