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Jacques Callot's Line Sublime

An Artist's Two-Inch-Tall Creations Brought Printmaking to its Heights

Rarely have life’s sweetness and bitterness been embraced with more evenhanded genius than in the work of Jacques Callot. The seventeenth-century French printmaker finds an ethics of vision—a way of grappling with whatever the world has to offer—in the indomitable force and lucidity of his line. Revered from his own day down to ours by those who see possibilities for transcendence in the printmaker’s technical know-how, Callot has nevertheless been a fairly minor figure in the art history books, no matter that some of his impressions of the horrors of war are as indelible as Goya’s and that his reflections on the pleasures of the theater and the fairground rival those of Rubens and Watteau. Within the frequently Lilliputian dimensions of his prints—some of the most famous ones are little more than two inches high—Callot represented beggars, gypsies, soldiers, actors, and the ladies and gentlemen of the court. He etched Biblical stories, royal festivals, hunts, battles, gardens, landscapes, and seascapes. “Princes & Paupers: The Art of Jacques Callot,” mounted at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, is a brave attempt to raise Callot’s profile. It has been many years since this country saw a major show with a catalogue devoted to an artist I would rank among the peerless image makers and storytellers of European art. Allow yourself to succumb to Callot’s work and you will experience a concentrated high.

Jacques Callot, The Fair of Impruneta, 1620s

We all know that major work can be done in minor genres, but there nevertheless lingers some almost primitive feeling that the most important visions require a commensurate size or scale. How many people really believe that an ode by Keats can be as important as a play by Shakespeare? Or that a song cycle by Schubert can range as widely as a symphony by Beethoven? Callot, who was born in Nancy in 1592, apprenticed with a goldsmith and had most of his successes under the patronage of a courtly world, so one can assume that he was attuned to the taste for small, precious objects (saltcellars, knives, clocks, and the like) by master craftsmen, of whom Cellini has the most enduring reputation. The seriousness with which Callot pursued expansive compositions of frequently minuscule sizes—many of his prints with dozens of figures are little more than three inches in any direction—reflected a sophisticated courtly idea that grand visions can be encompassed in tiny dimensions. 

Of course the courtly world was never immune to the power of brute size, and the Baroque taste for grandiosity was in full swing well before Callot died in 1635. Compared with the titanic square footage of the Maria de’ Medici cycle by Rubens, who died five years later, it is all too easy to regard as a special albeit honorable case the spectacles that Callot fit into extraordinarily small spaces—for example, The Punishments, a harrowing representation of modes of torture and execution that packs the victims together with hundreds of onlookers on a piece of paper just over eight inches wide. But Callot’s genius for the tiniest etched line is no more a matter of mere virtuosity than Rubens’s genius for the painterly brushstroke. For these artists, virtuosity is a virtue, the elegance tempered by deep knowledge and scrupulous decision-making. 

Callot was one of the great innovators in the still relatively young art of etching. An etching is produced by covering a copper plate with an acid-resistant surface. Lines are drawn into this surface; the plate is etched in acid; the acid-resistant surface is removed. Ink is then forced into the lines etched in the copper; the surface of the plate is wiped clean; and when the plate is run through a press, the etched and inked lines produce an image on a sheet of paper. Callot’s great innovation was to develop a new kind of acid-resistant surface, a hard ground made of oil and mastic, which was less likely to break down in the acid than the earlier soft-wax ground. The result was a line of increasing delicacy and specificity, which Callot further refined with an etcher’s needle with an oval-shaped tip, known as an échoppe, which enabled him to vary the width of the line, allowing it to swell or to taper. These technical innovations liberated Callot to produce a new kind of poetic exactitude; some might see an analogy in the filigreed yet steely movements of a great ballerina’s hands.

There is something uncanny in the experience of Callot’s etchings, because the proliferation of tiny elements generates an image that feels extraordinarily expansive. At moments, peering into these mind-boggling compositions, we may imagine that we are witnessing a sort of parlor trick—or being asked how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. This reflects the side of Callot’s personality that is always playing a courtly game. But the accuracy and aplomb of Callot’s line, even in the smallest intervals, is too heartfelt to be dismissed as an elegant trick. Callot etches faces less than a quarter of an inch high that register complex human emotions. And when he etches a figure less than half an inch high, we see a person with a particular physique and demeanor. The prints beguile us with their almost superhuman suavity, and then pull us up short with a humanity that is by turns frank, boisterous, sardonic, somber, even down and dirty.

