The Renaissance of Etching

[Image: Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola), The Lovers (1527-1530), etching; second state of two, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926 (26.70.3(102), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

This review evaluates the catalogue for The Renaissance of Etching, a recent exhibition of the earliest etchings, charting the development of the medium and its partial (and eventual total) eclipse of engraving (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 23 October 2019-20 January 2020; scheduled for Albertina Museum, Vienna, 12 February-10 May 2020). The exhibition covers artists from the Low Countries, Germany, Italy and France, including others, such as the Swiss Urs Graf (c. 1485-c. 1528).

The oldest forms of printmaking are woodcut or wood engraving (relief method, with the raised matrix on the block holding the ink). A later development was engraving on sheet metal. Originally, iron was used until the 1540s, when it was supplanted by copper; this lasted until now, with zinc becoming a common alternative metal in the Twentieth Century. In etchings the matrix design is cut with a fine gouge, being intaglio printmaking where the ink is held in the depressed lines. The plates were inked, with ink on/in the matrix, damp paper laid on the plate and then ran through a roller press, thereby transferring ink from plate to paper.

Engraving is generally made by a specialist cutter who was not always the designer. It is carefully planned in advance and very difficult to correct. It favours parallel hatching – straight or curvilinear – and sometimes cross hatching and stippling. Etching is an intaglio printmaking system done by drawing lines with a fine needle in a wax (or oil paint) covering the metal plate. This design is then bitten with a mordant (a corrosive solution), leaving the matrix in the metal, which holds the ink. Technically, the engraved plate and the etched plate are similar in appearance and structure. However, etching allows styles that imitate engraving but also permits much greater freedom of handling, design and correction. It favours a more spontaneous approach and permits creation of prints that have the style of a sketch. It is also quicker to execute.

The exhibition The Renaissance of Etching explores the origins of etching and its birth as a regularly practiced printing medium during the Renaissance in Northern Europe and Italy. Etching technique was long established. It arrived as a means of printmaking via metalsmiths and armorers in the production of armour, arms and tableware with elaborate incised decoration. The designs included floral, vegetal, abstract, heraldic and pictorial ones. It was the artists of Augsburg and Nuremberg – a noted centre for metalwork in Bavaria – who pioneered print etching on iron plate. This group included Daniel Hopfer (1471-1536), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), his pupil Sebald Beham (1500-1550) and Hans Burgkmair the Elder (1473-1531) and Hans Burgkmair the Younger (1500-c. 1562).

[Image: Daniel Hopfer, Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women (c. 1515), etching.
The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1951 (51.501.383), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

The first etchings as flat-metal-plate intaglio prints were made around 1490. The earliest illustrated examples are from that time. The first print in the exhibition is dated c. 1500, made by Hopfer, who was the most prolific and creative among the Augsburg etchers. Hopfer is thought to have etched three excellent religious figures on a steel cuirass, with a deep and dense border, exhibited in the display. Hopfer was a brilliant innovator in the field of etching. Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women (c. 1510-5) is an etching in the style of Dürer (the dramatic cover illustration). Hopfer used brush effects to create wash-like shading. Beham produced work in various genres, adding to his extensive print corpus. Dürer only made a few pieces through etching, preferring to return to the established mediums of woodcut and engraving. His etchings are not qualitatively different from his more numerous and famous engravings.

Damage to plates and prints caused by rusting was only overcome by moving to copper, a move that seems to have been led by Dutch master printmaker Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533), following the development of a new mordant. The Germans adopted the copperplate in the 1540s, finding that although the softer metal was less durable than iron, it allowed finer lines and suffered less from corrosion. Later, steel facing of copper plates would increase the durability. Microscopic scrutiny of plates and proofs reveal matrices cut by combinations of engraving, etching and drypoint. We find a range of approaches to craftsmanship, with Dürer and Leyden exhibiting consummate care and Schiavone at the opposite end. “The hastiness of execution and the sketchy, free quality of Schiavone’s paintings, drawings, and prints proved alarming to his contemporaries, who expressed a mixture of admiration and frustration with his technique, considering it at once admirable for its spirit and grace but careless for its lack of finish.”

Leyden, Jan Gossart (Mabuse) (c. 1478-1532), Frans Crabbe (c. 1480-1553), Nicolaas Hogenberg (c. 1500-1539), Dirck Vellert (c. 1480/85-c. 1547) and Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen (c. 1504-1559) are discussed as practitioners of etching in the Netherlands. Other prominent artists who produced etchings include Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480-1538), Flemish artists Hieronymous Cock (1518-1570) and Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1526/30-1569). Bruegel made a sequence of drawings recalling his journey over the Alps, which would leave such a dramatic legacy in his art, which is ostensibly set in Flanders yet with mountainous terrain. Bruegel’s Alpine landscape drawings no longer exist but we have the etchings, some of which are illustrated. Bruegel started his career in Antwerp as a designer of prints; his Rabbit Hunt (1560) is the only print by his hand. There is no extant painting of this composition.

