Axel Haig and Georges Rouault both used the intaglio method, an umbrella term for printmaking techniques in which the image is incised into the plate and holds the ink until it is run through a press. Etching, more specifically, is the process in which a strong acid is exposed to unprotected areas of a metal plate. This process starts with a metal plate that is covered with a wax-like acid-resistant ground. The artist then uses a pointed etching needle to scratch away the ground into their desired image. The plate is then dipped into an acid bath and the acid “bites” the metal, creating the incised lines where the metal was exposed. Next, the ground is washed off the plate, which is then inked, and then the plateaus are are wiped off, leaving only the ink where the acid bit the metal.
Unlike Rouault, Haig was more concerned with showing the minute details of his subjects, most of which were churches. Thus, he employed much simpler techniques in order to execute a more complicated composition. Etching produces a print with lines characteristically uniform in width, since the tool of expression in this process is acid, rather than a burin in engraving. The process of etching is considered the most accessible to artists with a previous background in drawing and painting like Haig. The process of drawing into the ground with an etching needle closely approximates the experience of sketching, unlike the laborious process of engraving into a metal plate with a burin. Because Haig’s career started in watercolor, etching was the easiest and most obvious choice. Many of Haig’s early prints were created via commission for architects, and thus his etching style emphasized technical detail rather than artistic expression.
This does not mean, however, that Haig did not experiment with the etching process. His etchings of Cefalù and Canterbury Cathedrals were not created for architectural commission, but were intended as artistic representations of the grandeur of Gothic architecture. Haig’s experimentation with etching mainly manifested in the use of the “stopping out” process. In this process, after the initial biting of the metal plate for a uniform line, the etcher applies an acid-resistant varnish to the lines he feels are sufficiently “bitten,” and then returns the plate to the acid bath.1 The unvarnished lines are subsequently made deeper by the acid. The stopping out process can be used infinitely by the etcher for various effects. It is most commonly employed by Haig to create variations in tone , such as in the stream of light entering Cefalù Cathedral through the upper-right window. Haig most likely bit the plate over five times in order to achieve the subtle play of light depicted. He also used multiple bites to achieve the intricate shading in the drapery of the figures in the foreground of Cefalù Cathedral.
Rouault also used etching—but in a much more complicated fashion. He was not hesitant to utilize more than one technique to achieve various effects. First, the Miserere prints started as photogravures. This mechanical reproductive technique combines intaglio printmaking and photography. It involves the negatives of photographs—of Rouault’s paintings in this case—being developed onto a copper plate. This plate is treated with light-sensitized, acid-resisting ground that is dried after being exposed to light. The artist then uses a etching needle to break through this hardened ground and the plate is then run through a press after ink has been added. The final result is a reproduction of the original photograph.2
After art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard received the photogravures, Rouault heavily reworked the plates. It is apparent that the artist was interested in achieving tonal effects through sugar-lift and aquatint rosin. Sugar-lift is especially apparent in the broad, brush-like strokes and contours in each of the prints that resemble watercolor. This method involves the artist using a solution of saturated sugar and Indian ink to create a drawing on the plate. When dried, stopping-out varnish is applied. The plate is then washed with warm water, which separates and dissolves the sugar from the varnish.3 Aquatint is then applied to the matrix. This involves fine dust particles called rosin being infused into the metal plate either through heat or a distilled spirit like alcohol.4 The plate is bitten, creating the tiny granular areas in the print that are especially present on the contours that articulate the limbs of the bodies. This is another tonal method in etching that mimics ink wash.
Other areas show the use of drypoint and roulette work. With drypoint, the needle creates a slightly raised surface, or bur, on each side of the line as it cuts into the plate. Rather than being burnished away, the bur is kept on the plate and results in a scratchy line with furry edges.5 Such lines were used to make areas of the plate darker and thus create tonal gradation from dark to light. One can also notice small areas of mechanical order of dots. This signals Rouault’s use of a roulette, which is a metal wheel covered with sharp points attached to handle. When rolled across the matrix, the tool creates a system of tiny grooves in the plate.
It is difficult to discern the order in which each of these methods were applied.6 Similarly, why Rouault took on the demanding task of reworking the plates is unclear. Perhaps he simply disliked the appearance of the photogravures, or maybe the perfectionist within him compelled him, in his words, to “resum[e] each subject endlessly, sometimes in as many as twelve or fifteen successive states.”7 In any case, the arduous labor that Rouault invested adds to the expressive character of these prints. The image of an artist working away at a plate and exploiting the printmaking medium as much as possible mirrors the theme of a weary, worn-out body that is prevalent in the Miserere series.
Grace Boyan, Olivia Camusi, & Nicole Meily
1 Bamber Gascoigne, How to Identify Prints: A Complete Guide to Manual and Mechanical Processes from Woodcut to Inkjet (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004), 37; Holly Flora and Soo Yoo Kang, George Rouault’s Miserere et Guerre: This Anguished World of Shadows (New York: Museum of Biblical Art, 2006), 10b.
2 Ibid., 22.
3 Ibid., 60a.
4 Ibid., 17a.
5 Ibid., 55f.
6 Flora and Kang, 23.
7 Antony Griffiths, Prints and Printmaking: An Introduction to the History and Technique (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996), 124; Flora and Kang, 23.