The important exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Houston was organized by Dena M. Woodall, a curator at the museum, and Diane Wolfthal, an art historian at Rice University, using as its core the works owned by Albert A. Feldmann, a collector who has made a specialty of Callot. Within the relatively small compass of the exhibition at the MFA, Woodall and Wolfthal succeed in suggesting the extraordinary range of Callot’s work: he produced some 1,400 prints. Although he began and ended his life in Nancy, the capital of the duchy of Lorraine—Duke Charles III had ennobled his grandfather and employed his father as court herald—Callot spent the years between 1610 or thereabouts and 1621 in Italy. He was in Rome and then for most of the decade in Florence, working for the Medici court. His great success in Florence lasted until 1621, when his patron, Cosimo II, died and economies were initiated at court. Back in Nancy, he made an excellent marriage, received commissions from Louis XIII and the Spanish Infanta, and maintained a valuable relationship with a publisher of prints in Paris. But with Lorraine torn apart by the Thirty Years’ War and politically unstable, Callot could not but look back on his time in Florence as the halcyon years, or so some believe.

Jacques Callot, The Fan, 1620.

One frustration of the Houston show is that no drawings are included. Although virtually unknown in the United States, they are an essential key to Callot’s powers as a printmaker. He tended to prepare his compositions fully in drawings before committing his ideas to copper. There are some 1,400 of these drawings—as many as there are prints—done in a variety of media, from chalk to ink, and preserved in European collections. The disciplined freedom of the drawings suggests an athlete in training for the main event that will take place when the etching needle is in his hand. In the drawings, you can see Callot’s immediate rapport with the world: his graphic attack is bold and experimental, a way of getting down the facts. Although some of his figures are probably drawn from imagination, others are surely made from direct observation, and all of them suggest how questions of realization and stylization are resolved not through calculated decision-making but through seismographic responses to social and psychic states. In his drawings, Callot makes judgments about what matters and what doesn’t, and not only in relation to the human figure. Some of his landscapes, in a broad ink-and-brush technique reminiscent of the dazzling graphic effects of Claude and Poussin, evince their own kind of emotional weather, an extraordinary sensitivity to the particular mood of a time and a place.

It may be easiest to see how the drawings prepare Callot for the pyrotechnics of the etchings in the small prints devoted to one or two figures that have been among Callot’s most admired works over the years. A. Hyatt Mayor, a curator of prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art half a century ago, spoke of Callot’s studies of the actors of the commedia dell’arte as “pixilated vignettes.” One might characterize these crackerjack images as unnatural or anti-naturalistic, considering the fantastical wit with which Callot turns the arms and legs of pulliciniello and sundry comic personalities into configurations suggesting extravagantly twisted, tangled, stuffed, and stretched silken puppets. Then again, perhaps Callot is only being true to the actors’ wild energies, his exaggerations a transcription of their own inebriated exertions. Among Callot’s work, the commedia dell’arte figures find their closest cousins, surprisingly enough, in representations of elegant ladies and gentlemen whose outrageous finery, including impossibly overscaled and befeathered hats, bespeaks another kind of performance, albeit courtly rather than comic. What links courtier and clown is the re-imagining of the self in terms of the elongated extravagances of the Mannerist style, which although born early in the sixteenth century was still setting off exotic shoots and tendrils in courtly circles nearly a hundred years later. Callot may be one of the last artists to give new life to the old Mannerist exaggerations, suggesting not exhaustion but ebullience, a theatrical extravagance that would reignite hundreds of years later in Seurat’s impressions of the circus and the music hall.

With Callot, whether the subject is prince, pulliciniello, or pauper, surface always reflects substance. Confronted with the extravagant imaginations of courtier and clown, his line becomes appropriately exultant. And it goes without saying that Callot’s gentle and unsparing studies of beggars and pilgrims necessitate a different kind of graphic attack, so as to demonstrate how the beggar clings to clothes that are like a tent or a shroud—a protection, poor as it may be, against the world’s onslaught. The Blind Man with Dog, The Old Woman with Cats, The Obese Beggar, and The Beggar with Bare Head and Feet are sunk in their ragged existence, their solitude only emphasized by the whiteness of the paper on which their disquieting images have been stamped. Here Callot offers no scrap of landscape or distant figures in action that might mitigate the beggar’s isolation. 

