“The Artful Disposition of Shades”: The Great Age of British Mezzotints

In the century and a half before the advent of photomechanical reproductions in the mid-1800s, mezzotints (from the Italian term meaning “half-tones”) were the favored medium for publicizing British paintings and producing many original compositions. Compared with traditional printmaking techniques, such as engraving and etching, the new tonal method was praised by contemporaries for its ability to represent the painterly qualities of light and shadow and a greater array of textures and surfaces. Printmakers adapted it chiefly to portraiture or history paintings—compositions that took the most advantage of the medium’s delicacy and expressivity—and soon mezzotints were disseminating affordable and accessible images of celebrated figures and imaginary landscapes to a broader audience than ever before. Many painters from this era embraced the picturesque appearance of mezzotints, including Sir Joshua Reynolds, Joseph Mallord William Turner, and John Constable.