As she picked up the magnifying glass with her right hand, Emily Peters took a couple of steps forward. She stood in front of the engraving of Henri de la Tour d'Auvergen and said, smiling, "I think this one knocks your socks off."
Peters, the associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, was referring to one of the pieces in the museum's new exhibit, "The Brilliant Line: Following the Early Modern Engraver, 1480 -1650." Through the display of 85 original works of art, the exposition focuses on the process of copperplate engraving, she said.
"The art of engraving was the first reproductive mass medium," Peters said. "It was a way to spread knowledge of all kinds, everything from scientific discoveries to information on the Catholic Reformation."
The beauty of the engravings and the naturalism achieved by "a medium that consists of copper and lines" drew her in at first. "Artists had to figure out ways to create tones by using lines and dots only," Peters said, looking back at Robert Nanteuil's portrait of Henri de la Tour d'Auvergen, "Look at the lace in his collar," she said. "It's like he didn't want us to see the lines at all."
To allow viewers to gain a better understanding of this technique, Peters, who has a Ph.D. in 16th-century printmaking, collaborated with Associate Professor of Printmaking Andrew Raftery.
"We wanted to bring engraving live to the public," said Raftery, a practicing engraver. "We wanted to help viewers understand the process."
To that end, Raftery decided to create a replica of a 16th-century drawing, choosing Francesco Primaticcio's "Hermaphrodite on the Clouds Teaching Cupid to Shoot an Arrow." After two months, he produced a sketch, an engraved copper plate and then an actual print.
"It was exciting to do something in the style of the 16th century," he said. "I got to pretend that I was an artist of 500 years ago."
Raftery also created nine analytical drawings of different works of art, in which he explored how the many layers worked to create the final result. The pieces, which can also be found on the museum's Web site, are part of an interactive component meant to visually engage viewers with the engraver's process.
"This exhibition is a tribute to the artists' work," he said.
Trish Dickie, a member of the museum's security staff, found Raftery's talent captivating. "It's almost as if he were born in those times," Dickie said. "It's just beautiful."
In addition to RISD's master print collection, Raftery and Peters got about 14 pieces on loan from the National Gallery, including Claude Mellan's "Adam and Eve at the Foot of the Cross"— a personal favorite of both organizers.
Mellan "just uses parallel lines that swell and terminate at the end of the figure," Peters said, adding that Mellan "capitalizes on the optical illusion" that, from far away, lines converge.
"I love this piece," Raftery said. "He creates form without using cross-hatching."
Jordan Geis, who said he was considering applying to RISD's graduate program, found artists' dedication to detail and their hard work mesmerizing. Completing a piece could take months, he said, adding, "I don't think people spend that kind of time on an art work anymore."
"It seems like a lost art," Geis said, as he examined the bold and swelling lines that created the face of Hendrick Goltzius in a portrait made by Jan Harmenz Muller. "The detail here is mind-blowing."
Ingrid Mueller, who was at the museum for the first time, said she didn't know about the exhibition until she arrived.
Mueller, who explored the interactive demonstration, found the exhibit educational.
"I like the fact that they show us how it's done," she said.
For Maureen O'Brien, the museum's curator of painting and sculpture, the display is "almost like a master class in the history of engraving."
"Run to the RISD Museum — don't walk," O'Brien said. "This is a world-class collection and people won't have another chance like this in their lives."
The exhibit, which was supported by the International Fine Print Dealers Association, the Foundation of the American Institution for Conservation of Historic and Artist Works, Tru Vue, Inc. and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, will run until Jan. 3, 2010.