Jacques Callot was born at the end of the 16th century in Nancy, Lorraine, in what is now France. At the time, Lorraine was an independent state bordering France, Germany and the Netherlands. As a teenager he was apprenticed to a goldsmith, but soon left Lorraine for Rome to study engraving.
From 1612 to 1621 he lived and worked in Florence, where he learned etching. Callot became a master while living in Florence and was often commissioned by the court of the Medicis. He left Florence in 1621 after the death of Cosimo II de’Medici and spent the rest of his life in Nancy, with occasional visits to Paris and the Netherlands.
Callot contributed several innovations to the art of etching. He developed a new type of etching needle called an echoppe, which incorporated an oval section that allowed etchers to imitate the varying line thicknesses used in engraving. He is also credited with improving the medium used as the ground for etchings, moving from a wax-based formula to a recipe based around the kind of varnish used by lute-makers. This new ground allowed etchers to make deeper lines in plates, allowing them to be used for more printings before wearing out. It also reduced the likelihood of “foul-biting”, where the etching acid would seep through the ground into areas it was not meant to be, leaving blotches and spots on the resulting print.
In addition to technological advancements, Callot also pioneered the use of multiple “stoppings out” in etching. Rather than allowing the acid to etch the plate all at once, Callot would apply some of the acid and then reapply the ground solution over certain areas, thereby making the lines in those areas shallower. This control of line depth in different portions of a print allowed him to demonstrate greater subtlety in his depictions of light and shade effects. Callot’s new tools and techniques were spread throughout Europe by one of his followers, Abraham Bosse, who published the first manual of etching in 1645.
Some of Callot’s well-known etchings included a series of prints depicting wildly dancing, even obscene, characters from the Commedia dell’arte (“Balli di Sfessania”), and another of caricatures of dwarves (“Varie Figure Gobbi”). The latter inspired the ‘Grotesque Dwarf” figures found in Derby porcelain. Perhaps his most famous works are two series of etchings entitled “The Miseries of War”. These prints influenced Francisco Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ as an expression of the brutality of warfare.