Rebecca Cowan: I’m Rebecca Cowan, I’m an artist, primarily printmaking but also book arts, here in Kingston. I have been printmaking for over thirty years. And I actually had no idea what an etching was when I started art school. And I took an etching class, and I just fell in love with it.
I thought I would start out by just taking a minute to talk about how an etching is made. A copper plate is coated with a resist or ground. Originally these resists were mostly wax but in 1645 a French artist, Jacques Caillot, published a manual of etching that recommended using the kind of varnish that instrument makers used. Once coated, a sharp tool or needle scratches lines through the resist to create an image. And there are a variety of different needles that you can use and they give you a different thickness of line. You can also vary the pressure to change the thickness of your line. The plate is then placed in a bath of Dutch mordant, which is a mixture of potassium chloride and hydrochloric acid. Any mark on the plate that is not covered with the ground is etched and creates a line. This process can be repeated more than once. And finally, the plate is cleaned off of all the resist, and inked, and printed using damp rag paper on an etching press. And the reason that damp paper is used so that the ink goes right into the fibers of the paper.
The first thing that struck me was really the variety of line. So I wondered if she used different needles, or if she put the plate into the acid more than once. Or if it is a combination of both. So I suspect it is a combination of both. Because there are very fine lines in the foreground of the image, for example Mary’s feet and the pillow. And also very fine lines in the background. And then the lines of the drapery and the babies and of course Mary and St Elizabeth are much darker. So, I can only imagine this if I were doing this etching. I would probably start with a very fine needle and do an initial etch of basically where I want everything to be. I would etch it, take it out of the acid, clean it off, maybe run a proof, and then recoat it. Now the great thing is that the resists that Elisabetta was using were transparent. So she could see the lines she’d already created. So I think then she would go back and redraw the lines that she wants to be darker. Of course the other option is she may have simply been such an adept draughtsman that she was able to control the pressure she used on her tools as she was using them.
One of the things I would say about when you are etching in black and white like this, there is a constant tug, when you are creating images like this, between the foreground and the background. I think that the stairs were added afterwards with a very light etch to push the image of Joseph further into the background. If it had been a light background he would have taken more prominence. It seems to me like the two women and the little pillow, everything we really would consider foreground, was done first. And then you would start working on the darks adding more lines where you want the darks and that might be a second etch. That would include of course all these crosshatching of the shadows and I noticed that Mary’s neck is very dark and the outline of her face is very dark. If Elisabetta wanted to add something in the background but felt that the foreground was complete, she would simply have to make sure her varnish was very heavy there, was very thick so that the acid would not go into it.
What I love the most about etching is that you never know exactly what is going to happen in the acid bath. I mean you have a plan, but the acid strength varies depending on the temperature, how many plates have gone in the acid, how long you leave it in the acid, you know, and so you can think that you have a certain image, and then when you clean off your plate and you print it, it might not be what you had planned. So I always feel like I’m in a conversation when I’m making an etching, I’m not working alone. And when I’m teaching in my own studio, I sometimes think that I would like to have a little recording of a fanfare that happened [laughing] you know [laughing] after—after somebody has pulled something. Because so often people pull a print and they’re like “wow I didn’t think it would look like that!” or “oh my god that’s horrible!” [laughing] you know but more often happy, right, because you don’t— even if you are very experienced there are always surprises and that is one of the fun things.
Suzanne van de Meerendonk: My name is Suzanne van de Meerendonk and I am the Bader Curator of European Art at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University. In this Collection Highlight, we take a closer look at Elisabetta Sirani’s etching The Holy Family with Saints Elizabeth and John the Baptist. In this touching depiction of motherhood and kinship, we see the Virgin Mary nursing her son Jesus while playfully interacting with the infant Saint John the Baptist. John’s Mother, Saint Elizabeth, is seated right next to them winding the swaddling bands of the newborn Christ child. While most attention is given to the women and children, Mary’s husband Joseph can be seen in the background doing woodwork. Almost entirely covered in shade, his axe however gleams in the sunlight, ready to strike – a singular detail focused on hard, manual labor that draws contrast to the tender scene in the foreground.
