(Netherlands 1558 – 1617)
41.6 x 33.6 cm trimmed just outside border
The Italian word chiaroscuro, which refers to contrasts of light and dark in a work of art, came to be applied to woodcuts in which figures were delineated in dark ink on a background of varying tones of the same or similar colours, with unlinked white areas of paper providing the highlights. Chiaroscuro woodcuts are built up of two or three blocks and the colours tend to be closely related because the emphasis is on the depiction and differentiation of tonal values rather than the effect of bright colour. In this print depicting ‘Hercules and Cacus’, the contrast between the light and dark tone blocks is quite strong however. Goltzius used three different blocks (black, ochre and brown), which were printed successively on one sheet of paper; the black outline was printed last so that it would sit crisply on top of the colours.
Though they represent only a small part of his oeuvre, the chiaroscuro woodcuts designed by Goltzius are the most sophisticated and impressive examples of the medium in Northern Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.
‘Hercules and Cacus’, Goltzius’s only dated woodcut, illustrates an episode from one of the twelve labours of Hercules: Hercules capturing the cattle of Geryon. Cacus, the son of Vulcan, stole eight of Hercules’ cattle and hid them in his cave. He then blocked the entrance by chaining a boulder across the mouth. Hercules pursued him, broke into the cave and gave battle. Goltzius shows Hercules at his moment of triumph, his club above his head, about to slay the fire-breathing thief.
F.W.H. Hollstein, Dutch and Flemish etchings, engravings and woodcuts c.1450-1700, Amsterdam, 1949, vol.III: 122. no.373
Walter L Strauss, Hendrik Goltzius, 1558-1617: the complete engravings and woodcuts, New York, 1977, vol.II: 696-99. no.403
European prints and drawings 1500-1900, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 30 Aug 2014–02 Nov 2014