Art & Archives, Behind the Scenes, Exhibitions and Installations, Getty Research Institute, technology

Royal Propaganda, from Prints to Pixels

Triumphal Entry into Babylon / Gérard Audran after Charles Le Brun

Triumphal Entry into Babylon (detail), Gérard Audran (French, 1640–1703) after Charles Le Brun (French, 1619–90), 1675. Etching and engraving, two sheets. Assembled size: 27 15/16 x 36 1/8 in. (71 x 91.8 cm). The Getty Research Institute, 2003.PR.33

Spin control—it’s been around for centuries. Louis XIV, king of France from 1660 to 1715, was a master at it, using art—especially the work of his court painter, Charles Le Brun—to create and perpetuate a glorified image of his monarchy. Engravings of paintings by Le Brun take center stage in the exhibition Printing the Grand Manner: Charles Le Brun and Monumental Prints in the Age of Louis XIV, now on view at the Getty Research Institute.

Le Brun knew that not everyone would get to see the massive paintings and tapestries that celebrated the king’s magnificence. So he commissioned the best engravers in France to make reproductions that could be printed and distributed widely—the better to spread Louis XIV’s (and his own) fame.

But it wasn’t easy to make a faithful engraving of a Le Brun painting. These “Grand Manner” history paintings (a style characterized by allegorical allusions and lofty subject matter) are monumental in size: Le Brun’s Triumphal Entry into Babylon (Triumph of Alexander) from 1675, which presents Louis XIV as the new Alexander the Great, measures nearly 15 feet tall by 23 feet wide. Other Grand Manner paintings extend as long as 40 feet.

By contrast, the largest printing presses of the time could accommodate sheets of paper only about 3 feet tall by 2 feet wide. But supersized paintings called for supersized prints, so Le Brun’s engravers often made multiple-sheet engravings that could be fitted together to form some of the largest reproductive prints of their time. As royal propaganda, these massive images were meant to be overwhelming—too large to take in at just one glance.

The large-scale prints required small-scale attention to detail and extraordinary technical skill: craftsmen used handheld tools to etch and engrave thousands of tiny lines that varied in width, shape, and intensity onto metal plates (usually copper). Before there were pixels and dots-per-inch, engravers like Gérard Audran and Gérard Edelinck created their images from tiny marks about the width of a pencil line. In the detail below, see how many individual strokes it took to create a 2-by-2-inch area (indicated by the red square) in a much larger print.

Queens of Persia at the Feet of Alexander (Tent of Darius) / Gérard Edelinck after Charles Le Brun

Queens of Persia at the Feet of Alexander (detail), Gérard Edelink after Charles Le Brun, ca. 1675

Queens of Persia at the Feet of Alexander (Tent of Darius), Gérard Edelinck (Flemish, 1640–1707), after Charles Le Brun (French, 1619–90), ca. 1675. Etching and engraving, two sheets, each trimmed inside platemark. Assembled size: 26 9/16 x 35 5/16 in. (67.5 x 89.7 cm). The Getty Research Institute, 2003.PR.42. Below, a detail enlarging a section that is just two inches square. Thousands of painstakingly rendered lines evoke the woman’s fear at the approach of Alexander the Great.

At the edges of the sheets, the strokes needed not only to evoke the subject but also align properly when the multi-sheet print was assembled. In addition, the engraver was acutely aware of the tonal values—light and shadow, density and diffusion—that are so crucial to maintaining perspective in the painting. A thicker line or dark shadow on one sheet could throw off the perspective of the entire print.

In their day, these reproductive prints were regarded not as slavish copies but rather as artistic translations of the original painting. The best engravers expressed their own artistic style, and many 18th-century critics even claimed that Audran’s engravings had improved upon Le Brun’s original painting!

Our staff at the Getty faced their own challenges when they employed 21st-century technologies to reproduce the reproductions. Jobe Benjamin and John Kiffe, photographers in the GRI’s Digital Services department, made high-quality digital images of the engravings for the wall graphics and the exhibition catalogue.

As John and Jobe learned, even if the engraved plates had lined up perfectly, we still would have been able to see the seams. The prints were made with the paper slightly damp, and the individual sheets often dried unevenly, resulting in prints of slightly different sizes. Most collectors kept the sheets separate, or even bound in albums, so the Getty photographers had to digitally trim the edges of the images and stitch them into composites. Some of the stitching you can see, some you can’t.

In the example below, Jobe digitally manipulated the edges of five separate sheets in order to produce the composite image printed in the exhibition catalog. Here he shows us a version with the outer edges of the sheets untrimmed.