Sirani’s etching was acquired by Agnes in 2018, and, dating to the 1650s, it represents the earliest work known to have been created by a female artist to enter our European art collection. Early modern Europe was a highly patriarchal society, and not many women were able to establish themselves as independent masters. As a result, collections of historic European art often count few artworks documented or signed by women artists. That does not mean, however, that they did not exist, but rather that such works were often not recognized, undervalued and under-collected. There may be women artists among our unsigned, unattributed artworks, and we just would not know because no name has been preserved. And with no name, there is usually less scholarly attention for a work, and so the cycle continues.
Elisabetta Sirani, however, was very aware of the importance of signing her works to promote herself and her abilities. Trained by her father in Bologna, Italy, she was celebrated for her depictions of biblical and mythological subjects, a genre then still almost entirely dominated by men. The Holy Family with Saints Elizabeth and John the Baptist exemplifies her brief but remarkable artistic career, and we are lucky to be able to care for it here at Agnes.
In this audio guide, we deepen our understanding of this artwork through the lens of two distinct perspectives. The first is by Kingston-based artist Rebecca Cowan. She brings a maker’s perspective to the work by looking at its finest details and staged etching process. In the second audio segment we hear from art historian and renowned Sirani expert Dr Babette Bohn, who situates the print further in the artist’s dynamic hometown of Bologna.
Babette Bohn: My name is Babette Bohn, I am professor of art history at Texas Christian University and I have been working on the women artists of Bologna for a long time. I just recently published a book on the women artists of Bologna in which Sirani is one of the star players. Elisabetta Sirani is, I think, a fascinating figure in the history of art. She’s an exception to many of the usual rules or tendencies that govern painting in Italy. For starters, she is a woman, which makes her unusual to begin with. She is not the first woman in Italy to be a painter, but she actually is one of the earliest to become what we call a peintre graveur that is a painter who also makes prints. Sirani was principally a painter, she produced around 200 paintings and she was only occasionally an etcher, producing ten etchings that are still known today.
Sirani principally produced religious subjects. Even within the context of her painted production her single most popular most frequently repeated subject either includes or exclusively represents the Virgin and Child. And she shows the virgin and child interacting in a variety of ways. Sometimes the Christ child is crowning Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Sometimes as in your etching he is nursing so it is a more intimate mother-child connection. Sometimes they are interacting more playfully. Sometimes Mary is worshipping the Christ Child. So this is a subject she thought quite a lot about and one might be tempted to hypothesize that as a woman she was sensitive to the mother-child relationship. But she herself had no children, never married and in fact died quite young at the age of twenty-seven, so I think we have to be careful about hypothesizing too much based on the artist’s gender, but certainly this was a favorite subject of hers and I think many of them are notable for the intimacy in the ways they portray the interactions of the Virgin Mary with her infant child.
Etching was a relatively new art form so it is not surprising that we don’t have loads of Italian women who were active as etchers before Sirani. In the sixteenth century there are some earlier Italian printmakers, Isabella Parasole and Geronima Parasole for example were both woodcutters and Diana Mantuana is active also in the sixteenth century and she works as an engraver. But women begin to produce etchings on the historical record as far as we know only in the seventeenth century and so Sirani is one of the earliest. I do think it is noteworthy that in Bologna itself Sirani’s example creates a precedent and she is succeeded by a number of women who are active as etchers in the later seventeenth century and in the eighteenth century.
Women artists in Bologna are recorded beginning in the fifteenth century and there are a growing number of women artists whose names and to some extent careers I was able to track down in the course of working on my book so today I can point to some 68 women artists, which makes Bologna by a considerable margin the number one Italian center for women artists.
