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Mercury, Venus, and Cupid

c. 1520; printed c. 1820?
Hans Burgkmair the Elder (German, 1473–1531)

The iron and steel plates used by the earliest German etchers were rapidly marred by natural oxidation. When printed, the ink would settle in the corroded areas and appear as splotchy black and gray areas on the paper. Evidence of corrosion is especially visible in this late impression of Burgkmair’s only etching, seen on the tree next to Venus and on Mercury’s forearm. Only a few rare, early impressions of this print made during the artist’s lifetime without indications of corrosion have survived.

As recipes for acids were perfected, etchers used plates made of copper instead of iron or steel. Though less resilient to wear from the printing press, copper was less likely to corrode, and could be etched with more delicacy and consistency. The softer copper plates also allowed artists to augment their etchings with tools like drypoint needles and engraving burins, which could not incise lines as effectively in iron or steel. For centuries etchers preferred copper plates, and today less expensive zinc plates are commonly used.

Object Details

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