Jacques Callot is all about the details . . . which is exactly why the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston provides magnifying glasses for its current show on the baroque printmaker, Princes & Paupers.
A single image by the prolific artist can feature more than 1,000 characters taking part in hundreds of simultaneous plot lines. In one corner, aristocrats dine under a shade tree. In another, pickpockets target an unsuspecting shopper at the market. In between, dogs run in circles, gamblers win big and masked actors perform onstage.
"You have to get very close to a Callot piece to see everything he's squeezed into it."
"You have to get very close to a Callot piece to see everything he's squeezed into it," says prints curator Dena Woodall, who organized the exhibit with art history professor Diane Wolfthal from Rice University.
"I think people today are just as fascinated as they were in 17th-century Europe by his ability to get so much into a small space."
Active in both France and Italy, Callot made a name for himself working inside the Florentine court of Cosimo II — scion of the Medici dynasty and noted patron of astronomer Galileo Galilei, who served as his childhood tutor. Tuscan nobles cherished his lighthearted and often witty portraits of courtly life, which he depicted in the sharpest of detail thanks to new printing processes of his own invention.
"Callot was very good friends with Galileo and was quite aware of the groundbreaking optics and technologies being developed during the era," Woodall explains. In turn, she says the print master set his sights on inventing new etching instruments and techniques that would revolutionize the art printmaking for centuries to come.
"Callot would cover a huge arc of subject matter during his lifetime, often in a single print."
Following the death of Cosimo II in 1621, Callot returned to his birthplace of Nancy in northeast France. While he continued producing prints for aristocratic courts, he increased his focus towards the burgeoning middle-class art market with images of public life.
Even from the small outpost of Nancy, the printmaker maintained an unprecedented degree of fame throughout Europe, with a fan base that included the legendary Rembrandt.
"Callot would cover a huge arc of subject matter during his lifetime, often in a single print," Woodall says.
"What truly stands out about his work is that, while he shows the pageantry of society, there are also less beautiful elements. You'll see people being punished and tortured for crimes alongside fairs and mock naval battles. It was this ability that made him so well-known in his own time."
Princes & Paupers: The Art of Jacques Callot is on view at the MFAH's Beck Building through May 5. A catalog of the exhibition is available at the museum store.