An engraving so monumental it requires five sheets of paper: Triumph of the New Testament over the Old Testament, Gérard Audran after Charles Le Brun, 1681

GRI digital photographers assembled five rectangular sheets into a circular rendition—the prints now match the round painting by Le Brun on which they are based. Triumph of the New Testament over the Old Testament (Triumph of the New Law), Gérard Audran (French, 1640–1703) after Charles Le Brun (French, 1619–90), 1681. Etching and engraving, five sheets, untrimmed, each numbered in ink. Assembled size: ca. 46 1/16 in. (117 cm) diameter. The Getty Research Institute, 2003.PR.152

In addition to paper size and stitching problems, 17th-century inks posed their own challenges: printmakers used different inks for different prints. While the color of the ink in the prints hanging in the exhibition might look alike to the naked eye, the camera picked up differences—for example, a reddish tone in inks made from iron oxide—that had to be digitally adjusted.

Visitors to Printing the Grand Manner are greeted by a wall-size vinyl reproduction of a 2-by-3-foot engraving of the Triumph of Alexander. Here in the GRI lobby, a Getty team has enlarged Audran’s engraving almost to the scale of Le Brun’s original painting. You can see a slight shift in color and a few misalignments between the two sheets that make up the engraving. What you won’t see, though, are the seams between the ten separate photographs that John made of sections of each sheet (and then digitally stitched together) in order to blow the image up to fill the wall.

Jobe Benjamin (left) and John Kiffe (right) of GRI Digital Services in front of the entry wall to the exhibition, which features Audran’s engraving of The Triumph of Alexander

Jobe Benjamin (left) and John Kiffe (right) of GRI Digital Services in front of the entry wall to the exhibition, which features Audran’s engraving of The Triumph of Alexander

The effect of the wall-sized image is overwhelming, which is exactly what Le Brun—and Louis XIV—would have wanted.

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  1. Errol |Bryant
    Posted May 28, 2010 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    It is so exciting to see the work you have done to bring this exhibition together. I live in England and only wish I could get to see the exhibition in person.
    As it so happens, I have the Audran and Edelinck engravings (the Alexander the Great suite) in my own collection, with one plate missing, i.e. I have 14 sheets/plates. I assume that originally the missing sheet had the 2 narrow end panels that form the Granicus picture, on the single sheet? (I only have the two centre plates for this picture, otherwise I have all the other plates from the collection.) My collection of engravings were bound into a hard folder, so they benefited from never really having been exposed to the light, and thus are in very good condition, with a bright clean contrast in the print, with only two small cases of foxing about 1cm wide. There is no discoloration in the paper.
    Is is possible for you to confirm that the two end plates for the Granicus picture were indeed printed on a single sheet? There is often confusion as to the collection being 15 or 16 plates. As I see it, it must be 16 plates but on 15 sheets.??
    I love the huge version your staff had printed for the exhibition- if only the original engravings could have been that size!
    (ironically, I have myself developed a process for making very large images in limited editions, very similar in size to the work of Frank Stella, when he worked at the Tyler Graphics Studio in New York.)
    I love these particular engravings that Audran and Edelinck created- I regard them as the best engraving work ever produced.
    Kindest Regards,
    Errol Bryant.

    • Posted June 3, 2010 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      Hi Errol,
      I brought your question to Louis Marchesano, the curator of the exhibition, and his research assistant Christina Aube who also worked on the exhibition and contributed to the catalog. Here is what Christina says:

      “Thank you very much for your comment. Yes, the two end sheets of Audran’s Crossing of the Granicus were printed on one sheet of paper. Based upon examination of two such impressions, it appears that they were printed from a single copperplate. The Getty Research Institute’s Crossing of the Granicus was trimmed inside the platemark by an early collector and exists in two sections (one comprised of the left two sheets adhered together; the other of the two right sheets). For the exhibition, these two sections were framed together in order to display the print in its entirety.”

      I hope that answers your question. All of us here are very pleased that you find this material as compelling as we do. It’s very curious, the way in which large-scale printmaking persists as an artistic and technical challenge across the centuries.

      Thanks for reading,

  2. Tyson Gaskill
    Posted June 2, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Alright John and Jobe, you guys rock! So happy to see you getting your due. Great work!!!

  3. Errol |Bryant
    Posted June 8, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Hello John.
    Thank you for your reply- and please thank Christina for her assistance in clearing up the ‘Granicus’ issue of the two end image sections on one sheet- it is even more interesting to learn that they were prepared on the same plate. I had only recently acquired my set of the Audran and Edelinck engravings and it was the most incredible coincidence to me whilst researching more online to come across news of the Getty exhibition. Thank heavens for the internet!
    I have now ordered the catalogue and look forward to getting all the information I was seeking online!
    I feel very lucky to have been able to acquire what is an ‘almost’ complete set! Maybe there is someone out there with two very thin engravings wondering where the rest of their picture is!
    Kindest Regards

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