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Martin Lewis: Misty Night, Danbury

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Now on view in Once Upon a Time: Prints and Drawings that Tell Stories
 
 
 
 
  
 
 
Tantalus, Icarus, Phaeton, and Ixion, 1588
Four individual prints that constitute the full set known as The Disgracers
Engravings printed in black ink on off-white laid paper
Diameter of each plate: 13 1/8 inches

Hendrick Goltzius (Dutch, 1558-1617)
After Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem (Dutch, 1562-1638)

Museum Purchase: Alan, Marianne, and Marc Schwartz Fund in honor of the DIA’s 125th Anniversary
DIA Nos. 2011.1 – 4

The four engravings represent mythological figures who tangled with the gods. Each disgraced himself through the display of bad behavior or misjudgment and each endured a harsh punishment.

Several different tales exist about Tantalus. In one, he enraged the gods because he shared their divine food with mortals. Another version portrays Tantalus as the perpetrator of cannibalism. He murdered his son and fed him to the gods. As punishment, he was subjected to a state of eternal tantalization by being immersed up to his neck in a river from which he could not drink. Goltzius notes this aspect of the story by showing a tiny head in the water in the lower right of the print. The Latin inscription surrounding the image reads: Seated amidst the waves, parched Tantalus suffers agonies of thirst. How miserable is he who lives in abject poverty in the midst of riches! No one should believe that the favors of Fortune bring happiness; they are good for good people and harm the wicked.

The story of Icarus is perhaps the best known of the four disgracers. To escape their imprisonment in the Labyrinth, Icarus’ father, Daedalus built them sets of wings fastened with wax. He warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun but was ignored. The wax adhesive melted; Icarus’ wings failed; he fell into the sea and drowned. The Latin inscription surrounding the image tells us: It is something divine to want to acquire knowledge, the gift of God, but man must keep to his limits. As long as everyone has his own wisdom and does not keep the right measure in mind, Icarus gives his name to the Icarian Sea.

Phaeton was the son of Helios. He convinced his father to be allowed to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky but the horses sensed something amiss. They felt an unfamiliar and weak hand on the reins and ran wildly close to earth, so close that the planet nearly burned. To stop the danger, Zeus destroyed Phaeton with a thunderbolt. The inscription around the image reads: A wise man does not approve ambition, but prizes expressions of praise; he prizes them if they go to good people. Thus the fall of Phaeton teaches us that impetuosity comes to a bad end.

Ixion attempted to avoid payment for a bride by murdering his would-be father-in-law. He was sentenced to exile in a desert but Zeus took pity on his and invited him to Olympus. Ixion then made the mistake of appearing much too friendly to Hera. To confirm whether or not the two were conducting an affair, Zeus fashioned a dark cloud into the form of Hera and tricked Ixion to seduce it. Ixion’s punishment was to remain forever tied to a wheel that spun in all directions. Such a tiny, tortured figure is visible on the jutting rock formation in the lower right background. The surrounding Latin text reads: Let him whose wildly beating heart lusts after popularity, the fool who is absorbed by meaningless fame, take warning from Ixion, for whom Jupiter (Zeus) replaced his wife Juno (Hera) with a dark cloud.

Goltzius’ work represents a pinnacle in printmaking achievement. The engraving technique characterized by overlapping patterns of undulating lines that he perfected in the mid-1580s was unparalleled in the history of the medium and was known from its debut as his signature style. Engraving relies significantly not only on the dexterity of the hand but also on the excellence of the tools used and the physical strength of the engraver. The quality of line that is achieved results from pushing a sharp tool directly through a metal plate from which impressions are printed. To create fluid lines that suggest movement and liveliness is a very difficult feat but it is one at which Goltzius excelled.

Goltzius’ ability to interpret subjects dramatically with all the excesses and exaggerations known to the High Mannerist style also define him not only as one of the outstanding artists of his era but of all times. Manipulation of compositional aspects such as the presentation of strong light and dark contrasts, intriguing spatial relationships, provocative symbolic interpretation of subjects, and the already mentioned depiction of vivid activity are just some of the qualities that fostered great demand for his work across Europe.

Goltzius was also an astute businessman who was the co-founder and owner of an art academy, printing press, and print publishing business in Haarlem. His role as a successful entrepreneur is an important point to note. Businesses in Brussels and Antwerp held a near monopoly in print publishing. That an independent firm could start up in The Netherlands and very quickly rival the established order speaks to the changing economic climate in Europe in the late sixteenth century. Goltzius seized the opportunity to earn superstar status as an artist within this new market arena that he helped to create.

Existing records show Goltzius to have had extensive dealings in London, Paris, and throughout other major territories in what constitute modern day Spain, Italy, Germany, and the Low Countries. His art was acquired by all the royal houses and for a time he enjoyed the protective privilege of the court Rudolf II centered in Prague. The sophistication and bravura associated with his prints reflect the tastes of the audience that he targeted. Goltzius sought to impress serious collectors and purposefully strove to develop a reputation for creating art of the highest caliber. His prints set a new standard of excellence and were considered to be marvels.

Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem after whose designs Goltzius engraved The Disgracers was one of Goltizius’ two business partners. Their company trained pupils and employed a number of assistants at all levels to make prints. It was common practice for them to edition and to sell the prints of other artists; to engage in collaborations that were variously designed, cut, and printed by members of the firm; or to create prints that were both designed and engraved by Goltzius alone. Many of the firm’s pupil/assistants advanced to become accomplished artists. Among the best known were Jan Muller, Jacques de Gheyn II, and Jacob Matham who was Goltzius’ stepson and who eventually took over the leadership of the business.

Goltzius was also an amazingly gifted draughtsman. Portraiture, botanical and animal studies, and landscapes also figure prominently in his oeuvre. He did not shift into painting until ca. 1590. To learn more about his interesting life and prodigious achievements, the catalogue to the recent exhibition of his work: Henrick Goltzius: Drawings, Prints, and Paintings, Huigen Leeflang et al. Rijksmuseum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Toledo Museum of Art, 2003, provides a good read. .