The Rabbit Hunt, 1560

[Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Rabbit Hunt (1560), etching and engraving. Published by Hieronymus Cock. The Albertina Museum, Vienna (DG 1955/37) (Etch-170)]

Francesco Parmigianino (1503-1540) produced numerous etchings. The fast and free medium lent itself to the artist’s temperament. Parmigianino made designs for block cutters to translate into chiaroscuro woodcuts – a specialist skill – but was able to express himself quickly and directly in etching. His art was noted for its grace and elegance. His chalk and highlight drawings feature extensive contrapposto, exaggerated proportions and sweeping lines.

There was a burst of activity in France of the 1540s, particularly at Fountainebleau palace, a centre of court patronage. Jacques Androuet du Cerceau (c. 1511-1585) produced some very detailed and precise architectural etchings. Large Architectural Composition (1551) is of an invented Italianate Renaissance palace. It is so detailed and realistically lit that it functions as a painting or advanced computer generated imagery that one finds in architectural presentations or video games.

Compositions in all of the major genres make an appearance in etched form: biblical, proverb, portrait, landscape, history, mythology, topography, cartography, architecture, scenography and ornamental. There are some appealing images illustrated, including those with backstories. Altdorfer made a pair of etchings of the interior of the synagogue at Regensburg in 1519 just as it was being demolished. The Jews of the city were expelled and their synagogue replaced by a church. Altdorfer documents a building in the knowledge that it was due to be destroyed and that life in the city was about to change.


[Image: Albrecht Altdorfer, The Entrance Hall of the Regensburg Synagogue (1519), etching, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926 (26.72.68), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

A view of a village by Augustin Hirschvogel (1503-1553) is printed on blue paper. A handful of these etchings were handcoloured with watercolour, presumably by assistants in the print studio. Non-guild members (including women and children) were sometimes paid a pittance to colour prints individually. Hirschvogel designed the defences of Vienna in preparation for Turkish invasion. His map of Vienna is included. Mannerist Juste de Juste (1501-1559) produced a peculiar etching of nude male acrobats in a highly artificial pose. The body forms, lack of faces and extreme stylisation prefigure (and perhaps inspired?) Salvador Dalí’s playful nude drawings of the 1930s and 1940s, as seen illustrated in his autobiography.

The use of comparative illustrations and multiple impressions gives a broad view of the practices and products of early printmakers who used etching. In some cases the original compositional sketch in ink is displayed next to the resultant print. The essayists are specialists who explain the development of etching in terms of national schools and regional centres of activity. The essays and catalogue entries are informative, clearly written and present the latest research (including original research) on exhibited items. A glossary, notes, bibliography and index comprise appendices. The Renaissance of Etching is an ideal reference work for anyone interested in the development of printmaking and the art of the Late Renaissance.


Catherine Jenkins, Nadine M. Orenstein, Freyda Spira, The Renaissance of Etching, Metropolitan Museum of Art (distr. Yale), 2019, hardback, 304pp, 237 illus., $65, ISBN 978 1 58839 649 5

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit

Hokusai’s Landscapes

hokusai 1

[Image: Hokusai, Fine Wind, Clear Weather (1830), colour woodblock print on paper.]

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is the most famous figure in Japanese art. He worked in the medium of colour-woodblock printing. Best known for his landscapes, he found fame in Japan for his published manga in 1815-9. Posthumously, he achieved legendary status in Europe and proved very influential among the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

Hokusai’s Landscapes collects the best of Hokusai’s landscapes. Author Sarah E. Thompson (curator of Japanese art, Museum of Fine Art, Boston) makes an informed guide to Hokusai’s art and its reception. The print impressions illustrated are those in the MFA collection. Generally, these are good quality and in reasonable condition.

Prints of the ukiyo-e generally did not focus upon landscape, as many were urban or domestic in character. They featured prominently in pilgrimage pictures. Hokusai’s innovation was to produce art in the style of ukiyo-e but take these scenes out of the rooms and streets of Edo. He integrated figures into his landscape prints for their narrative function, to indicate scale and to provide animation, relief and so forth.

Hokusai designed his prints during the heyday of ukiyo-e colour prints. Print designers drew their designs on paper that was pasted to blocks, subsequently cut away by a specialist cutter, destroying the drawing and leaving the design on the block. Other blocks for colour were added, as indicated by the designer. The specialisation of designer, cutter, printer, papermaker and publisher/seller made high production of colour printmaking a viable business, something that never developed widely in Europe. (The closest European artists came to this is the chiaroscuro woodcut.)

Hokusai produced his landscape prints over a short period (1830-6). It is thought that Hokusai retired from print designing in 1836 due to an economic crash, which depressed the market for prints made for the merchant class. He subsequently devoted himself to painting, working for wealthy patrons, although he apparently ended his days in straitened circumstances.

Among the prints included are those of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (1830), One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (1834), Remarkable Views of Bridges in Various Provinces (1834), One Hundred Poems (1835) and others. Dating of Hokusai prints depends upon external information, such as notices in publications advertising new print series, placed by the publisher.

The introduction of cobalt/Prussian blue expanded the palette available to Japanese artists. Previous blue pigments were smalt (dull, liable to discolour), indigo (not a true blue, liable to fading) and ultramarine (brilliant but expensive) and other imperfect alternatives. Access to a strong, affordable and non-fugitive blue made landscape prints (with their expanses of sky and sea) a new area for previously urban ukiyo-e prints.

