If Wenceslaus Hollar were alive today, he might well be a freelance photographer. His eye was his camera lens, his copperplates the film. No other artist recorded so many aspects of seventeenth-century English life as he did. Over some forty years and in more than 2700 etchings, he covered a vast array of subjects for his patrons, for the publishers, and in collaboration with other artists: architectural and topographical views, maps, copies of paintings and drawings, and depictions of people, fashions, and events. His harmonious landscapes and precise architectural renderings, his dazzling studies of women's costume, and his vivid depictions of crowds of people are remarkable for their virtuosity and detail. Nearly 150 of the 1400 Hollar etchings in the Folger Library collection have been included in this exhibition.
Hollar was born in Prague in 1607. At the age of twenty he
left Bohemia. After travels in Germany, he journeyed to England
in 1636 as the protégé of the Earl of Arundel who
engaged Hollar to etch copies of artworks in his renowned
collection. It was Arundel's desire, apparently, to create a
visual inventory of his collection, a "paper museum" of
etchings that would be an enduring record. Although Arundel's
plan never reached completion, there are numerous etchings by
Wenceslaus Hollar that are our only remaining record of works of
art. In the self portrait
illustrated here, etched by Hollar after a painting by J.
Meyssens, Hollar holds a copperplate of Raphael's Saint Catherine
of Alexandria, a painting that was in the Arundel collection but
is now lost.
Hollar's fascination with texture and his skill at reproducing it in the etched medium are among his most notable characteristics. His interest in costume began in Germany and continued in England. The Ornatus Muliebris Anglicanus, or The Severall Habits of English Women and the /Seasons, published in the 1640's, demonstrate Hollar's talents as a miniaturist. His ability to capture the play of light on shimmering gowns and the exquisite detail of fine lace and rich furs is evident in his three-quarter length figure of Spring.
The Earl of Arundel left England in Februaury of 1642, only months before the continuing conflict between king and parliament escalated into serious military confrontation. Hollar, however, remained in London where he produced cheap, crude illustrations for the flourishing popular press. In 1644 he moved to Antwerp and, over the next eight years, refined his talents, producing what are considered some of his greatest etchings.
Hollar's sources were varied. He etched plates from sketches he had made in England, and he copied prolifically from the works of Dürer, Van Dyck, Holbein, Titian, and others. His portrait of a woman with coiled hair after Durer was issued in Antwerp in 1646 and was based on a painting in the Arundel collection. Some of his scenes, portraits, and representations from life are beautifully conceived and sensitively executed. These include his portraits of young Africans.
Hollar returned to England in 1652 and began working for the publisher John Ogilby and the antiquary Sir William Dugdale. Over the next twenty-five years he etched no fewer than 566 plates for them. He produced hundreds of precise architectural renderings and topographical views for Dugdale's Monasticon Anglicanum (1655-1673), The Antiquities of Warwickshire (1656), and The History of St. Pauls Cathedral (1658).
For John Ogilby's lavish 1654 edition of Virgil, Hollar etched plates after designs by the artist Francis Cleyn. The volume also included illustrations by the French engraver Pierre Lombart. Some are etched and engraved, a combination of techniques on the same plate that became popular in the eighteenth century.
Detailed examination of several images, including the plate of Menalcas, Damoetus, and Palaemon (detail above), suggested the possibility that Hollar etched more than he has been given credit for. Arguments for new attributions are presented in the exhibition catalogue, Impressions of Wenceslaus Hollar.
On his view of the east end of Lincoln Cathedral, prepared for volume 3 of Dugdale's Monasticon Anglicanum, Hollar signed himself "Scenographer Royal." Charles II had granted him the title following the Great Fire of 1666 in recognition of Hollar's work documenting parts of the city of London before and after its destruction. Hollar's ultimate ambition to create a great map of the city measuring ten feet by five feet was never realized. In a bid to secure subscriptions to finance the project, Hollar issued a prospectus describing his plans. The only surviving copy of "Propositions Concerning the Map of London and Westminster" is in the Folger Library. It served as a receipt to Sir Edward Walker for his subscription and bears Hollar's signature.
Wenceslaus Hollar died in London in 1677. The young Czech artist that the Earl of Arundel took to England in 1636 had spent forty years recording his impressions of the turbulent era in which he lived. His etchings permit us to witness the spectacle of coronations and executions, to pour over the detail of costume and buildings, and to view a terrain that was shifting even as Hollar rendered it and that has since been irrevocably altered. Treasures from the Arundel art collection, buildings such as St. Paul's, and the city of London that Hollar knew, in the words of his contemporary, John Aubrey, "live now only in Mr. Hollar's etchings." The Earl of Arundel's "paper museum "took shape in the larger vision of the seventeenth-century antiquaries and in the visual documentation Wenceslaus Hollar provided for them.