Even if engraving seems arcane to viewers, there is one print that always impresses. It is the virtuoso engraving by Claude Mellan, The Sudarium of Saint Veronica, 1649. The print shows the sudarium (Latin for sweat cloth) that Veronica used to wipe the sweat off Jesus’ face during a chance encounter (it’s also called Veronica’s veil). It became inexplicably imprinted with an image of Jesus’ face.
If the appearance of Christ’s face on the sudarium was a miracle, perhaps in turn, an artist’s ability to produce such a work might be seen to link their talent to a higher power. The inscription translates to "It is formed by one and no other." As if linking the artist’s talent to the divine wasn’t clear enough. This became Mellan’s calling card demonstrating his prowess with a burin, the tool used to carve the line into the copper plate.
In Mellan’s composition, Jesus’ face is rather straight forward and remarkably symmetrical. Christ looks defeated and resigned with his eyes slightly downcast, and he is shown with droplets of blood from the crown of thorns that pierce his skin. The edges of the cloth are shown in a tromp l’oeil manner, meaning intended to fool the eye with their realism. It looks like the edges are curling off the sheet.
This artifact foreshadows Jesus’ passion, conveyed through Veronica (the name derives from the Greek word for truth), and gives us the truth of his pain. While it may elicit a feeling of gratitude and hope for those that are spiritually Christian, for others, it may seem like a trope. But either way, I think we all can appreciate this landmark of printmaking.
Here’s the part where I get to say this print “rewards scrutiny,” a phrase I used often in the museum’s studyroom. Look closer. Then zero in on Christ’s nose. Begin at Christ’s nose and follow the line outward. Keep going. Right.
The image is made by increasing and decreasing the width of the single line created by carving into the copper plate. It’s really a jaw dropper, isn’t it? How in the world did he manage it? It boggles the mind. It always leaves an impression on me.
Pictured is the impression of Mellan's print from the Art Institute of Chicago, chosen because one can zoom in pretty tightly to marvel at the line work. You can find it here: https://www.artic.edu/.../the-sudarium-of-saint-veronica
David St. Hubbins: It's such a fine line between stupid, and uh...
Nigel Tufnel: Clever.
David St. Hubbins: Yeah, and clever.
(From the movie, This is Spinal Tap)
As a curator, I like work that is thoughtful, has a tight conceptual circle, and says a lot using minimal means. I appreciate it if the artist uses techniques that align with the meaning of the work. And I really appreciate it if there is a sly nod to some earlier piece of art history. This latter part is divisive among my colleagues. Is it clever or stupid? Is it derivative or smart in accessing its forebears?
I spent many years hosting visitors and classes in the print room and offering critiques in the studios of artists. Occasionally I came across someone who said they didn’t want to learn about artists who came before them because it would influence their thinking and creativity. The sentiment “they have nothing to teach me,” always strikes me as foolhardy. Imagine exhibiting your work and getting comments like, “Oh, so-and-so did work like this in the 1980s.” I always tried to impress upon these non-believers that being ignorant of the work of artists “upon whose shoulders you stand,” to quote Tru Ludwig, is foolish and makes them look stupid rather than clever, in Spinal Tap parlance.
Whenever I converse with artists about their work, I think about what other artists they should look at, or specific objects they need to see in the museum’s collection. I always reinforce the idea of visiting print rooms in any museum, which are there for the study of works on paper not on view in the galleries. Normally, 99.9% of the collection of works on paper is only accessible by making an appointment to look at them under supervision in a print room. And most museums, no matter where you are, have such a thing. I believe print rooms are one of the front doors of the museum. As the first contact point for print room visitors, I think it is important to give them access to objects, resources, and me (or whoever is there). Not that I know everything—far from it—but that I could at least offer a suggestion of where to turn next if I didn’t have the answers. Honestly, this was just about the most fun part of the job: watching artists looking at objects you know will spark something in their brains, inevitably leading to better work.
Does this mean a work is derivative, a copy, a nod, an appropriation because of ideas formed looking at other objects? Personally, I don’t think so. (There are shades all along the spectrum on this.) I would rather the artist know that someone else thought of it first and that they took the time to think through that aspect and morph it into their own vision of the same idea. I also love that often there is more than one object that speaks to a particular work. Hang on, we’re going down a rabbit hole.
Years ago, the museum purchased a drawing by Rachel Perry that is made up of cut slivers of fruit stickers forming loops. That work, S.O.O.O. Good, 2008, is not included in the online database (many, many things aren’t), but it looks a lot like Peach Party, 2012. I always loved the drawing and used it often in classes. That one could take something as mundane as a bunch of fruit stickers and create such a lyrical drawing always struck me as brilliant.
While Perry was collecting the fruit stickers for these drawings, she also produced a series of photographs called Lost in my Life that feature the artist obscured and overwhelmed by an overabundance of an everyday object like price tags, twist ties, bread tabs, take-out containers, and, of course, fruit stickers. They are perfect statements about consumerism and waste.