View of sea and mountains are suffused with graduated Prussian blue. Aspects of everyday life are woven into many landscapes. Work, leisure, farming, fishing, eating, pilgrimage, travel and play are all set in the varied landscape around Mount Fuji. In one print a roof is being tiled by roofers in the foreground, mist shrouds the town below; above the mist a kite is flying. In another scene, a fisherman stands on the apex of an arcing coastal rock; he grips leashes of trained cormorants which are submerged in tumultuous waves. The shape of rock, man and leashes echoes the contours of Mount Fuji. There is the iconic composition of travellers on a path through a marsh caught by a gust of wind. This features the motif of figures with their heads completely concealed by circular hats, one commonly used by Hokusai.

Hokusai2 (1)

[Image: Hokusai, The Great Wave (1830), colour woodblock print on paper.]

The Great Wave is included. It has prompted numerous interpretations, not least that of mortality of man. Three versions of Fine Wind, Clear Weather (showing Mount Fuji in profile) are reproduced. Each is differently coloured, showing the inventive inking of printers.

Falling Mist Waterfall at Mount Kurokami in Shimotsuke Province is the epitome of Hokusai’s ability to synthesise Japanese and Western styles and abstraction in depictions based on observation. The artificial pattern of the parabolas of falling water satisfies our aesthetic requirements and yet does not contravene our understanding of nature. Even more daring is Amida Falls in the Far Reaches of the Kiso Road, in which the waterfall descends from a near-complete circular aperture. Hokusai used pure geometric forms, along with curvilinear line and strong diagonal axes. The print is influenced by the Rinpa style, with its stylised depiction of flowing water.

The depictions of bridges have become archetypes of Japanese architecture within nature. The print of poet Li Bai (Li Po) gazing into a waterfall has the falling water as a curtain of parallel vertical abstract bands.

[Image: (left) Hokusai, Falling Mist Waterfall at Mount Kurokami in Shimotsuke Province (1832), colour woodblock print on paper. (right) Hokusai, Kajikazawa in Kai Province (1830), colour woodblock print on paper.]

Thompson outlines putative influence upon Hokusai of art by Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-1795) and Shiba Kōkan (1747-1818), both artists who adopted aspects of Western art (respectively, colour and tonal complexity in non-linear forms and one-point perspective). What made Hokusai so appealing to European artists was – paradoxically – his Western-inflected version of Kano School art, which his European admirers found so quintessentially Japanese. Japan Bridge in Edo combines Western one-point perspective with Japanese aerial perspective.

A long essay surveying Hokusai’s landscapes is followed by large illustrations with brief informative captions. The printing, paper quality and two-colour cloth binding are good. Overall, Hokusai’s Landscapes makes an excellent introduction to one of the great artists


Sarah E. Thompson, Hokusai’s Landscapes: The Complete Series, Museum of Fine Art, Boston (distr. Artbook/Thames & Hudson), 2019, cloth hardback, 216pp, col. illus., £35, ISBN 978 0 87846 866 9


© 2020 Alexander Adams

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Fernand Khnopff: Between Eros and Thanatos

7.9 bis - meduse - via Galerie Nagy

[Image: Fernand Khnopff, Study for Le sang de Meduse (1898), pencil and coloured pencil on paper, 22 x 15 cm. Private collection, courtesy of Richard Nagi, Dover Street Gallery, London]

Featuring prominently in this important contribution to studies of international Symbolism is the house-studio of Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921). Khnopff was one of the most influential artists in this field, yet outside of enthusiasts of fin-de-siècle beaux-arts the artist is not well understood. His art has recently come to be reassessed. Khnopff was a widely known and influential figure in the international Symbolist movement of the 1890-1914 period. He exhibited with the leading vanguard group of the 1890s Les XX, beside Ensor, Van Gogh, Seurat, Redon and Rops. He also exhibited abroad and his art was widely reproduced. He exchanged pictures with fellow artists, including Burne-Jones. This is the English translation of the extensive monographic exhibition, held at the Petit Palais, Paris 2018-9.

Khnopff funded the building of a unique domicile, meticulously designed by him. This house-studio was constructed between 1900 and 1902, in the Ixelles district of Bruxelles. It was designed as an immersive spectacle, in the modern style. The building featured high ceilings, dramatic drapes and clean lines, with much painted white. It lacked dado rails and strongly patterned carpets. Its public rooms lacked furniture. There were satin curtains rather than internal doors. It was designed in a Secession style, with polished walls give the interior a chilly unearthly atmosphere.

Despite Khnopff’s reputation for isolation, according to the testimony of visitors he used his studio in a way that was no different from those of other artists. At this time, the studios of artists were social spaces where the artist could hold court, show his wares and entertain. It was a place where an artist could control an environment for the display of his art and even make the spaces art. His own was prominently positioned in all rooms, with a few key pieces by fellow Symbolist artists. His house was featured in a journal article that included photographs of the public rooms. The press described the artist-designed building as a coded self-portrait: imposing, inscrutable, elegant and individual. Regrettably, this experience is unrecoverable. The art was dispersed by auction after the artist’s death in 1922 and the house was demolished in 1938.