Bologna is a really interesting city in a lot of ways. The churches of Bologna are effectively redecorated in the course of the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries so it provided a location that was really full of opportunities for all artists male and female during that period. I think another key factor in Bologna is that it was filled with dozens of noble families and quite a wealthy and prosperous merchant and banking class and fascinatingly lots of people from what today we might call the lower middle class up were commissioning and collecting artworks. So, in terms of Sirani, her most original conceptions in my view were typically produced for merchants and bankers and fishmongers and jewelers rather than for noble patrons and perhaps she felt freer to think out of the box while working for sympathetic patrons who were perhaps a little less wedded to traditional approaches. So, it was a pretty exciting place to be as a woman artist and Sirani’s very successful example paved the way as I already mentioned in some measure for literally dozens of painters, many of whom like Sirani enjoyed successful public careers. So really success breeds success I guess we might say and Sirani’s success opened lots of doors for other women artists to follow her exciting example.
>> My name is Maxime Valsamas and I am the Curatorial Assistant, European Art at Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University, and I am the curator of from Tudor to Hanover: British Portraits, 1590 to 1800. One of the works in the show that I am thrilled to highlight is Godfrey Kneller’s A Scholar in His Study, painted around 1668. Of the three works on display in this exhibition, this is the earliest example of Kneller’s work, and it shows exciting connections to two Dutch masters, Rembrandt van Rijn and Ferdinand Bol.
>> While Kneller is not an artist whose name is well known today, he was a sensitive and celebrated portraitist during his lifetime. In this audio guide, we will hear from experts from diverse fields from within the Queen’s community who will delve into the deeper connections and meanings found within this early work, focussing primarily on the connections it has to 17th-century Dutch art and society.
>> So, who was Godfrey Kneller? He was a German-born artist and completed this painting while studying art in the Netherlands. He was in both Leiden, and later in Amsterdam, where he studied under the celebrated artists, Ferdinand Bol and Rembrandt van Rijn. The impact that these two Dutch masters had on Kneller’s stylistic development are apparently in A Scholar in His Study, in both composition and subject.
>> After his studies in the Netherlands and a stint in Italy, he established himself in England during the mid-1670s, becoming the dominant portraitist of his time and as the court painter to the English monarchs, following the footsteps of such notable artists as Hans Holbein the Younger and Anthony van Dyck. In England, Kneller received a tremendous amount of praise and was hailed as the Shakespeare of English painting. A Scholar in His Study shows his tremendous talent as a young artist and also demonstrates a key moment in his early career when he painted in a Dutch Rembrandtesque style.
>> Looking in depth into A Scholar and His Study, will draw attention to the importance of this painting, its subject matter and iconography, and the artistic ties between Kneller, Ferdinand Bol, and Rembrandt. I’m joined by art historian, Professor Stephanie Dickey; historian, Professor, and Principal Emeritus, Daniel Woolf; and conservator, Natasa Krsmanovic.
>> Of the three Godfrey Kneller paintings on view in the exhibition, this is the only painting from his earlier period, and that shows a strong connection to the Dutch masters, Rembrandt van Rijn and Ferdinand Bol. Stephanie Dickey, Queen’s Professor and Bader Chair in Northern European Baroque Art, explains.
>> Very little is known about Kneller’s early period. We know he was born in Lubeck in Germany. And he first went to the Netherlands to study mathematics at the University of Leiden, probably intending some kind of a career in something like military engineering. But like many artists do, discovered that their real passion was art. So, in the case of Kneller, in 1662, he left Leiden and went to Amsterdam to study art. And there are different sources from the early period that describe what happened. Some say he worked with Ferdinand Bol. Some say Rembrandt. But by 1662, Rembrandt was in the last stages of his career. And I honestly don’t think he was taking in students who still needed to learn the nuts and bolts. So, it seems to be more likely that he either only worked with Ferdinand Bol, or he started with Bol and then maybe spent a period of time with Rembrandt.
>> Kneller’s Dutch art training with Bol and Rembrandt gave him the skills necessary to masterfully convey his subject’s through art. Bol embraced Rembrandt’s style, and he encouraged Kneller to follow a similar artistic path. The influences of Rembrandt and Bol are seen in the use of colour and handling of paint in Kneller’s A Scholar in His Study.
