by Linda Batis
In contrast to Rembrandt, Jacques Bellange (c. 1575-1616) was famous during his lifetime more for his paintings than for his etchings. During the first decades of the 17th century, he was court painter to the Dukes of Lorraine, an independent duchy near the border with Germany, now a part of France. Unfortunately, nearly all of Bellange's paintings, many of which decorated the walls of the ducal palace and other official buildings, have been lost. Lost too are his ephemeral designs of costumes and decorations for ducal processions, court festivals, the ballet and carnivals.
Likewise, little is known today about Bellange personally, apart from references in contemporary documents recording his commissions at court, beginning in 1602 and ending in 1616, when his death earlier that year, at perhaps the age of 40, is mentioned.
But what has survived the centuries are 48 etchings and a few drawings, all of which identify him as a stunning artist. Today he is considered one of the greatest printmakers of the 17th century.
Bellange's career as a printmaker began about 1611 and lasted only five years, cut short by his early death. None of the court documents mention his etchings, which suggests that he took up etching for his own purposes, probably to spread his reputation beyond the limited borders of Lorraine. Bellange's etchings are the final expression of Mannerism, an international artistic style with roots in Italian art of the early 16th century. Intended to entertain a sophisticated and wealthy court audience, Mannerism typically uses elongated figures in contorted poses, complex compositions compressed into shallow picture space, extravagant and luxurious costumes and an undercurrent of sexuality. The style derived from the physicality of Michelangelo's figures and the grace and elegance of those of Francesco Parmigianino.
Most of Bellange's etchings portray religious subjects-which is not surprising since Lorraine was assertively Catholic (no Protestants were allowed to live there). The Virgin Mary was venerated at pilgrimage sites throughout Lorraine, and the saints were exalted in processions celebrating their feast days. Bellange's concentration on religion thus reflects the life of his time as much as it does his personal taste.
Bellange's distinctive style is already evident in his earliest prints, such as The Holy Family with Saint Catherine, Saint John the Evangelist and an Angel, created at a time when he must have been struggling to master the techniques of etching. The exotically garbed figure of St. Catherine at the left, narrow shouldered, with her elongated arms and expressive hands, is the type of figure that appeared in many of Bellange's later etchings. In the left background the perfectly formed oval face of St. John has the bemused and ambiguous half smile, and elaborate hairstyle, that became Bellange's hallmark. The figures are clothed, but their garments are revealing and provocative, a style he exploited in later etchings.
Bellange's etching technique derives from that of Italian printmakers such as Federico Barrocci and Ventura Salimbeni, both of whom constructed their prints with a combination of diagonal crosshatching and stippled dots and flecks. In this early print of The Holy Family with Saint Catherine, Bellange combined multiple immersions in the acid to produce several layers of crosshatching, with fine stippling, for example on the neck of the Virgin.
A short time later, Bellange designed and etched three monumental and ambitious plates of religious narrative. All of these works were justly famed for their sheer daring. One of them is Christ Carrying the Cross, based in part on a celebrated engraving by Martin Schongauer of a century earlier. The cut-off figure of a woman at the lower edge of the plate draws the viewer into the picture. A crowd of more than 50 figures is massed together in a compressed and confusing space that heightens the drama of the scene. These figures progress toward Golgotha in the top left corner and invite us to follow. Christ, on the other hand, stares out of the composition to confront the viewer directly.
To heighten the drama, Bellange exploits the etching medium. His complex pattern of crosshatching, achieved by immersing the plate many times in the acid while masking the lighter passages, creates an agitated surface that enhances the tension inherent in Christ's ordeal. Fine etched stippling and crosshatching combine to model the flesh of the figures and their garments; engraving further refines the shading. The most startling technical innovation is the use of the burnisher to erase the etching around Christ's face, making it appear to radiate from within.
Such large and complex biblical scenes seem overwrought beside the refined, elegant and controlled Holy Women at the Sepulchre, one of Bellange's later etchings. The three holy women are shown twice, as they enter the sepulchre at the top left, and again confronting the angel sitting on the empty tomb as he tells them that Christ has risen from the dead. The figures inhabit a coherent, well-thought-out space, tilted bizarrely forward by the high horizon line. The elongated, narrow-shouldered, flamelike forms of the women are quintessentially Mannerist in conception. However, while the figures in earlier works, such as the Roman soldiers in Christ Carrying the Cross, are dressed exotically, here the simple, unadorned clothing and forms are merged into an expressive whole. More developed also is the use of light to make forms three dimensional, and to enhance the mystical atmosphere.
Celebrated during his lifetime, Bellange's reputation as an artist declined during the 18th and 19th centuries when so much of his work was lost. Most museum collections today include few, if any, of his prints. Thus the chance to see all but five of Bellange's known prints in superb examples is a unique opportunity at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
Linda Batis is associate curator of fine arts at Carnegie Museum of Art.
The Bellange prints are on loan from the Josefowitz collection, the Trustees of the British Museum and the Staatens Museum, Copenhagen. Available at the Museum of Art Store is a fully illustrated catalogue, on which this article is based, by Antony Griffiths, keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, and Craig Hartley, senior assistant keeper at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.