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