“The fact – and this will seem to many unbelievable – that his paintings by no means equaled his superb engravings did a lot to damage his reputation.” Constantijn Huygens, 1630
The term ‘virtuosity’ rarely fails to surface when discussing the graphic oeuvre of Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617). Praised for his sheer technical brilliance, during his lifetime Goltzius was collected by royalty and those of wealth and influence. Rudolf II of Prague (1583–1612) even granted an imperial privilege that illegalized the copying of his engravings – a high honour indeed. Yet as the quote above indicates it was always his prints that attracted the highest praise, which regardless of their artistic brilliance could never achieve the same level of prestige associated with painting. Despite abandoning engraving after 1598 and dedicating his final years to painting and drawing, Goltzius was not to conquer painting in the same way that he did engraving. Thus today Goltzius lacks the widespread fame that inevitably follows the masters of painting through the centuries, despite his superstar status in the realm of prints and drawings.
The skill and surety with which Goltzius wielded the engravers burin was a feat made more impressive by fact that as a child he fell into a fire and severely burnt his right hand. As a result his hand was permanently damaged and never able to fully open. However this did not stop him from using it to draw, engrave and paint, and it was this hand that he paid homage to in his remarkable pen drawing of 1588 Goltzius’s right hand, which reveals visual evidence of the trauma it suffered.
The aesthetic splendour that Goltzius cultivated was conveyed in an emphatically Mannerist style. Exaggerated poses and improbable figures dominate, and in this he was inspired by the excesses of Flemish artist Bartholmaus Spranger (1446-1611) whose work Goltzius made a number of engravings after. Goltzius delighted in rendering the human form, yet it is in his depiction of men that his expressive talents and wild imagination truly shine. For Goltzius, much like the great Renaissance master Michelangelo (1475 – 1564), the male nude appears to have been a source of limitless creative possibilities. His system of cross-hatching concentric engraved lines that characteristically swell in the middle and taper at the ends, was perfectly attuned to describe the rippling curves of musculature that undulate across his male bodies.
This is illustrated in the two prints below, which are from a series of four titled The Four Disgracers that depict the mythological figures Tantalus, Icarus, Phaeton, and Ixion who individually tried to enter the realm of the gods and were punished accordingly. Likely made after now lost designs by painter Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem (Netherlandish, 1558–1617) they reveal Goltzius’s talent for expressing extreme contortions of the male body in an approach that was far from naturalistic, and essentially anti-classical. With musculature that defies anatomic reality, these exaggerated forms are described with an illusionistic clarity that makes them all the more startling to behold.
Around the same period Goltzius created another richly mannered series of mythologically inspired fantasies called The Deities of c. 1588-90. For these prints the artist turned his gifted right hand to the chiaroscuro woodcut technique. This involves carving into two or more woodblocks, leaving the areas to be inked and printed standing in relief. Each block is inked with a different colour and individually printed onto the same sheet. The resulting layering of different toned inks can be used to create the effect of light and shade, hence the term chiaroscuro, with the white of the paper often left exposed in areas to act as white highlights. While the Renaissance chronicler Giorgio Vasari compared this technique to drawing with brush and wash heightened by white, it is also known for its capacity to create convincing sculptural qualities. Such qualities are beautifully expressed in The Deities.
The series begins with the image of Demogorgon who is the father of the gods and physical personification of chaos.  Following this mysterious image the other six prints are thought to represent male and female counterparts from the sea, underworld, and heavens.
For me it is the male figures of Demogorgon, Pluto, Helios and Oceanus which are the most dynamic and expressive within the series. The prints of the female deities Nox, Proserpine and Tethys are beautifully rendered and composed, and successfully convey a more placid atmosphere as they recline with languid grace in their chariots or landscape setting, thus reflecting prevalent ideas of passive female beauty. Conversely their male counterparts resonate with vitality, actively directing their physical environments with taught muscles and searing intensity. Once again it is the portrayal of men and the strong male form that inspires Goltzius to create particularly striking and memorable images.
Such works reveal the power and verve of Goltzius’s truly unique and flamboyant artistic personality, one that found its greatest expression through the graphic arts.
 Constantin Huygens quoted in Pieter J.J Van Thiel “Hendrik Goltzius: New York & Toledo” (exhibition review), The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 145. No. 1203 (June 2003), p. 477
 Lawrence W. Nichols “The Pen Works of Hendrick Goltzius” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 88, No. 373/374 (Winter 1992), p. 9
 Antony Griffiths, Prints and Printmaking: an introduction to history and techniques, British Museum Press, London, 1996, p. 49
 For further reading on chiaroscuro woodcuts see Achim Gnann, David Ekerdijan and Michael Foster, Chiaroscuro: Renaissance woodcuts from the collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna, exh. cat. Royal Academy, London, 2014.
 Giorgio Vasari, Le Vite de piu eccelenti pittori, scultori ed architettori, ed G. Milanesi, Florence 1880, V. pp. 420-21 quoted in Clifford Ackley “Goltzius’s Chiaroscuro Woodcuts” (book review), Print Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1 (March 1995), p. 80
 Nancy Bailler, Chiaroscuro Woodcuts: Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617) and his Time, exh. cat. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 1993, see cat. no’s. 26 – 32 for The Deities series
 ibid, pp. 115-116
Currently I am studying in the Prints and Drawings Department at the British Museum, having been awarded the Harold Wright & Sarah and William Holmes Scholarship, administered through the University of Melbourne. This fantastic opportunity allows me to research widely within the BM’s incredible collection of graphic art. Through this blog I will be sharing some of the most intriguing and often surprising works I have come across as I move through aspects of the collection.