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Hood Museum of Art
Dartmouth College
Hanover, NH 03755

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James MacArdell, British, about 1729-65, after Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish, 1577-1640

Rubens, His Wife Helena Fourment, and Their Son Peter Paul
Mid-18th century
Mezzotint on satin
Purchased through the Jean and Adolph Weil Jr. 1935 Fund; 2005.65.2

In the eighteenth century, mezzotint was the printmaking technique preferred above all others for conveying the tones and richness of painting, albeit generally only in black and white. Rarely used today, mezzotint was essentially a tone process in which a metal plate was roughened using a rocker, a tool with a curved and serrated edge. The main feature that distinguished mezzotint was that the artist worked from dark to light—from black ground to the highlights rather than white ground to the shadows. Mezzotints that were printed on satin, such as this example after a painting by Rubens, were given as luxurious gifts to only those closely associated with the commission. These impressions were printed before letters, or inscriptions, and usually only five were pulled from the plate. It is thought that in this case a limited number of early impressions were made for George Spencer, Third Duke of Marlborough (1706-1758), whose family owned the original painting by Rubens (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) from the time of its presentation to the first duke by the city of Brussels in 1704 until its purchase by Baron Alphonse de Rothschild in the late nineteenth century.

James MacArdell, one of the most accomplished mezzotint artists of the eighteenth century, moved in 1746 from Dublin to London, where he worked with his master, the engraver James Brooks (flourished 1730-56). By 1750, MacArdell had branched out on his own, determined to make a living as a mezzotint engraver, mostly through the growing business of copying paintings by well-known old masters and contemporary artists. In the course of his career, MacArdell engraved about two hundred mezzotints after other artists, nearly all of which were portraits. The Rubens painting after which this print was made demonstrates the artist’s bravura treatment of a sumptuous array of satin, silk, and other fabrics in the clothing of himself and his wife. MacArdell revealed his skill in his translation of this work into the mezzotint medium, his virtuosity further enhanced by the white satin material on which it was printed.

Last Updated: 1/21/10