EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY mezzotint is England's chief glory in the history of engraving. In line-engraving and etching England had started a century behind the continent of Europe, and even then much of the best work produced for a considerable period was done by settlers from abroad. With mezzotint, too, the initiative came from abroad, for its inventor, Ludwig von Siegen, was a German amateur, and most of its earliest practitioners were German or Dutch. But very soon after the introduction of the new process, England became the chief centre of attraction to the best mezzotinters of the period, though it was not until the beginning of the eighteenth century that an entirely native school thoroughly vindicated the title of la Maniere Anglaise, by which the art was commonly known before the end of the seventeenth century.
Von Siegen's discovery was first taken up by the famous Prince Rupert, and for a considerable period after John Evelyn's notice in his Sculptura (1662) of the "New way of engraving, or Mezzo Tinto, invented and communicated by his Highnesse Prince Rupert," fame or flattery assigned to the Prince the actual invention of the art. But though the discovery is now known not to have been his, he is justly famous in the history of the art for the most magnificent of the early mezzotints, the Great Executioner (after Ribera), which shows a real flair, and a far finer artistic feeling than anything of Von Siegen. It was no doubt Prince Rupert's interest in mezzotint when settled in England at the beginning of the reign of Charles II, that was the really determining factor in making England the centre of the art.
The first century of mezzotint may be treated in a later volume of this series, but in the present place we plunge in medias res, illus- trating the period in which it reached its zenith. Van Dyck was just too early to be represented in contemporary mezzotint, so that the earliest mezzotinters largely reflect the paintings of Lely, Kneller, Vanderbank, and the host of lesser lights (chiefly foreigners) who still carried on the Van Dyck tradition. But the second part of the eighteenth century saw the establishment of a true English school of painting, and the great mezzotinters of this period find half their glory, and nearly all their popularity, in being the noblest translators into the less exclusive medium of engraving of the canvases of Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney, and Hoppner.
Mezzotint has only rarely been used by the engraver as a means of original expression. The absence of lines and the peculiar richness and depth of its chiaroscuro make it the finest medium for the reproduction of oil painting, and neither painters nor engravers have been slow to recognise its special mission.show more