Khnopff grew up in Bruges. He studied law at university in Bruxelles before undergoing extensive studies in fine art, partly under Xavier Mellery. Although he is seen as anti-academic (specifically his non-narrative, ahistorical, Romantic, Tonalist tendencies), his grounding was in academic art. Some of his heroes (Naturalists, James McNeill Whistler, Gustave Moreau, Burne-Jones and Alfred Stevens) contributed to Salons and won prizes, as well as exhibiting with independent groups. Khnopff followed the same approach. His preference for drawing (especially with limited tints) rather than painting is a deliberate distancing from Salon art. Yet his fastidious technique and aversion to the spontaneous effects or materials that are difficult to control marks out Khnopff as a temperamentally conservative artist and character. His attachment to art fulfilled emotional needs and his art reflects that; it is almost devoid of intellectual content. It is poetic in character.

A good example of that is the frontispiece Khnopff illustrated for the first edition of Georges Rodenbach’s landmark novella Bruges-la-Morte (1894), which involves death of a wife, a widower’s grief and the appearance of a doppelganger, set in the moribund city in Flanders. It is essentially an extended dream and mediation on loss and yearning. Khnopff’s frontispiece was partly based on a photograph. Khnopff was an avid user of photography, both to provide sources and to reproduce his art. This catalogue includes many of the sources beside the art. Khnopff also augmented photographs of his art with additional touches.

4.2 -via symbolisme

[Image: Fernand Khnopff, Portrait of Jeanne Kefer (1885), oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm. The Getty Museum of Art, Los Angeles]

Khnopff earned a living from his society portraits, as did Klimt. Some of his early portraits are very fine. Khnopff shared with Klimt the use of the peculiar modern format of the square – a surpassing rarity as a ratio for easel paintings before the 1880s. It seems to have been a Secession proclivity. Khnopff used it for his portraits, Klimt for his landscapes and (later) Schiele for his early (1909-10) nudes. Khnopff also used the extremely elongated vertical for drawings of standing figures; Klimt did likewise, as well for the vertical of his controversial (censored) poster design; Klinger also used the extreme horizontal in a number of paintings and prints (including The Glove suite).

One of Khnopff’s outstanding square-format portraits – Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer (1885) – is now owned by the Getty Museum, LA. In it, the young child (dressed formally for the outdoors) is at the back of the shallow pictorial space, standing with her back touching a closed door. It curiously prefigures the distanced, alienated children of Schiele’s drawings, emphasising her physical and emotional isolation from the viewer. This approach reinforces the impression of vulnerability.

Khnopff used his younger sister Marguerite as his model for face and clothed figures. His source photographs are reproduced. Presumably, his nudes are of erotic photographs (sources not reproduced). The faces and unclothed bodies generally look unpersuasive, like poor montages. Marguerite’s visage was re-imagined through the visage through the lens of Greek statuary. His figures are types rather than individuals.

Khnopff’s preferred landscapes were rather bucolic views around the forest at Fosset, a village close to Brussels. The landscapes are minor scenes played in a minor key. They are not substantial and while naturalistic lack the punch of Harald Sohlberg and Nikolai Astrup. The oddly lack the Pictorialist approach that unifies his more artificial scenes. The townscapes – typified by An Abandoned City (1904), which shows a few Flemish townhouses being encroached upon by the sea – are the best of Khnopff’s views, using vignetting and unifying tone. I almost wrote “art set outdoors”, yet in his airless oneiric art, with its stress upon motifs rather than elaborated compositions, the distinction between indoors and outdoors is a muzzy one. The forest landscapes are so tamed they could be the corner of a drawing room; figure motifs float in suspension as if they are in misty gorges. It seems there is not a single picture by Khnopff that includes direct sunlight. Colour is muted, definition is misty, lighting is crepuscular. Streets are largely or entirely unpeopled.

A Souvenir of Flanders (A Canal) 1904 (pencil & pastel on paper)

[Image: Fernand Khnopff, Des souvenirs de la Flandre: Un canal (1904), pencil, charcoal and pastel on paper, 25 x 42cm. The Hearn Family Trust, New York]

What are the other qualities of Khnopff’s art? Timelessness, stasis, immobility, lack of vitality. His nudes are idealistic and detached. They are erotic but sexless, eschewing the sordid and corporeal qualities of the female body. (There appears to be no male nudes – aside from academies from his student years – made by Khnopff.) His nudes, sexes decorously concealed, are too vaporous to be carnal. One cannot imagine touching or kissing the subjects of Khnopff’s unearthly visions, except in a dream or fever, so beloved of Symbolist novelists. This is the art of a man who venerates women greatly but probably does not understand them much. In this sacralising approach we find indications of a degree of squeamishness on the matter of the sex act. (His only attempt at marriage was late, uncomfortable and soon dissolved.)

Passing thoughts. In 1886 Ensor would accuse Khnopff of plagiarising Ensor’s painting. The two artists are seen as embodying two poles of Flemish art: the Symbolist v. the realist, the mystical v. the satirical, the fastidious v. the painterly, the Flemish Primitives v. Rembrandt/Rubens. En passant boulevard du Régent (1881) bears a strong resemblance to Degas’s Place de la Concorde (1875), something which bears closer investigation. Khnopff is more an artist of morbidity than of eroticism.

