The picture, included in the exhibition “Aquatint: From Its Origins to Goya,” utilizes etching and aquatint techniques, but it owes its drama to the latter, which produces areas of tone rather than line. You can see aquatint in the landscape that recedes into the distance in fading shades of brown — or in the muddy foreground roiling toward her feet like a foreboding fog. Her robes, represented with contrasting shadows, weigh on her, while her off-white chest appears stark in contrast, as if drained of color and air. At the bottom of the page, a caption reads, “I seem to be breathless.”
Popularized in Europe in the 1700s, aquatint, which takes its name from the resemblance to watercolor, introduced new textures in printmaking. (It works by exposing a copper plate to acid through a layer of granulated resin, leaving an evenly pitted surface that creates a broad range of tones in the finished print.) Clouds appear luminescent and aqueous; smoke spreads across the page, ghostly and gaseous; water looks fluid and dynamic. Francisco Goya, the most famous artist associated with the technique, embraced the haunting potential of aquatint to create gut-wrenching images that skewered politics and society in his “Los Caprichos” and “Disasters of War” series.
Aquatint’s rise is perhaps not so very different from any modern innovation in image-making. Some say color television reduced the psychological distance between the viewer and the events on the screen. And TikTok, a social app full of ambient, short form videos paired to music, has been credited with a renewed sensitivity to “vibes,” or a place’s emotional energy.
A look at Louis-Jean Desprez’s mysterious “Tomb with Death Standing” (1779/1784), which shows smoke rising from an altar, or at Joseph Fischer’s cozy 1798 “Self-Portrait With an injured Foot,” which depicts the artist reading in the dark, and you can see how aquatint captures not just the “what” of a place, but its feel. With grainy texture and rich shadow, aquatint is attuned to atmosphere — fit for representing moonlight dancing on a quiet sea or a flame flickering in a claustrophobic interior.
Nowadays — when you can purchase “Starry Night” socks and “Great Wave” T-shirts — it’s hard to imagine a time in which art could not be easily reproduced. But part of the excitement around aquatint was that it could mimic qualities of other artistic media: painterly brushstrokes, subtle ink tones, fluid watercolors. In comparison to older printmaking techniques, which relied on lines, and created images with a more mechanical look, aquatint prints appear untethered from the machine, closer to the artist’s hand.
As expressive as paint, yet as reproducible as a woodblock print, the aquatint process was perfected the in the 1760s by Jean-Baptiste Le Prince — the first “aquatint celebrity,” according to the wall text — who tried to keep his methods secret. It was in vain.
As aquatint spread through Europe, it found pragmatic uses. In the show, there’s a catalogue advertisement for a fireplace; works by art collectors who used it to document their objects; and prints by artists who used it to study other artists. In a way, what’s on view are 18th-century fixations, the images people wanted to multiply: a heavy helping of Neoclassical imagery; copies of Old Masters; popular Russian scenes by Le Prince; and the occasional volcano — which could be rendered with greater scientific precision through aquatint.
But aquatint did more than replicate the past. The medium seems almost biased toward darkness and, eventually, the darkness of the present became its most compelling subject.
In 1797, Giovanni De Pian was commissioned by the Venetian government to make prints that reflected the decrepit, inhumane condition of prisons. They show figures of exaggerated size, crowded into small underground cells, whose dampened walls seem to press down on all sides. Here, the medium’s dark, cloudy texture appears like narrowing vision on the edges of sight.
Francisco Goya, the longtime painter for the Spanish court, surely could have adopted the aquatint process for the same reasons that some earlier artists did: as an expression of technical skill. But instead, he created surreal, almost unhinged scenes that critiqued politicians, war and inequality.
In “Nada” (1810/1820), from the “Disasters of War” series, a skeletal figure lies, half-buried, as if struggling to lift itself from the grave. Its white lips and black eyes are raw with pain — its torso blurry and blotchy, as if illuminated by headlights, just outside the frame. “And Still They Don’t Go!” (1799) shows a single, emaciated man straining to stop a wall from collapsing on the mangled, gaunt figures at his feet. Above, a grayness looms in the sky, poised to descend with unflinching finality.
Like any new technology, aquatint, in its earliest days, embraced an idealism, found in prints depicting fantasies of classical antiquity. But Goya and De Pian pushed it beyond that, shining a light on injustices hidden from public view — and often from the conscious mind — with a gnawing nihilism. Their subjects were the outcasts and the depraved. Paradoxically, because it tends toward darkness, aquatint, for them, has the power to bring reality’s bleakest truths to light.
If you go
Aquatint: From Its Origins to Goya
National Gallery of Art, West Building, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-737-4215. nga.gov.
Dates: Through Feb. 21