The Delicate Hand: Female Engravers

1. Jan van der Straeten,  Plate 19 of the Nova Reperta (New Discoveries). Late 16th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Digital Photo #: DP102228.tif

I have been researching glass engraving recently, and my readings sparked my interest in the related art of copper engraving.  Although some of them were well known, there were not many women copper engravers and printmakers in the early modern period. To what extent was it a gendered activity? Unlike glass engraving, which could easily be practiced at the home, copper engraving, as a famous image by Jan van der Straeten shows, was often done in a print shop in what was very much a male environment. The process of turning the copper engraving into print relied on collaboration, with tasks marked off separately as the designations on the print, “invenit” (designer), “sculpsit” (engraver) and “excudit” (publisher) suggest. Although these tasks might all be performed by one person, often they were not. This type of collaborative production, along with the material environment needed to engrave and print, presented obstacles to women, whose art was more commonly created within the household and intended for limited consumption or distribution to close friends. Besides, the product of copper engraving was meant to be widely disseminated, and this association of engraving with the marketplace would have meant it was off-limits to upper-class women.

In this context, it is important to keep in mind the social distinction Elizabeth Honig describes, between “amateur” female artists of the elite, whose art was a product of pastime, and female artists who worked in a family business, whose art was situated in the male-dominated professional realm. These distinctions, she notes, were sometimes fluid, and it was certainly possible for works created by “amateurs” to be marketed and sold or to become widely known (34). All the same, we can situate the majority of early modern female engravers firmly within the professional sphere. For instance, looking at a list of early modern female map engravers and printers in a blog post by the Osher Map Library, it is immediately obvious that they were mostly widows or daughters of male map engravers. Perhaps the Low Countries were the most promising location in Europe to find women engravers, given that it was home to some of the best known engravers and that a number of crucial innovations in the craft originated there (see The Brilliant Line on the developing techniques). Yet, female engravers were rare even in the Low Countries. Although there were small numbers of women engravers in countries all over Europe in this period, I’d like to use this post to explore in brief two Dutch women who engraved in copper, one professionally and the other, remarkably, as pastime.

2. Portrait of Magdalena van de Passe by Simon van de Passe (1630). Rijksmuseum. Object number RP-P-OB-15.811.

Magdalena van de Passe (1600-1638) was the most famous female engraver of her own day. She was the daughter of Crispijn van de Passe and sister of Crispijn the Younger, Simon, and Willem, all established and well-known engravers themselves. As Ilja Veldman explains in her detailed study of the family, Magdalena already signed prints at age 14, suggesting she must have been very talented (200). She would develop what Veldman calls “her own, very delicate engraving style” (283-84). Even within the open environment of her father’s print shop, there seems to have been a gendered difference between Magdalena and her brothers: unlike the men, she usually worked from the designs and models of others. In this sense, we might compare engraving to translation: it can be based on an original, but nonetheless in subtle ways add its own touches, creating a product that is both original and an imitation. Just as translation was considered respectable for women, engraving after a male design may have been considered a more suitable occupation for Magdalena than original creation.

3. Magdalena van de Passe, Salmacis and Hermaphroditus. Based on Ovid; after a painting by Jacob Symonsz. Pynas (1623). Rijksmuseum. Object number RP-P-OB-15.828.

Magdalena engraved only a small number of portraits mostly of female sitters (Veldman thinks she knew three of them personally), turning to landscapes after 1620. More surprisingly, she created a small number of engravings based on episodes in Ovid, embarking with her father on an ambitious project of making a large book of Ovidian prints. Unfinished during her lifetime, a book was eventually published in 1677, long after her death, including prints by her father and brother Crispijn. Contrary to much of her other work, the Ovidian prints show the latitude possible in female engraving. Ovid was considered immoral reading for women, and women artists did not usually depict nudes in other art forms like painting, Yet Van de Passe’s Ovidian prints break such rules. A striking example of this is her engraving of the sensual episode of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, showing strongly expressed female-male desire, placed in what looks like an emotionally charged landscape.

Van de Passe also printed engravings on satin and even on nightcaps. In 1630, she was given a three-year license by the States General, making her the only person in the Republic allowed to print on fabric. How many people wanted to sleep with an image on their nightcap of battles and noble Protestants like King Sigismund II, King Frederick V, and King Gustave II of Sweden is unknown, and none of them survives (as far as we know). Still, they represent an instance of blending different types of craft, not unlike some of the more politically themed glass engravings and embroidery of the period. Thus, while Van de Passe seems to have limited herself largely to engraving after male designs and paintings, she nonetheless crossed gendered bounds, infusing her work with her own style and inventing her own objects by superimposing political subject matter onto a domestic piece of clothing. Apparently, she stopped engraving after her marriage in 1634, as is not unusual for professional women artists (Honig 31-32).

Equally intriguing is the evidence that Van de Passe taught the skill of engraving to the versatile and multitalented Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678), a frequent subject in this blog, who was famous for her book learning but also practiced in a wide range of arts. Katlijne van der Stighelen has argued persuasively that an early account that mentions that Van Schurman learned engraving in the printshop of the Van de Passe family, being “apprenticed” as it were to Magdalena, is probably true (116-17).Van Schurman is a prominent example of the amateur artists examined by Honig, who, she notes, were much more inclined to experiment and work in a variety of mediums than professionals, as they were unencumbered by guild regulations and the pressures of the marketplace (33). Still, engraving as amateur pastime is exceptional, and the link between Van de Passe and Van Schurman is a fascinating instance of female to female instruction in a craft dominated by men.

