François-Philippe Charpentier, Carle Van Loo, "Persée et Andromede (Perseus and Andromeda)" (1762), etching and aquatint with roulette and burnishing printed in brown-black on laid paper (all images courtesy the National Gallery of Art)

Aquatint is a kind of archaic printing technique, which produces an effect resembling a watercolor from a plate etched with nitric acid. Its use began in the late 1700s and continued throughout the 18th century and on, though it eventually became less prominent as new lithographic techniques emerged in the mid-19th century. However, it had some famous devotees, including Goya, John James Audubon, and Mary Cassatt — all of whom used the technique to produce print series during their careers. Broadly speaking, it is an intaglio printmaking style, which involves etching directly into a plate (in the case of aquatint, the plate is copper or zinc).

Francisco de Goya, “Buen Viage (Bon Voyage)” (published 1799), etching, aquatint, and engraving with burnishing on laid paper

In October, the National Gallery of Art will present Aquatint: From Its Origins to Goya, a survey of works that employ this medium across a range of subjects. Roughly 100 aquatint images are to be included in the exhibition, which will trace its development through France, England, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain. The layering produced by acid wash over etching creates effects ranging from illustrative to nearly photographic; the subject matter includes political cartoons, mythic and occult scenes, landscapes, and illustrated details for manuscripts.

The exhibition features the work of historic figures in the evolution of aquatint, such as François Boucher, Jean Honoré Fragonard, and Jean-Baptiste Greuze in Paris; the painter Jean-Baptiste Le Prince, who developed a secret aquatint process to multiply his own compositions of Russian figures and landscape; artist Paul Sandby, who helped popularize the medium in England; and Maria Catharina Prestel, prominent female practitioners of aquatint, who ran a professional printmaking studio in Germany with her husband, Johann Gottlieb Prestel.

Giovanni De Pian, Francesco Galimberti, “The ‘Well,’ for Violators of State Law” (1797), etching and aquatint on laid paper

There is also a book slated to accompany the exhibition, supported by the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust and written by Rena M. Hoisington, curator and head of old master prints at the National Gallery of Art.

Jean Jacques Lagrenée II, “Ornamental Frieze” (1784-1785), etching, aquatint, and lift-ground aquatint printed in brown on laid paper
Maria Catharina Prestel, Jacopo Ligozzi, “The Triumph of Truth Over Envy” (1781), etching and aquatint printed in brown with gold leaf

Since aquatint was a medium taken up by professional printmakers, amateurs, and painter-printmakers alike, it contributed to the hunger for art and knowledge in its time, allowing for the dissemination of replicas of masterwork paintings and the expansion of historical knowledge.

While today, aquatint is a throwback, this exhibition looks to trace its origins, present standout examples within its canon, and examine ways in which a single medium helped to shape Western thought and discourse for hundreds of years.

Aquatint: From Its Origins to Goya opens on October 24, 2021, in the West Building, Ground Floor, Inner Tier of the National Gallery of Art, and will remain on display through February 21, 2022.

Correction 9/24/21 12:04pm EST: An earlier headline of this piece stated that Mary Cassatt aquatints are included in the NGA exhibition. While Cassatt employed the technique, her work is not included in the Aquatint: From Its Origins to Goya exhibition, and the headline has been amended.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...