The exhibition selection is broad. Sketchbook pages catch the artist at his least guarded and most spontaneous. Variants – some original drawings and variants juxtaposed with modified photographic reproductions – and a wide selection of art and sources provide us with a good understanding of the artist’s output and working methods. As with fellow artists of his movement, Khnopff paid a great attention to framing his art – a common trait among the Symbolists, Aesthetic Movement and Art Nouveau. This catalogue includes reproductions of works with elaborate original frames that Khnopff commissioned.

Author Michel Draguet is director general of Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, an academic expert and a writer of the highest ability. (One wishes heads of all major museums had such impeccable grasp of the subjects of their institutions.) His knowledge of Belgian and French art and the fin-de-siècle movements is vast; he has excelled in curation and publications on the subjects and Khnopff is a subject placed centrally within his area of expertise. This catalogue covers a wide range of subjects in great detail, tying together literary and artistic influences, including detailed discussion of iconography. Links to Romanticism, Stéphane Mallarmé, Maurice Maeterlinck and Rodenbach are discussed extensively. The role of polychromed plaster statuary is set out with Khnopff’s rarely reproduced examples presented as an active attempt to revivify Greek precedents. An account of the operation of Les XX, Rose-Croix, Munich Secession and La Libre Esthétique and Khnopff’s level of engagement with these is particularly interesting for those studying those groups.

This is a beautiful and serious book about a significant artist and can be warmly recommended.


Michel Draguet, Fernand Khnopff, 2020, Mercatorfonds (distr. Yale University Press), hardback, 304 pages, 210 col. illus., $60, ISBN 978 0 300 24650 6


© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit

The House of Borgia


First published 2008, The House of Borgia, is historian Christopher Hibbert’s highly readable study of one of the leading dynasties in Renaissance Italy, newly available from the Folio Society. This is a companion volume to Hibbert’s The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, already published by the Folio Society.

The Borgias rose to significance in history during the return of the popes from Avignon. The seat of the papacy was in Avignon 1309 to 1376 due to a dispute between the French crown and the papacy. A series of French Popes resided in the Kingdom of Arles until it became clear that a return to Rome was necessary to secure the Roman estates of the Pope. Lord Alfonso de Borja, Bishop of Valencia, was elected by a conclave of cardinals as a compromise candidate. He was elected on the twin virtues that he was neither French nor expected to live long. “By the time of the conclave of April 1455, he was living in Rome, an austere, modest and increasingly gouty old man in his late seventies, in such poor health that it was doubted that he would survive the arduous ceremonies of his consecration.”

The expectation was that an elderly scholar – albeit a well-connected and worldly one – would be non-interventionist stop-gap figure. Pope Calixtus III proved to be otherwise. In his reign of three years, he dedicated the Holy See to protect Christendom against the Turkish invasion, selling and pawning valuables to back military expenses. The favours of Calixtus III and subsequent Popes advanced members of the Borgia family, including Cardinal Rodrigo (1431-1503). Corruption and brigandage threatened Roman inhabitants and pilgrims during the reign of ineffectual popes.

Popes were called to adjudicate legitimacy of claimants and were hardly disinterested in the tax revenues involved. Popes faced the real threat of deposition should they side with a power that was more militarily powerful than the Vatican and its allies.

Assisted by considerable bribes, Rodrigo Borgia was nominated and enthroned as Pope Alexander VI in 1492. He would rule until 1503. In part, he was chosen for his toughness and political skills. “Alexander VI was both conscientious and competent in the discharge of his duties. Approachable, affable and good-natured, he was also determined to put a stop to the riotous lawlessness into which Rome had fallen during the pontificate of his predecessor, Innocent VIII.”


Alexander VI took steps to secure his family as a dynasty in Italy by marrying daughter Lucrezia to Giovanni Sforza, cousin of Ludovico Sforza, ruler of Milan. Son Jofrè became a Neapolitan grandee and his brother Juan (Duke of Gandia) married the cousin of King Ferdinand of Aragon. Illegitimate son Cesare Borgia (1475-1507) was appointed cardinal.

Alexander VI’s papal bulls affirmed Spain’s authority in the New World, playing a major part in the colonial development of the Americas. Alexander VI’s reign coincided with the period of the High Renaissance in Italy (1490 or 1500 to 1520) and saw a flourishing of the arts, patronised by the princes, churchmen and merchants of Italy. Not least of the patrons was Alexander VI. He commissioned work by Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael and Pinturicchio; the latter painted murals for the Borgia Apartments (now the library) in the Vatican.

The French captured Naples in 1494, marching through Rome. Cesare and Alexander VI used wily diplomacy and Cesare used ruthless violence to undermine Charles VIII’s occupation of Naples. A virulent outbreak of syphilis and ill discipline among his troops forced Charles to withdraw. Alexander VI evaded the irate French king by moving his court out of his way as he marched home northwards through Rome. Harried in battle on his retreat by mercenaries of the Holy League, Charles won a military victory but lost some of his plunder, which included holy relics and erotica.