When the photograph series was first shown at Yancey Richardson Gallery, I was excited to pitch the photo with the fruit stickers to the museum for acquisition thinking it was a beautiful pendant to the drawing we’d already acquired. My pitch was unsuccessful. But the smallest version of the photograph (Perry published it in three sizes) hangs in my living room.
In Lost in my Life (fruit stickers), Perry holds in front of her a patchwork of squares of wax paper upon which she has been storing the fruit stickers she harvested from her family kitchen. The top of her head is visible, as are her bare feet. Through the translucent wax paper, it appears that she is naked, as if she has just emerged from the shower. Behind her, the wallpaper is images of fruit stickers, created by the artist.
I was entranced by the photograph anyway, but when my art-partner-travel-companion Tru Ludwig made the connection to Raphaelle Peale’s painting, Venus Rising from the Sea—A Deception, c. 1822, I was sold. Peale’s painting is complex and fascinating and warrants further reading. A short description from the Nelson-Atkins Museum (which owns it), is here:
https://art.nelson-atkins.org/objects/30797/venus-rising-from-the-seaa-deception. A rather in-depth look at it both historically and physically is found here: Lauren Lessing and Mary Schafer. “Unveiling Raphaelle Peale’s Venus Rising from the Sea—a Deception.” Winterthur Portfolio 43, no. 2/3 (summer/autumn 2009), pp. 229–59. Suffice it to say that painting a trompe l’oeil kerchief obscuring a nude woman was rather scandalous in 1820s America. The kerchief, a length of fabric worn around a woman’s neck and tucked into her bodice, would have been seen as if not erotic then at least alluring. That it is hiding a nude woman emerging from her bath would have been titillating in puritanical America. Sure, the Europeans had been portraying nudes forever, but not so in this country. It’s an amazing painting and is worth the trip to Kansas City to see.
But back to the idea of copying, appropriating, whatever you want to call it. The figure behind the draped kerchief is a direct quotation from a c. 1722 painting by James Barry. I doubt Peale would have seen the Irishman’s painting in person, but no surprise, there was a reproductive print made of the composition to spread Barry’s reputation and imagery. The mezzotint, by Valentine Green, would have likely found its way into a collection in Philadelphia or Baltimore, where Peale would have seen it.
The idea of painting drapery in this fashion probably derives from a work by the Spaniard Francisco de Zubarán, whose The Veil of Saint Veronica, 1630s, shows the sudarium with the visage of Jesus Christ, which was imprinted on the veil when Veronica wiped Christ’s face as he carried the cross. Close in composition is Philippe de Champaigne’s etching and engraving after the painting by Nicolas de Plattemontagne—another example of prints as a way of disseminating imagery. They were that time’s Instagram. And of course, one must mention the incredible engraving of the sudarium by Claude Mellan, whose single line starts at the nose and works its way outward. Yes, you read that right, one line.
That’s a lot of layers to get back to Rachel Perry’s photograph about contemporary life and consumerism. This through-line deserves a more thorough analysis to be sure, but I thought I would suck you in with this teaser.
Rachel Perry (American, born 1962)
Peach Party, 2012
Fruit stickers and archival adhesive
279 x 279 mm. (11 x 11 inches)
Rachel Perry (American, born 1962)
Lost in my Life (fruit stickers), 2010
762 x 508 mm. (30 x 20 in.)
Raphaelle Peale (American, 1774–1825)
Venus Rising from the Sea—A Deception, c. 1822
Oil on canvas
740 x 613 cm. (29 1/8 x 24 1/8 in.)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 34-147
James Barry (Irish, 1741–1806)
The Birth of Venus, c. 1772
Oil on canvas
260.3 x 170.2 cm. (102 ½ x 67 in.)
Dublin City Gallery, the Hugh Lane
Valentine Green (British, 1739–1812)
after James Barry (Irish, 1741–1806)
The Birth of Venus, 1772
Plate: 612 x 391 mm. (24 1/8 x 15 3/8 in.)
Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: William A. Whitaker Foundation Art Fund
Francisco de Zubarán (Spanish, 1558–1664)
The Veil of Saint Veronica, 1630s
Oil on canvas
101.6 x 832 cm. (42 ½ x 31 ¼ in.)
Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston
Nicolas de Plattemontagne (French, 1631–1706)
after Philippe de Champaigne (French, 1602–1674)
The Veil of Saint Veronica, 1654
Etching and engraving
Sheet (trimmed within platemark): 554 x 353 mm. (17 15/16 x 13 7/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art: Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1998.34.2
Claude Mellan (French 1598–1688)
The Sudarium of Saint Veronica, 1649
Plate: 430 x 318 mm. (16 15/16 x 12 ½ in.)
Sheet: 517 x 395 mm. (20 3/8 x 15 9/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art: Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.6144
Ann's art blog
A small corner of the interwebs to share thoughts on objects I acquired for the Baltimore Museum of Art's collection, research I've done on Stanley William Hayter and Atelier 17, experiments in intaglio printmaking, and the Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair.