Old master print

An old master print is a work of art produced by a printing process within the Western tradition. The term remains current in the art trade, and there is no easy alternative in English to distinguish the works of "fine art" produced in printmaking from the vast range of decorative, utilitarian and popular prints that grew rapidly alongside the artistic print from the 15th century onwards. Fifteenth-century prints are sufficiently rare that they are classed as old master prints even if they are of crude or merely workmanlike artistic quality. A date of about 1830 is usually taken as marking the end of the period whose prints are covered by this term.

The Three Crosses, drypoint by Rembrandt, 1653, state III of IV

The main techniques used, in order of their introduction, are woodcut, engraving, etching, mezzotint and aquatint, although there are others. Different techniques are often combined in a single print. With rare exceptions printed on textiles, such as silk, or on vellum, old master prints are printed on paper. This article is concerned with the artistic, historical and social aspects of the subject; the article on printmaking summarizes the techniques used in making old master prints, from a modern perspective.

Many great European artists, such as Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, and Francisco Goya, were dedicated printmakers. In their own day, their international reputations largely came from their prints, which were spread far more widely than their paintings. Influences between artists were also mainly transmitted beyond a single city by prints (and sometimes drawings), for the same reason. Prints therefore are frequently brought up in detailed analyses of individual paintings in art history. Today, thanks to colour photo reproductions, and public galleries, their paintings are much better known, whilst their prints are only rarely exhibited, for conservation reasons. But some museum print rooms allow visitors to see their collection, sometimes only by appointment, and large museums now present great numbers of prints online in very high-resolution enlargeable images.

Melencolia I, 1514, engraving by Albrecht Dürer
This donor portrait of about 1455 shows a large coloured print attached to the wall with sealing wax. Petrus Christus, NGA, Washington. Another example is seen here.

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