>> Well, if you think of paintings like ours, the clearest connections are the rich Earthy colours, very warm, ready colour scheme, and strong dramatic effects of light. And those are things that both of them learnt from Rembrandt. You can see Rembrandt’s impact also in some of the painterly touches, for example, in our painting, the gold brocade along the edge of the curtain has a really textural effect, thick paint treated in an almost sculptural way. That’s something that Rembrandt did. That’s something that he taught his students to do, including Bol, and including Kneller. In our painting particularly, the golden robe that the figure is wearing, a very similar robe can be seen in a number of paintings by Kneller, depicting scholarly figures, including one in the National Gallery in London. And the interest in these scholarly figures is also something that they share. It’s mysterious who this figure is exactly meant to be. The costume and the hairstyle are not typical of what a scholar, in contemporary terms, would have been wearing in the 1660s. So, it’s likely that Kneller is trying to make him look like a historical character. He has a large book, kind of dog eared book. He as a globe, which doesn’t necessarily identify him as a geographer. Globes were a mark of learning in generic terms for scholars. Every scholar worth his salt owned a pair of globes in those days, a celestial and a terrestrial globe. You had to have those in your study if you were a scholar of any note. We could also mention that Kneller’s style changed quite radically when he moved to England. He stopped painting in that very textural way. And his colour scheme also changed quite a lot. He pretty much transformed himself into a portraitist. And when he did that, he was deeply impacted by the work of the Flemish painter, Anthony van Dyck, who had also come from the Netherlands to England, but a generation earlier, and had worked for the Court of Charles I. Van Dyck’s impact in England was profound. You can see his impact in English portraits right through to the 18th century to people like Reynolds and Gainsborough. Tastes were changing. Rembrandt’s style was really becoming old fashioned. And a lot of the younger consumers of art wanted something that was more suave and more dignified. And so he really gave them what they wanted.
>> The 17th century saw increased literacy during a time of economic prosperity within the Dutch Republic. Books and the scholars that wrote them were an important element of society and, thus, significant enough to document in art. Godfrey Kneller painted several scholars and literary figures over the course of his career. This painting is emblematic of the interest in scholarly figures that caught the imagination of his contemporaries, and of Queen’s History Professor and Principal Emeritus Daniel Woolf, who provides some insights into the subject and historical context of the work.
>> Scholars, philosophers and scientists or natural philosophers, as they were known then, were pretty much the rock stars of the late 17th and early 18th century. Particularly in a place like the Netherlands, and elsewhere, obviously in England, but they made excellent subjects for study partly because, for the very first time in Europe, people who were reading works by scholars, historians, literary figures, actually had a curiosity as to what they looked like. Well, I particularly like this particular portrait because, from the point of view of somebody who is actually a historian of scholarship and historical writing and literature in the period, it has just about everything one could want. It’s got a lovely collection of rare books that we do not know what they were. But the portrait of a scholar is, I think, a very, very good and detailed portrait of a scholar actually at work and comparing that to, say, some earlier portrait of scholars, for example the classic medieval pictures of St. Jerome. It’s a much more lively portrait. You can almost see this particular scholar with his pen thinking about what it is he’s actually going to take from the book that he is reading and transcribe into his own book. I find the depiction of the scholar himself quite interesting. We don’t know who it was. It’s a fairly typical pose, but I find interesting the cap and particularly the shawl, while such garments were not uncommon in [inaudible] studies of the day, suggests to me that this might well have been a Jewish scholar being depicted. The iconography is very interesting. One of the most interesting things is what is not there. The books in the background, which are shelved by their fore-edge which is pretty common in the era, are not discernible as to subject or title so Kneller was obviously not concerned to depict particular books or particular branches of knowledge rather than simply to create a mise-en-scene of knowledge and scholarship. It’s also much darker than the foreground, so your eye is instantly drawn to the scholar himself and to the other items that are in the foreground. The globe itself is an important piece, partly because in addition to being such a mecca for scholarship and philosophy and art, the Dutch Republic at this period of time was also among the earliest of imperial powers. So I think the globe probably signifies the outward looking aspect of the Republic, but it also signifies that whatever else the scholar is doing, writing from one book into his own notebook, he is somebody of probably the multiple disciplines of the period in an age when there really were not disciplines as we came to know them which really is something of the 19th and 20th century.