4. Anna Maria van Schurman, Self-Portrait (1633). Rijksmuseum. Object number RP-P-OB-59.344.

Van Schurman’s first venture into the art of engraving is also her most famous. In a remarkable self-portrait, dated 1633, she shows herself holding a cartouche bearing a poem in Latin. The poem denies that there is pride or vanity in the choice of herself as subject. She says that she did not want her inexperienced pen to attempt a more weighty subject for this first try. The engraving gave rise to a series of poems by men, including especially Constantijn Huygens (I discuss his poem at some length in my book on early modern women). Agnes Sneller has remarked on the sexual innuendo used by Huygens when he calls it “the first cut / She ever did in her days.”[1] Presenting the cartouche behind which Van Schurman hides her hands as a shield to highlight her virginity, Huygens’s punning on “cut” ignores the modest poem inscribed on it. He reminds his readers of the sharpness of the burin  and suggests that the very act of engraving itself could be perceived as inappropriately sexual for women.

5. Anna Maria van Schurman, Self Portrait (1640). Rijksmuseum. Object number RP-P-1887-A-11946.

Another, equally well-known self-portrait was engraved in 1640. It would later be included in a print publication of her letters, giving it wide distribution. This engraving went through several states and was frequently copied. Since both Magdalena and her father had passed away at this point, Van Stighelen notes that Van Schurman must have had access to a different studio with the necessary equipment and materials. Here too, the hands are conspicuously hidden from view, but there is great detail in the dress, which combines a kind of opulence with modest respectability. Compared with the earlier portrait, there is a more sophistication in the relation between sitter and background, creating a tension between the artistry of the engraving and the modest subscription, which reads, “See here depicted our appearance in image / If it is lacking in art, your grace will make up for it.”

Not coincidentally, perhaps, praise poems for Van Schurman and especially Van de Passe tend to shy away from describing engraving as “cutting.” Rather than hiding the hands involved in the carving motion, they present engraving in aesthetic terms and emphasize the movement of the hand and the grace with which the lines are drawn. Adriaen van de Venne, for instance, focused on Van de Passe’s hand, which “with sweet bending, / Sets something new in the copper.”[2] Her brother Crispijn, who honored his sister with a poem in French after her death, wrote that she “has shown with her delicate hand that bronze / Yielded to the daring lines of her skilled burin” (Veldman 294). Such poems, in their aestheticizing of the act of engraving, suggest, though less explicitly and crudely than the poem by Huygens, that the cutting involved may have been perceived as just beyond the boundaries of properly feminine art. In making their engravings, whether in the context of a family business or as pastime, Van de Passe and Van Schurman moved female art in new directions and helped pave the way for others, such as Geertruydt Roghman and Maria Sybilla Merian, both daughters of engravers themselves.


Further Reading

On engraving generally:

This video shows the process of engraving: From Paper to Copper: The Engraver’s Process.

Emily J. Peters, Evelyn Lincoln, and Andrew S. Raftery, The Brilliant Line: Following the Early Modern Engraver 1480-1650 (Providence: Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design, 2009).

Timothy Riggs, Larry Silver, and Walter S. Melion, Graven Images: The Rise of Professional Printmakers in Antwerp and Haarlem (Evanston: Mary and Leigh Block Gallery, 1993).

On women artists and female engravers:

Elizabeth Honig, “The Art of Being ‘Artistic’: Dutch Women’s Creative Practices in the 17th Century,” Women’s Art Journal 22.2 (2001-2002): 31-39.

Katlijne van der Stighelen, Anna Maria van Schurman of ‘Hoe hooge dat een maeght kan in de konsten stijgen’ (Leuven: Universitaire Pers, 1987).

Agnes Sneller, “‘If she had been a man…’ Anna Maria van Schurman in the Social and Literary Life of Her Age,” Choosing the Better Part: Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678), edited by Mirjam de Baar, Machteld Löwenstein, Marit Monteiro, and Agnes Sneller (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1996), 133-150.

Ilja M. Veldman, Crispijn de Passe and His Progeny (1564-1670): A Century of Print Production. Trans. Michael Hoyle (Rotterdam: Sound and Vision, 2001).



[1] Sneller, 138-39. The line is “d’eerste sné / Die sij van haer dagen dé.” De Gedichten van Constantijn Huygens, naar zijn handschriften uitgegeven, tweede deel, 1623-1637, ed. J. A. Worp (Groningen: Wolters, 1893), 301. DBNL.

[2] Veldman, 73-74. Hoyle translates the phrase “met zoet gebuig” as “gracefully” (Veldman 293); it makes poetic sense, but I retranslated it, awkwardly, to reflect Van de Venne’s emphasis on the movement of the hand. The original, from his Tafereel van Sinne-mal (1623), reads “Opdat u handt met soet ghebuygh / Wat nieuws int coper sett, / Ontfangt dit lied nu voor u cunst / Die gij my hebt vereert” (Veldman n376, 430).

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