It was during the reign of Alexander VI that troublesome firebrand Savonarola rose to demagogue status by rousing the populace of Florence to millenarian fervour. In 1495, with the flight of the Medici, his radical preaching whipped congregations into states of pious anger, ready to follow the preacher’s lead in not only preventing the return of the Medici but the overthrowing of the church authorities. There was no shortage of evidence of corruption, as it was a part of everyday life. Using the populace’s political defiance of the Medici, Savonarola became the de facto theological ruler of Florence. Citing authority from God, Savonarola claimed he was founding a New Jerusalem, a holy republic. He instigated a crusade of theft and intimidation, in which children would search out and possess items of value to commit them to a bonfire of the vanities. Children would urge elders to abandon vice and adopt virtue, informing authorities of instances of moral turpitude. In a climate that mixed piety and fear, Florentines abandoned ostentatiousness and comfort. Alexander VI attempted to rein in the prior but Savonarola refused to submit to the Pope’s authority. In 1498, after being arrested and convicted of heresy, Savonarola and two fellow priors were publicly burned alive. Leonardo sketched the preacher hanging in chains.

Cesare was more soldier than cardinal. He seduced Jofrè’s wife Sancia. Hibbert describes how the high-spirited Lucrezia and Sancia would “leave their seats during the tedious service to go up together to the choir reserved for their ladies, and to chatter and laugh together, oblivious to the boring sermon.” Juan also seduced Sancia. In 1497 Juan was murdered in a planned assassination. Alexander was appalled and vowed to bring the killer to justice. A few weeks later, he dropped the subject. It seems he had been appraised that Cesare (and maybe Jofrè) had been behind the killing. Reports are that the other Borgias believed Cesare had ordered the murder of his half-brother.

The marital estrangement between Giovanni Sforza and Lucrezia Borgia was exacerbated by political rivalry between the two clans. There were accusations of impotence and incest made by the families. A this time, Cesare murdered the lover of his sister. (Even in an age of violence, Cardinal Cesare was judged particularly cruel and dangerous. On one occasion he took pleasure in shooting arrows at confined prisoners. His temper was not improved by recurrent effects of syphilis. He pursued vice with dedication, neglected the duties of his position and generally wore a nobleman’s finery rather than holy robes.) The newly divorced Lucrezia was married to Alfonso, illegitimate son of King Federigo of Naples. Meanwhile, the Pope fathered a child.

The accession of Louis XII to the French throne, following the death of Charles VIII, was an advantage to the Borgias. Upon the request of the new king, the Pope dissolved his barren marriage, allowing the king to marry advantageously. The Pope also saw the Borgias interests aligning with Louis XII in the matter of Milan. He gave secret approval for Louis XII to invade and occupy Milan, which he did in 1499, aided by Cesare. This alliance caused tension between the Spanish crown and the Vatican.

Cesare became a terror in Italy. He led his mercenaries fearlessly, fighting on behalf of the French (and himself), sacking any town that did not pay a ransom. He was accused of kidnapping and rape. Whilst disguised, Cesare would provoke fights with strangers. (Physicians suggested that secondary syphilis had impaired his mind.) Another pastime was go game hunting with trained leopards. He became Duke of Romagna and an honorary nobleman of Venice, using the symbols of the Pope and the French crown in his heraldry. He briefly employed Leonardo da Vinci as a military architect. For 10 months over 1502-3, Leonardo toured the Papal States, surveying towns and local geography; he suggested improvements to their defences and waterways. Another courtier of Cesare was Niccolò Macchiavelli, who would write his treatise on leadership The Prince, which was informed by his first-hand observations of Cesare.

Cesare would have his sister’s husband Alfonso murdered. This led to an arranged marriage between the widowed Lucrezia and Alfonso d’Este, heir to the Duchy of Ferrara. Hibbert describes the arduous journey through the winter of the bride to Ferrara and the spectacles (including, jousts, balls, parades and theatrical performances) arranged for her welcome. The d’Este sisters Isabella and Elisabetta, fumed bitterly and in private, jealous of their beautiful and accomplished sister-in-law.

In the summer of 1503, Alexander VI became sick. The Roman summer the miasma and mosquitos brought illness of all types. He suffered a fever and bleeding and died on 18 August. Crucially, when this occurred, Cesare was in the Vatican and also sick with the same malady. Gravely ill, Cesare was in no position to influence the conclave that would elect the next pope. Thus the election of Pius III was out of the hands of the Borgias. He was a compromise candidate, already very ill. He died on the tenth day of his reign. Julius II succeeded Pius III. He was an opponent of the Borgias. Mentally, Cesare was a broken man. He was indecisive and made poor decisions. His captains deserted him as it became clear he was a spent force. He was imprisoned in Spain, at the orders of the Spanish crown. In 1507, shortly following his escape, he died fighting for the king of Navarre. In 1519 Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara died, weakened by a multiple pregnancies.

Hibbert concludes, “Alexander VI had been extraordinarily ambitious for his children; yet, in the end, few traces of the Borgia name appear in the annals that trace the history of the illustrious families of Rome.”


