Jacques Callot (c. 1592–1635) was a baroque printmaker and draftsman from the Duchy of Lorraine (an independent state on the North-Eastern border with France, Southwestern border of Germany and overlapping the Southern Netherlands). He is an important figure in the development of the old master print. He made over 1,400 brilliantly detailed etchings that chronicled the life of his period, featuring soldiers, clowns, drunkards, Gypsies, beggars, as well as court life. He also etched many religious and military images, and many prints featured extensive landscapes in their background.
Callot was born and died in Nancy, the capital of Lorraine, now in France. He came from a prominent family (his father was master of ceremonies at the court of the Duke), and he often describes himself as having noble status in the inscriptions to his prints. At the age of fifteen he was apprenticed to a goldsmith, but soon after travelled to Rome where he learned engraving from an expatriate Frenchman, Philippe Thomassin. He probably then studied etching with Antonio Tempesta in Florence, where he lived from 1612 to 1621. Over 2,000 preparatory drawings and studies for prints survive, but no paintings by him are known, and he probably never trained as a painter.
During his period in Florence he became an independent master, and worked often for the Medici court. After the death of Cosimo II de’ Medici in 1621, he returned to Nancy where he lived for the rest of his life, visiting Paris and the Netherlands later in the decade. He was commissioned by the courts of Lorraine, France and Spain, and by publishers, mostly in Paris. Although he remained in the backwater of Nancy, his prints were widely distributed through Europe; Rembrandt was a keen collector of them.
His technique was exceptional, and was helped by important technical advances he made. He developed the échoppe, a type of etching-needle with a slanting oval section at the end, which enabled etchers to create a swelling line, as engravers were able to do.
He also seems to have been responsible for an improved, harder, recipe for the etching ground that coated the plate and was removed to form the image, using lute-makers varnish rather than a wax-based formula. This enabled lines to be more deeply bitten, prolonging the life of the plate in printing, and also greatly reducing the risk of “foul-biting”, where acid gets through the ground to the plate where it is not intended to, producing spots or blotches on the image. Previously the risk of foul-biting had always been at the back of an etcher’s mind, preventing him from investing too much time on a single plate that risked being ruined in the biting process. Now etchers could do the highly detailed work that was previously the monopoly of engravers, and Callot made full use of the new possibilities.
He also made more extensive and sophisticated use of multiple “stoppings-out” than previous etchers had done. This is the technique of letting the acid bite lightly over the whole plate, then stopping-out those parts of the work which the artist wishes to keep light in tone by covering them with ground before bathing the plate in acid again. He achieved unprecedented subtlety in effects of distance and light and shade by careful control of this process. Most of his prints were relatively small – up to about six inches or 15 cm on their longest dimension.
One of his followers, the Parisian Abraham Bosse spread Callot’s innovations all over Europe with the first published manual of etching, which was translated into Italian, Dutch, German and English.
His most famous prints are his two series of prints each on “the Miseries and Misfortunes of War”. These are known as Les Grandes Misères de la guerre, consisting of 18 prints published in 1633, and the earlier and incomplete Les Petites Misères – referring to their sizes, large and small (though even the large set are only about 8 x 13 cm). These still alarming images show soldiers pillaging and burning their way through town, country and convent, before being variously arrested and executed by their superiors, lynched by peasants, or surviving to live as crippled beggars. In 1633, the year the larger set was published, Lorraine had been invaded by the French in the Thirty Years War and Callot’s vision still stands with Francisco Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), which was influenced by Callot, as among the most powerful artistic statements of the inhumanity of war.