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Thomas Frye. Young Man with a Candle, from Life-Sized Heads,1760. The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Dorothy Braude Edinburg to the Harry B. and Bessie K. Braude Memorial Collection.

CHICAGO, IL.- The eerie effects and seductive textures of the medium of mezzotint are brought vividly to life at the Art Institute of Chicago in the exhibition Burnishing the Night: Baroque to Contemporary Mezzotints from the Collection, opening Saturday, February 21, and continuing through May 31, 2015, in Galleries 125–127. 

Mezzotint engraving blossomed from an amateur hobby of the members of the nobility in the late 17th century to the 18th century’s most popular reproductive printmaking method. The medium allowed artists to burnish soft highlights and volume into a textured copper plate that would otherwise print in a solid tone. This shading method contrasted dramatically with the standard intaglio medium, which involved either incising an engraving with a burin (a metal-cutting tool) or etching hatched lines into the plate with acid. Ideal for nocturnal scenes, portraits, reproductions of paintings, lush landscapes, and garish anatomical and botanical studies, the versatile medium later lent itself to color printing and remains in use today. 

Burnishing the Night brings together mezzotint prints, books with mezzotint illustrations, and other works on paper from the Art Institute’s permanent collection that span the medium’s predominantly Northern European origins through its worldwide appreciation in the 20th century. Several works in the show, organized by Suzanne Karr Schmidt, assistant curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings, are by Irish mezzotint engravers, including Thomas Frye. Frye’s imaginative head studies also will be featured in this spring’s highly anticipated exhibition Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840, opening March 17. Frye’s evocative print Young Man with a Candle from 1760 demonstrates the liquid effects made possible by the mezzotint medium, from the bulging, startled eyes to the dancing candlelit shadows and dripping wax. The viewer waits with bated breath along with this startled youth, printed in velvet tones, as he enjoys the theatrical uncertainty of a ghost story. 

A complementary and concurrent installation in Gallery 208A, Printing Darkness and Light in the Dutch Republic, details how Rembrandt and other artists created their own dramatic “Dark Manner” or “Night Pieces” without the use of mezzotint.