Hibbert quotes eyewitness sources and marshals the rich evidence in an easily comprehensible and energetic narrative. Sources are included, as is an index. The new edition of The House of Borgia is a sumptuous production. The patterned red satin (with designs of the Borgia bull and the Papal armorial bearings), top edge gilt and protective slipcase are handsome and very appropriate for the subject. The maps allow us follow the narrative more clearly and the art chosen as colour-plate illustrations comprise portraits of significant figures, places and events. So much great art was produced under the patronage of the Borgias (and contemporaneous to their reign) that 24 illustrations are a mere fraction of the available images. However, so vivid is Hibbert’s writing, and so ingrained in our memories are Renaissance paintings, that we can follow the story of the Borgias very satisfactorily with no more than 24 illustrations.


Christopher Hibbert, The House of Borgia, Folio Society, 2017, cloth hardback in slipcase, top-edge gilt, 280pp, 24 col. illus., 2 maps, £44.95. The Folio Society edition of Christopher Hibbert’s The House of Borgia is available exclusively from


(c) 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit

[i] P. 12

[ii] P. 32

[iii] P. 76

[iv] P. 241

“True Feminism has never been Tried, Comrade”

“Before starting Women Can’t Paint: Gender, The Glass Ceiling and Values in Contemporary Art I was filled with apprehension. Having read dozens of books on feminism in recent months, I expected something turgid and dispiriting. I should not have worried. Women Can’t Paint is one of the funniest books of the year and unintentional comedy gold. If Titania McGrath had written a polemic on the art world, this is the book she would have produced. Andrew Doyle’s latest comic creation is pitch perfect. According to the back cover, Helen Gørrill is an “artist, futurist, writer, editor and educator”. In the opening pages, she describes how her article for The Guardian on gender inequality in the arts received so much derision that its comments section had to be closed. By page 2 I was laughing aloud.

In 2018, I wrote a new Access art and design course for a prestigious Scottish university,underpinning the contextual studies design with equality rather than the traditional white heteromasculinist canon […] Two male colleagues made attempts to remove this vanguard, but I stuck to my guns and received a tremendous backlash […] Sadly, as soon as I left the institution the vanguard was immediately quashed, with only a tokenistic selection of women and BME artists (less than 6 per cent of the total) represented […] The white masculine canon alas endures […]

“Moral indignation, grandiloquence, reduction of art to quotas, use of jargon and the lack of self-awareness typify the feminist woke scolds of art administration and university faculties. The author’s imperiousness and lack of humour allow her to deliver towering inanities and spiteful asides in a manner surely not even our most skilful comic writers could contrive….”

Read the full review in The Critic here:

Learning to Love Edward Hopper


[Image: Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Morning (1950), oil on canvas. © Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Sara Roby Foundation, VG Bild Kunst]

Part of growing up is learning to identify and correct your errors. This is different from taste changing. It is easy to have a misapprehension and for it to go unchallenged due to laziness or preoccupation with subjects that fully hold one’s attention. One assumption I had as a young artist was that Edward Hopper was easy. He went for the obvious; he relied on movie iconography and cinematographic techniques; he dealt in clichés. Whilst these observations are true, they are not the whole truth. The obvious can sometimes be the iconic that we remember; Hopper’s use of the cinematographic brought some new imagery and references to his art; clichés can be moving. My painting tutor at college said “I’ve been painting sunsets recently. I know they are clichés but I find myself attracted to them because they are beautiful. Even clichés can be beautiful while still being clichés.”

There are tough criticisms to be made of the art of Edward Hopper (1882-1967). These weaknesses are apparent in two new books on his art, published to coincide with the current exhibition Edward Hopper: American Landscapes (Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 26 January-17 May). Hopper is weak as a figure painter. There is no getting around it. His anatomies are creaky; his facial expressions are wooden; his skin tones are unpersuasive. There is no reason why should have been so. He could imbue his art with variety, energy and panache – see his drawings of trees and some very solid watercolours. Yet, for whatever reason, Hopper’s figures fail. This is not universal. Night on the El Train (1918) is an early etching which shows a couple in a subway carriage. The positions and attitudes of the couple are natural, telling and fluently depicted. The style is vigorous and fluent. Yet more often, Hopper’s figures are waxen mannequins.

A pertinent question is: do Hopper’s limitations as a figure painter make his paintings less effective? Many viewers note the poignancy of the situations, commenting on the emotional tenor of Hopper’s characters – muted, reserved and melancholy. Perhaps Hopper’s characters are more plangent for their lack of expressiveness. It is their very inexpressiveness which is expressive. On a point of principle, we can find Hopper’s shortcomings of an artist as an overall detriment, notwithstanding his achievements in spite of these limitations.

Edward Hopper A-Z is a collection of snippets collated by Ulf Küster, curator and author, during his work on the Swiss exhibition of Hopper’s art. It covers various aspects of Hopper’s life and art, including many illustrations, in a small hardback handbook. The miscellaneous facets include movies, cars, Paris, his wife Josephine Nivison and an expected fondness for German literature.

