Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617) was to the art of engraving what Rembrandt was to etching. He was the leading Dutch engraver of the late 16th and early 17th centuries and is exceeded in importance only by Albrecht Durer. Though his name is less familiar today, he was in his own time sought after by nobles and princes and his exquisitely crafted, intricately detailed prints found a ready market in the 1580s.
“Passion and Virtuosity: Hendrick Goltzius and the Art of Engraving,” jointly organized by the Crocker Art Museum and the University Galleries at the University of San Diego, gives us an in-depth look at two of Goltzius’ most famous series of prints as well as works by Durer and Lucas Van Leyden, who were his greatest influences. Centering around the birth and early life of Christ and the Passion, the show is a perfect fit with the Christmas season.
The show begins with a case in which you find a copper engraving plate and a burin, the sharp, unforgiving tool used to make engravings. Goltzius, who had a deformed right hand as a result of a fire when he was 3, became a master at using the tool and was famous for the volumetric lines he achieved with it.
Among the introductory prints in the show is Goltzius’ “The Great Hercules,” a heroic figure so unbelievably muscular he makes Arnold Schwarznegger look like a 97-pound weakling. Also included is a fine drawing of a remarkably serene Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes.
There is also a Crocker drawing of Goltzius’ motto (”Honor Above Gold”), though gold would seem to have been a concern of the artist in making the prints for the Birth and Early Life of Christ series, which was a demonstration of his chameleon-like ability to mimic the styles of other artists, both Italian and Northern European.
“Annunciation,” in which the angel appears to Mary, has the grace and beauty of figures by Raphael. It’s a marvelous example of Dutch Mannerism, with its sky roiling with cherubic putti bathed in a divine light.
The series was designed, said Crocker curator William Breazeale, to attract the attention of Wilhelm V of Bavaria, whom Goltzius sought as a patron. Four of the images in the series were modeled after Italian artists and two after Northern artists. “The Visitation” has a pair of elongated, twisting figures reminiscent of the Italian painter Parmagianino, though it also includes a small dog straight out of Durer.
Also Italianate in feeling are “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” a candle-lit night scene, and the charming “Holy Family with the infant St. John.” Here the Baby Jesus cradles Saint John’s cheek in his hand and the saint hugs the baby, while a cat stretches playfully in the window of a nearby house.
“The Adoration of the Magi,” with its shallow and fine lines, is more in the manner of van Leyden, while “The Circumcision” shows the influence of Durer. So convincing was Goltzius’ imitative style, Wilhelm V awarded him a gold chain.
Ideas from Durer and van Leyden are incorporated in the Passion series, which is accompanied by Durer’s small and miraculous Passion series and Lucas van Leyden’s stunning engravings of “The Raising of Lazarus” and “Susanna and the Two Elders,” in which Susanna is a small figure in the distance and the elders take center stage.
From “The Last Supper” to “Christ Carrying the Cross” to “The Resurrection,” this is a remarkable series which, in spite of its debts to earlier masters, stands on its own as moving and magnificent. In each of the scenes there are intricate details in the background, best seen with a magnifying glass (which the Crocker thoughtfully provides).
The show also includes several portraits and self-portraits by Goltzius, including a precious small tondo of the blond artist done in colored chalks and opaque white paint. It concludes with an unfinished but masterful engraving of “The Adoration of the Shepherds.”