Mezzotint is one of the oldest printing techniques. It is a time consuming deductive method, similar to linocut in that the artist leaves the areas that he wants to print dark. It can produce the most delicate of gray tones and the smoothest tonal transitions from light to dark or dark to light. It was the printing method of choice by publishers and clients during the 17th and 18th centuries and is still the most versatile and beautiful of the old techniques.
The discovery of the technique of mezzotint is attributed to Ludwig von Siegen who was born In Utrecht in the year 1609. He was educated at the Hesse-Kassel Ritterkollegium between 1621 and 1626 and received the education and military training usually reserved for the upper classes of people. During the eleven years after finishing his education his travels took him to France, Holland and Westphalia.
In 1639 at the age of thirty Ludwig returned to Hesse-Kassel. The Landgrave William V died before Ludwigâ’s return and Amelia Elizabeth was appointed as Landgravine on behalf of her son William VI, who was to inherit the position of Landgrave on becoming of age. Presenting himself to the Landgravine with a letter from his father requesting a position at court von Siegen was appointed kammerjunker to William VI. A kammerjunker acts as a personal aide, bodyguard and companion to a nobleman. This position gave Ludwig the opportunity to associate freely with people from the higher social circles and carried a degree of honor and respect.
Because of difficulties at court and the oppressive atmosphere of religious intolerance in Hesse-Kassel Ludwig moved to Amsterdam in 1641. Having been trained in the arts at the Ritterkollegium he could not have helped being influenced by the cosmopolitan atmosphere of a city like Amsterdam. Featuring some of the world’s best universities, a liberal democratic government and a rich economy Amsterdam was a haven for artists and craftsmen of all disciplines. It was the publishing capital of the world and was known for its freedom of the press. It is here that Ludwig von Siegen tried to find an outlet for his artistic abilities. He was certainly influenced by the many publications being circulated at that time, among which were most probably Rembrandt’s drypoints.
During this time the Landgravine Emelia Elizabeth continued to support Ludwig von Siegen in spite of religious differences. Ludwig produced the landgravine’s portrait in different mediums in return. In 1642 he produced an original print of a drawing he had done of her while still in her employ. He sent it to William VI with the following description: There is not a single engraver, or artist of any kind who can account for, or guess how this is done, for, as Your Highness well knows, only three methods of work are recognized in engraving viz. 1st, engraving or cutting, 2nd, biting with acid or etching, 3rd, a method very little used, executed in small dots made with punches, but which is difficult and so arduous that it is seldom practiced. My method is quite different from any of these although one notices small dots and not a single line: and if in some parts the work seems to be done in hatching, it is not withstanding, entirely dotted, which I would not wish to hide from Your Highness, who is so well versed in Art.
From this print of Emelia Elizabeth it is seen that Ludwig von Siegen worked in additive and deductive methods simultaneously. He used mostly roulettes and some drypoint additively and made corrections and lightened areas with burnishers and scrapers deductively. But the most interesting feature of this print is that it does contain some of the characteristic rows of dots that can only be made by a chisel-like tool with a serrated blade. This print is the first to be known to use the mezzotint method although there was no name for it at the time.
After producing a number of well executed portraits of nobility, von Siegen resumed a military career in 1644. From 1644 to 1654 no prints exist to suggest that he shared his new process with other artists. In 1654 new prints appeared by Ludwig showing his new technique.
Around this time Ludwig von Siegen may have met Prince Rupert the nephew of Charles I of England. There has always been a debate over whether von Siegen and Prince Rupert ever met. Many historians believe that Prince Rupert was far to the south and east of Brussels around 1654. But there is a bit of evidence toward a meeting if the description of the discovery of mezzotint in John Evelyn’s papers at Christ Church College in Oxford is to be believed. In it Prince Rupert states that a soldier in Germany showed him with his own hands the new technique. He thought of it while noticing one morning the texture that the moisture had created on the barrel of his gun and devised a way to reproduce it on copper to exceed all other methods of engraving.
There are other possibilities to account for a meeting between Ludwig and Prince Rupert. Prince Rupert visited Emperor Ferdinand III in Vienna in 1654, and von Siegen produced his portrait of Emperor Ferdinand III in that same year and may have presented it at court. Other evidences are von Siegen engraved a portrait of Prince Rupert’s mother, Elizabeth of Bohemia and both knew the Prince’s Cousin William VI. In 1655 Prince Rupert visited William VI in Hesse-Kassel and would surely have seen von Siegen’s prints there.