This woodcut by Hans Burgkmair (1473-1531) carries the date 1510. Burgkmair is credited, along with Lucas Cranach, with inventing the chiaroscuro woodcut whereby a multicolor printed picture could be produced in multiple copies. This was basically an attempt to reproduce the technique of chiaroscuro drawing: drawings on a colored paper where ink was used to create shadow and white paint to create a dramatic highlight. Burgkmair’s “Lovers surprised by Death”, is the earliest chiaroscuro woodcut known. It was made from three wood blocks, printing in black, and two shades of red/brown ink. The highlights are left blank allowing the paper to create the contrast. Naturally careful registration was required when printing a chiaroscuro print. The detail below makes things a little clearer.

Chiaroscuro has always seemed a slippery term to me. It is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The style of pictorial art in which only the light and shade, and not the various colours, are represented; black-and-white, or dark brown and white.” They suggest that that definition is now in fact obsolete, the meaning having generalized out to cover just the (usually dramatic) treatment of light and shade in any picture. I suspect my uncertainty about the word resulted from its being used in these two different ways. A painting by Georges de la Tour doesn’t really have much in common with Burgkmair’s print.

The video below accompanied an exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2014. Achim Gnann, from the Albertina Museum in Vienna gives a 5-minute history of the early development of the chiaroscuro woodcut.

If you don’t see a video here, click on the title of the post to view it in your browser. The YouTube video is a bit herky-jerky, but it is all there.