Hopper is not truly a realist. Some of his art is realist but even cursory study reveals compositions that include impossible juxtapositions, unfeasible perspectives and false horizons. Montage, viewpoint alteration, simplification and other techniques are used to create fictions that have the air – but not the substance – of reality. Doorways open directly on to oceans. Houses stand in fields without paths. Hopper’s realism is a distillation; it is a world pruned and tuned; streets are scrubbed, the posters and signage tamped down; pedestrians are reduced to sparse punctuation in the terse sentences of cityscapes. It is not especially different from the streets of Magritte, that other master deadpan painter of townscapes. Stairway (1949) is like a Magritte canvas from his 1926-9 era.

Once you understand that Hopper is not truly a realist – either a documenter of everyday life or a social realist – then you start to see him as the theatre director that he is. He is a poet who is mistaken for documentarian. Evidence of the early art (especially the watercolours executed en plein air) in Edward Hopper: American Landscapes (catalogue for the current exhibition) shows that Hopper was capable of capturing direct representations of his surroundings, sometimes with flair and feeling. Once you stop seeing his paintings as inadequate representations of real life but as artificial constructions expressive of states of meditation, loss, yearning and other intangible experiences. (“I am interested primarily in the vast field of experience and sensation which neither literature nor a purely plastic art deals with.”)

A problem which remains is Hopper’s handling of oil paint. Hopper was a talented draughtsman with pencil, pastel and etching needle. He used watercolour with accuracy, delicacy and care. He was a poor painter of oil paint. His canvases look better in reproduction than in life. The handling is dry, lifeless, a matter of filling in inside the lines, betraying their set qualities rather than emergent properties of a painting which comes about through the artist discerning new opportunities as the paint is put down. He worked as an illustrator when he was young and although this seems not to have hampered his drawing and painting in watercolour; his canvases betray all the failings of an illustrator. Despite his limitations, his canvases still work as images, scenes and evocations of place and time. If I had to own a Hopper, I would choose a work on paper.


[Image: Edward Hopper, Houses on a Hill (1926 or 1928), watercolour on paper. Private Collection, VG Bild-Kunst]

The catalogue of the current exhibition includes many great images – Gas (1940) (a man at gasoline pumps at a country filling station, Lighthouse Hill (1927) (a lighthouse and house on a headland in afternoon sunlight), Railroad Sunset (1929) (a vivid sunset is seen over a silhouetted horizon, punctuated by a rail signal box). Coastal views feature in many pictures exhibited, most of New England. Although Hopper and Jo travelled widely, most of the imagery is local to New York State and the Massachusetts and Maine coasts.

An early, atypically finely-handled canvas Valley of the Seine (1909) shows aerial recession of a deep landscape. The position is high. It is notable that Hopper rarely showed distant land horizons; instead preferring the high close horizon of a hill or nearby wood. In Hopper’s scenes, distance would undercut the sense of intimacy and interiority. A vast panorama would work against his intentions of showing people contemplating themselves or the off-scene. His characters do not confront the infinite as the Rückenfiguren of Friedrich. That would lend them a Romantic majesty and isolation. For Hopper, it is the banal commonality of moments of reflection creeping up on one unawares that is truer of human life. None of Hopper’s characters are ever anywhere that would cause them to meditate upon the sublime. They are never dislocated – or at least never dislocated in a way that differs from everyday ennui and alienation.

Second Storey Sunlight (1960) shows two women on a balcony, the figures positioned under two gable ends of a classic wooden house. It is an allegory of the stages of life, with the grey-haired woman seated with a newspaper and a young woman in sunbathing clothing. The blinds of the windows on the young woman’s side are pulled lower than those of the old woman’s side – a metaphor of some kind.

Freight Cars, Gloucester, 1928 (oil on canvas)

[Image: Edward Hopper, Freight Cars, Gloucester (1928), oil on canvas. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, gift of Edward Wales Root in recognition of the 25th Anniversary of the Addison Gallery, 1956.7 Foto: Bridgeman Images, VG Bild-Kunst]

Some paintings show Jo painting during their outings in search of scenery. The couple bought their first car (a Dodge) in 1927. From then until a few years before Hopper’s death, they travelled around America to collect motifs for their art. Their successive automobiles made fleeting appearances in Hopper’s paintings. Jo was also a model for Hopper. However, reading Hopper’s enticing yet inscrutable tableaux in an autobiographical manner is not straight forward and is best avoided. The best Hopper paintings allow us to daydream and inhabit these deceptively artless American landscapes.

Marine scenes, paintings of buildings, views of railways and roads, and studies of trees round out this selection of Hopper’s landscapes. The catalogue includes essays addressing various aspects of Hopper’s landscapes, a chronology and a good selection of large-format illustrations. American Landscapes is a very suitable introduction to one of America’s most significant artists. The smaller A-Z book is a handy supplement for anyone already familiar with Hopper.


Ulf Küster (ed.), Edward Hopper: American Landscapes, Hatje Cantz, 2020, hardback, 148pp, 88 col. illus., €58, ISBN 978 3 7757 4654 0

Ulf Küster, Edward Hopper A-Z, Hatje Cantz, 2020, hardback, 120pp, 37 col. illus., €18, ISBN 978 3 7757 4656 4


© 2020 Alexander Adams

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