While some might dismiss these as studies of types, they are in fact far more searching, with each face suggesting a complete personality. We sense a whole other side of Callot, a realism that many would say is northern in its essential character, and draws him in these studies especially close to the steady-eyed sympathy that makes Louis Le Nain’s paintings of peasant life among the highest achievements of seventeenth-century France. The boy who looks out from beneath an oversized hat in The Mother with Three Children is close cousin, if not brother, to the children in Le Nain’s paintings, whose straight-ahead gazes, quizzical and relentless, raise questions to which there are evidently never going to be satisfying answers.

Nobody should imagine that Callot, the master of the miniature, feared the grand statement. In The Fair of Impruneta, a print over two feet wide, he produced a work of mythopoetic richness. Based on an autumn fair in the Tuscan town of Impruneta, not far from Florence, the print contains more than a thousand figures, arranged in great eddies and waves, the individual linked to the group by some magnetic force, the whole an exploration of the possibilities of flux and flow in human relations. The church at Impruneta was home to a miracle-working Madonna believed to have been painted by Saint Luke, and so it was a great pilgrimage site around the saint’s feast day in October. Did such a large number of people ever really congregate at Impruneta? Perhaps. It is also true that the Baroque artists, even when embracing naturalistic possibilities, had a taste for hyperbole, and Callot might have been inclined to italicize the possibilities of this gathering of humanity. The Fair of Impruneta is a glorious hymn to human energy, appetite, curiosity, and conviviality. The good and the bad, the innocent and the malevolent, are wonderfully mixed. All the way to the left, two men help an accomplice drop down a rope from the top of a building, probably in an attempt to steal eggs. Far below, people gather around the tables of a merchant selling dishware. There are tents where fairgoers examine a seemingly endless assortment of merchandise. And there are families, rich and poor, walking along together, conversing with one another, meeting friends. Callot’s line is quick and deft, the individuals, each perfectly realized, united in overarching, curving, surging movements.

Jacques Callot, The Fair of Impruneta (right foreground)

One of the riveting episodes in The Fair of Impruneta takes place in the right foreground, beneath an immense, overarching tree. Two snake charmers, one with a huge snake coiled around his arm, stand on a platform, seen in stark profile. In front of the platform some forty men, women, and children gather to watch the goings-on on stage. It is not easy to see how all of the members of the audience are responding, as many are in deep shadow; but set against those figures who are mere ciphers are some in full light, and the looks of rapt pleasure on their faces create a thrilling dramatic effect. The only drama in printmaking that strikes me as comparable is Rembrandt’s use of chiaroscuro to highlight the emotional states of figures in his prints; and Rembrandt knew some of Callot’s work, though not necessarily The Fair of Impruneta. Like Rembrandt and Rubens, Callot had a solid grounding in the principles of large-scale figure composition that had been developing since the High Renaissance, and like them, he found ways to give an organic order to what had perhaps theretofore seemed to many the inherently chaotic lives of the lower regions of society. The Fair of Impruneta is a riveting realization of the dynamics of the crowd, with the variegated members of society cast together in inherently unpredictable ways, a reminder of that unpredictability being the child who cuts open the purse of a bystander who is watching a lady have her fortune read by a gypsy. 

The Fair of Impruneta certainly has its variegated sonorities. The church itself forms a backdrop to the jam-packed scene, a large, solid, and even stolid presence, its nearly blank façade suggesting religion’s imperturbability. Anything but imperturbable is a scene in the middle distance, where a group has gathered to watch a prisoner submit to strappado, the torture of being suspended in the air from ropes attached to the wrists, causing enormous pain and the dislocation of the shoulders. Perhaps such events could not fail to fascinate an artist entranced by all the victories and vicissitudes of the human body. Over the years Callot returned to the question of human cruelty, climactically in a cycle of eighteen etchings, called The Miseries and Misfortunes of War. Responding to the experience of the Thirty Years’ War, Callot offered the darkest imaginable view of the soldier’s life and personality, with scenes of soldiers committing atrocities, the violence of peasant reprisals, and the poverty and dislocation that can accompany the soldier’s life. 