>> In the 17th century, the Dutch Republic was a land teeming with scholars and books, yet because so few of the books in circulation from this time have survived, conservators have looked to artworks to find evidence of them. Books have an important place in Godfrey Kneller’s A Scholar in His Study, and they offer insights into the display of books and bookbinding practices of the time. Natasa Krsmanovic, the conservator at the W.D. Jordan Rare Books and Special Collections Library here at Queen’s tells us more.
>> When an object like a 17th-century book enters a museum, it has artifactual value, and so that’s what I find so compelling about these kinds of portraits. It’s interesting to see how the book-as-object is depicted, and often artists are so meticulous in terms of the details that they want to capture within a painting that we can do a lot of evidence-based looking to try and find aspects of techniques or details used in the book-binding trade within these items. One of the things that we might notice in the painting are actually how the books are stored on the shelf, for example. We think of the spine out as commonplace now in terms of the way that we store these materials, but actually within the painting, you can see that the fore-edge is what’s facing out towards the audience. This was a very common way of displaying 16th- and 17th-century books. You can also see that the books that are displayed on the shelves have clasps whereas the book that’s displayed in the foreground has these what are either leather or alum-tawed or maybe vellum tongs that come out, which would have been used as kind of ties for the book, so it’s really interesting to see how maybe working copies of books are depicted. So, a book that has a leather cover and gold decorative tooling would line, you know, the walls of your study, but these were probably books that you wouldn’t be breaking the spines of and laying flat and working with, and so they were beautifully ornate, and so they would be placed kind of on display, whereas the books that you’re kind of seeing in the foreground, you can see how they’re draping, they’re limp, and so the book boards aren’t hard. They’re actually quite soft, and that’s more indicative of potentially like a soft leather, a soft vellum, a soft paper cover. It’s really hard to find examples of books that have these kind of soft paper covers because books have such a longstanding history of being re-bound, and so we don’t have a lot of historic evidence in terms of some of these early binding structures, because they just either haven’t survived, or the tradition of re-binding was so prolific that we don’t have very many examples.
>> My name is Marla Dobson and I am the Assistant Curator, Canadian Art at Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queens University. I am also the curator of Nocturne, an exhibition exploring the night and the Canadian artistic imaginary. One of the works in the exhibition that caught my eye was Horatio Walker’s Turning the Harrow – Early Morning, completed in 1898. This work was painted on the Île d’Orléans, Quebec and depicts a lone farmer and his horse tilling the field by the light of the rising sun. Walker was a highly successful artist who split his time between New York City and rural Quebec and was known primarily for his canvases of farm animals and French Canadian labourers. Following in the footsteps of artists of the Barbizon School, Walker was often called the “American Millet,” after the realistic depictions of French peasants by Jean-Francois Millet. His paintings sold for record prices, principally in the United States and were highly sought after in the first decade of the 20th century. However, as the century progressed changing tastes in art meant that Walker’s work rapidly fell out of favour and was even deaccessioned from major museum collections. The story behind this canvas is therefore deeply rooted in historical moment and a period of transition and history of art in North America.
>>In this audio guide we will delve into the rich history of Walker’s Turning the Harrow – Early Morning through the eyes of two art curators and the local farmer, bringing to light the stories behind the painting from the perspective of settler Canadian art history, as well as the expertise of someone who has worked the land in much the same way as Walker’s lone figure. We are joined by Anne-Marie Bouchard, Curator of Modern Art at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec; Charles Summers, proprietor of Salt of the Earth Farm in Kingston, Ontario and Agnes’s own Chief Curator and Curator of Canadian Historical Art, Alicia Boutilier.