The Best Portraits in Engraving

Unquestionably the finest assemblage of portraits anywhere is that of the artists occupying two halls in the gallery at Florence, being autographs contributed by the masters themselves. Here is Raffaelle, with chestnut-brown hair, and dark eyes full of sensibility, painted when he was twenty-three, and known by the engraving of Forster—Julio Romano, in black and red chalk on paper,—Massaccio, called the father of painting, much admired—Leonardo da Vinci, beautiful and grand,—Titian, rich and splendid,—Pietro Perugino, remarkable for execution and expression,—Albert Dürer, rigid but masterly,—Gerhard Dow, finished according to his own exacting style,—and Reynolds, with fresh English face; but these are only examples of this incomparable collection, which was begun as far back as the Cardinal Leopold de Medici, and has been happily continued to the present time. Here are the lions, painted by themselves, except, perhaps, the foremost of all, Michael Angelo, whose portrait seems the work of another. The impression from this collection is confirmed by that of any group of historic artists. Their portraits excel those of statesmen, soldiers, or divines, as is easily seen by engravings accessible to all. The engraved heads in Arnold Houbraken's biographies of the Dutch and Flemish painters, in three volumes, are a family of rare beauty.[2]

The relation of engraving to painting is often discussed; but nobody has treated it with more knowledge or sentiment than the consummate engraver Longhi in his interesting work, La Calcografia.[3] Dwelling on the general aid it renders to the lovers of art, he claims for it greater merit in "publishing and immortalizing the portraits of eminent men for the example of the present and future generations;" and, "better than any other art, serving as the vehicle for the most extended and remote propagation of deserved celebrity." Even great monuments in porphyry and bronze are less durable than these light and fragile impressions subject to all the chances of wind, water, and fire, but prevailing by their numbers where the mass succumbs. In other words, it is with engravings as with books; nor is this the only resemblance between them. According to Longhi, an engraving is not a copy or imitation, as is sometimes insisted, but a translation. The engraver translates into another language, where light and shade supply the place of colors. The duplication of a book in the same language is a copy, and so is the duplication of a picture in the same material. Evidently an engraving is not a copy; it does not reproduce the original picture, except in drawing and expression; nor is it a mere imitation, but, as Bryant's Homer and Longfellow's Dante are presentations of the great originals in another language, so is the engraving a presentation of painting in another material which is like another language.

Thus does the engraver vindicate his art. But nobody can examine a choice print without feeling that it has a merit of its own different from any picture, and inferior only to a good picture. A work of Raffaelle, or any of the great masters, is better in an engraving of Longhi or Morghen than in any ordinary copy, and would probably cost more in the market. A good engraving is an undoubted work of art, but this cannot be said of many pictures, which, like Peter Pindar's razors, seem made to sell.

Much that belongs to the painter belongs also to the engraver, who must have the same knowledge of contours, the same power of expression, the same sense of beauty, and the same ability in drawing with sureness of sight as if, according to Michael Angelo, he had "a pair of compasses in his eyes." These qualities in a high degree make the artist, whether painter or engraver, naturally excelling in portraits. But choice portraits are less numerous in engraving than in painting, for the reason, that painting does not always find a successful translator.

Philip Melancthon

(Engraved by Albert Dürer from his own Design.)

The earliest engraved portraits which attract attention are by Albert Dürer, who engraved his own work, translating himself. His eminence as painter was continued asDürer. engraver. Here he surpassed his predecessors, Martin Schoen in Germany, and Mantegna in Italy, so that Longhi does not hesitate to say that he was the first who carried the art from infancy in which he found it to a condition not far from flourishing adolescence. But, while recognizing his great place in the history of engraving, it is impossible not to see that he is often hard and constrained, if not unfinished. His portrait of Erasmus is justly famous, and is conspicuous among the prints exhibited in the British Museum. It is dated 1526, two years before the death of Dürer, and has helped to extend the fame of the universal scholar and approved man of letters, who in his own age filled a sphere not unlike that of Voltaire in a later century. There is another portrait of Erasmus by Holbein, often repeated, so that two great artists have contributed to his renown. That by Dürer is admired. The general fineness of touch, with the accessories of books and flowers, shows the care in its execution; but it wants expression, and the hands are far from graceful.