Jacques Callot, The Hanging, 1620s

The most shattering print in the cycle is The Hanging, dominated by a tree with the kind of wide-spreading branches that Callot loved to represent, except now the tree’s branches are full not of leaves but of the bodies of soldiers who have been hanged for the atrocities that they committed. In the foreground, a tall soldier being sent to his death confronts a priest who is giving him the last rites, and the face of the priest, full of pity, sorrow, and unyielding principle, is as unsentimental a representation as I know of religious experience confronting the vagaries of humanity. This extraordinary little vignette is something that a viewer may discover only over time, for what rivets us is the tree itself, hung with human bodies, the strangest fruits imaginable—fruits malheureux, as the caption would have it. Although there is an elegant serenity about even Callot’s most violent images, certainly with The Hanging he goes as deep as Goya ever did into the monstrous enigmas that war reveals. That Callot adds a group of men who are casually gambling beneath the spreading branches only adds to the supreme strangeness of the spectacle.

In recent years a good deal of scholarly attention has been paid to the development of printmaking in the Renaissance and the Baroque. Much of this work has been spurred by historians attuned to questions about the death of the author and the original, the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, and the increasing ubiquity in museum galleries (heretofore dedicated to painting) of photography and multiple and serial images of many varieties. Interesting questions have been raised about the deep origins of what some see as an ongoing crisis in the nature of originality in the arts. 

Nobody can doubt that printmaking places the artist in a different kind of relationship with the audience. And Callot’s prints, which sold in considerable quantities and were rapidly distributed over a good deal of Europe, are very much a part of this story. But I do not believe that they support a view of printmaking as precipitating the depersonalization of the artist or the artist’s alienation from the work of art. Quite the contrary. Callot’s extraordinary body of work suggests that, in the early seventeenth century, printmaking was infusing new forms of intimacy and immediacy into the visual arts. The less expensive and more readily available nature of prints, as opposed to paintings and tapestries, offered a way to expand the reach of an artistic vision. And the vigor and immediacy of Callot’s line could make people feel that they were establishing a personal relationship with the artist’s sensibility. 

It seems to me that Callot sometimes aimed to give a more intimate intonation to subjects theretofore defined through the grandest works of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. His Great Hunt is a horizontal image a little over eighteen inches wide that encompasses all the boisterous pageantry we know from the spectacular hunt tapestries produced in the sixteenth century. Among the series called Various Italian Landscapes is a scene of male bathers cavorting near a shoreline ornamented with romantic architecture, which has an impish elegance that brings Annibale Caracci’s playful pastoral paintings to mind. Callot’s Two Large Views of Paris (large means thirteen inches), done toward the end of his life, are fairly early landmarks in the visualization of a city that artists would be
exploring down to our own time.

Those who devote all their energies to printmaking will probably always be regarded as second-class citizens in the visual arts. And when the rare printmaker breaks through with a vision as deep and forthright as Callot’s, he may still appear a shadowy figure in comparison with the many great printmakers in the European tradition who were also, and often primarily, painters, among them Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, and Picasso. That Callot, in his finest works, is right up there with such giants hardly seems to make much of a difference. But The Fair of Impruneta is every bit as great a work as Picasso’s Minotauromachy, and I would not be unwilling to argue that it is equal to Rembrandt’s Hundred Guilder Print or Three Crosses

It is a fine irony that, in our day, when there is so much interest in the artist as outsider or outlier, the deeply cultivated work of an artist who embraced with all his gifts what is commonly regarded as a secondary art should not be the subject of intense interest. There have always been those who admire Callot, and they include those who saw to it that he had his day in Houston, but printmaking seems condemned to linger on the fringes of art history, except when it is brought in to declare the end of originality or the death of the aura—which is to say, the end of art history as we know it. In Callot’s etchings the sense of an aura is thrillingly, almost uncannily present. As he draws us in, closer and closer, he forges the kind of immediate relationship that all formidable artists seek with their audience. He proves that the widening reach of art is not irreconcilable with art’s intimacy and seigneurial sophistication. If all printmakers are populists, Callot is a populist who is capable of the purest artistic expression. Perhaps that is what makes him an artist that our determinedly dumb-it-down art world doesn’t really want to know. 

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.