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From Chemical Process to the Aesthetics of Omission: Etching and the Languages of Art Criticism in Nineteenth–century Britain

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Abstract:

This article explores the development of aesthetic theories of the etched line in the 1860s and the role of language in redefining the identity of etching and strengthening its claims for status and legitimacy within the established academic hierarchy. It maps out a shift from the use of technical to artistic terminology as a means of emphasizing intellectual over manual input by the etcher and establishing etching as an original rather than a reproductive art. The writings of Francis Seymour Haden and Philip Gilbert Hamerton and the ways in which they promoted etching as an original art form practised by painters, building on the redefinitions of the art begun by earlier writing are examined. Haden and Hamerton pioneered a new aesthetic language for etching based on a theory of ‘learned omission’ in which the lines absent from the plate were as important as those present, and not only demonstrated the artistic skill and intellectual input of the etcher, but also emphasized the role of the viewer as an active participant in the creation of meaning, raising questions about artistic creativity, the interpretation of art and the rhetoric which surrounds it.

Document Type: Original Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-8365.00081

Affiliations: University College, London

Publication date: December 1, 1997

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