Hendrick Goltzius was “the last professional engraver who drew with the authority of a good painter”. His work is as powerful as when he etched it. Almost 500 years ago.
With Goltzius there’s no need to think about it too much. Nearly five hundred years later, you can still see and feel it. Authentic genius. Mastery.
Hendrick Goltzius, or Hendrik (1558–1617), was a German-born Dutch printmaker, draftsman, and painter. He was the best Dutch engraver of the early Baroque period. He engraved like an angel and was lauded for his sophisticated technique, his consummate technical mastership and the “exuberance” of his compositions.
Mannerism is a style of art that emerged in the later years of the Italian High Renaissance. Goltzius was a Northern Mannerist. Northern Mannerism is a form of Mannerism found in the visual arts north of the Alps in the 16th and early 17th centuries.
Goltzius, was a German-born Dutch printmaker, draftsman, and painter. He was the leading Dutch engraver of the early Baroque, or Northern Mannerism period. According to the American art historian A. Hyatt Mayor, Goltzius “was the last professional engraver who drew with the authority of a good painter and the last who invented many pictures for others to copy”. In the middle of his life he also began to produce paintings. He was born near Venlo in Bracht or Millebrecht, a village then in the Duchy of Julich, now in the municipality Brüggen in North Rhine-Westphalia. His family moved to Duisburg when he was 3 years old. After studying painting on glass for some years under his father, he learned engraving from the Dutch polymath Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert, who then lived in Cleves. In 1577 he moved with Coornhert to Haarlem in the Dutch Republic, where he remained based for the rest of his life. In the same town, he was also employed by Philip Galle to engrave a set of prints of the history of Lucretia.
In the 1580s, Goltzius with his friends van Mander and the painter Cornelis van Haarlem, founded an art academy in Haarlem in emulation of those in France and Bologna, where the human figure could be studied from life and to provide a meeting-place for artists to discuss both practice and aesthetics. The excellent Jan Harmensz. Muller served an apprenticeship there in the later 1580’s.
His portraits, though mostly miniatures, are masterpieces of their kind, both on account of their exquisite finish, and as fine studies of individual character. Of his larger heads, his life-size self-portrait is probably the most striking example.
Goltzius brought to an unprecedented level the use of the “swelling line”, where the burin (the steel cutting tool used in engraving) is manipulated to make lines thicker or thinner to create a tonal effect from a distance. He also was a pioneer of “dot and lozenge” technique, where dots are placed in the middle of lozenge shaped spaces created by cross-hatching to further refine tonal shading.
THE FOUR DISCRACERS (1588).
Four tondo (round) engravings by Goltzius, after Cornelisz van Haarlem. They show four gods, each of whom were punished for their overconfidence, their hubris : Tantalus, Icarus, Phaeton, and Ixion. Four Gods, as they fall. Four gods at the moment they’re literally brought down by their hubris. Spinning, cartwheeling down. They’ve disgraced themelves. The Four Disgracers.
Think of them as a series of iconic circular warning signs, 500 years old. Moral life lessons handed down, they were centuries old, even back then.
Don’t get out of your lane, they tell us, pride comes before a fall.
Icarus, naked (they’re always naked), falling under a radiant sun. Icarus and Daedalus attempted to escape from Crete by using wings that his father, Daedalus made from feathers and wax. Daedalus warned Icarus first of complacency and then of the dangers of overconfidence and pride (hubris), instructing him to fly neither too low nor too high, lest the sea’s dampness clog his wings or the sun’s heat melt them. Icarus ignored his father’s instructions not to fly too close to the sun and the wax in his wings melted. He tumbled out of the sky, fell into the sea and drowned. Below him, his father Daedalus is still flying. He’s not too close to the sun, so his homemade wings are working perfectly, and he’s watching his silly boy fall.
Tantalus is falling in the darkness between clouds of smoke from fires burning on the land below. The structure on the right is meant to represent Tantalus’ punishment in Tartarus for insulting the gods: he was made to stand in a pool of water under a fruit tree with low branches, with the fruit ever eluding his grasp, and the water always receding before he could drink.
It’s Phaëthon’s turn to fall butt naked under a radiant sun. How did he get into this predicament? Unsure of his real paternity, Phaethon had travelled far east to meet Helios, his suspected real father, looking for answers. When he got there, he asked Helios if he could borrow and drive his sun-chariot for a single day. Despite Helios’ protests and advice against it, Phaethon insisted, and Helios reluctantly handed over the reins of his sky-chariot to Phaëthon. Once in charge of the chariot however, Phaëthon totally fucked it up. In the sky he couldn’t control the speeding skyhorses and they verred way off their usual route across and high up into the sky. They touched the Heavens and set it ablaze. In some versions of this story, the Earth first froze when the horses climbed too high. In any event, Zeus stepped in. He decided that, to prevent an even bigger disaster than the Heavens being on fire, he’d have to sacrifice Phaëthon by taking out the sky-chariot with a thunderbolt. So that’s why Goltzius has Phaëthon falling to his death here.
The lesson is: “Don’t think you can drive a sky-chariot if you’ve never driven a sky-chariot before. That kind of thinking will bring you down. Be humble, for fuck’s sake”.
The wreckage of his father’s sun-chariot and the sky-horses that pulled it are spinning in the sky fall above him. Below there’s a coastal town where buildings are burning and it’s all his fault.
Ixion attempted to seduce (or did actually seduce) Hera, the wife of Zeus (ruler of all gods) and was punished for his arrogance by being blasted with a thunderbolt and expelled from Olympus before being doomed to rotate for eternity on a eternally spinning burning solar wheel. Here he tumbles naked and screaming on his descent into the fiery bowels of Tartarus.
Van Haarlem’s The Fall of Ixion (left) shows the before to Goltzius’s after Van Haarlem. The Mannerists constantly built upon each others work.
A DRAGON DEVOURING THE COMPANIONS OF CADMUS
Cadmus, a prince of Tyre, with his followers (the companions of the title who don’t have long to live), travelled to see the Delphic Oracle after his sister was stolen away by Zeus, chief of all Greek gods. The Oracle showed Cadmus a cow. He told the prince that, instead of searching for his sister, he should “follow the cow outside and wherever it rests, build a new city”.
When the cow eventually stopped, Cadmus’s followers went in search of water. A dragon was guarding the spring they found; it slaughtered them all. Cadmus managed to kill it, and the goddess Athena told him to sow its teeth in the ground. Armed men sprang from them and fought each other. Five survived to help Cadmus build the city of Thebes.
This (left) is Goltzius’s fellow Northern Mannerist, Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem’s original painting and composition.
It’s exactly the same as Goltzius’s composition. Everything.
Goltzius’s engraving above is after this painting, inspired by it and with Van Haarlem’s approval.
Van Haarlem has chosen to pick up the story right in the middle of the fight. The dragon has one of Cadmus’s followers on the ground and, as it sinks its teeth into the cheek, its claws seem to tear his flesh. It’s a trick. A closer look reveals that the legs and torso belong to a second person flung across his hips. A glimmer of hope is offered by a distant view of what happens next. Cadmus spearing the dragon in the neck, killing it on a hillside in the distance. Framed under the dragon’s wing.