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Spreading the Image. Print Publishing in the Search for a National Aesthetic in Eighteenth-Century Germany

Over recent decades scholarly investigations of the practice of print makers, printers, and dealers have revealed the far-reaching scope of the print market in terms of the breadth of imagery that was produced, sold and reviewed by critics. The broad influence of the printed image was unchallenged during the 18th century, not at least because the numerous copies produced in typical editions encouraged widespread distribution. Moreover, their manageable size and weight made it easy to send prints to far-away destinations where images could radically alter their meanings in the new cultural context.

The focus of this investigation is on the print maker, publisher and dealer Johann Georg Wille, a successful artist in Paris, whose work was represented in Europe’s major art cabinets at the time. He was in personal contact to Europe’s artistic and intellectual elite and he supported friendly, collegial relationship with the cultural circles in the city of Mannheim, a thriving cultural center in southern Germany. Wille’s prints feature prominently in the city’s premier collections--his images were collected by the elector Carl Theodor as well as by high-ranking officials; Wille’s images are featured among the holdings of the main art dealers in town, who supplied a local as well as international European clientele. Wille’s engravings enjoyed a strong presence and admiration in Mannheim.

Wille fostered personal connections to artists and collectors in the city. The landscape painter Ferdinand Kobell and court engravers Egidius Verhelst and Heinrich Christoph Sintzenich among others had traveled to and trained at Wille’s Parisian atelier, exchanged with him works of art and discussed matters of aesthetics and trade. Wille’s work bridged in formidable manner the high technical expectations for eighteenth-century fine engraving on the one hand, with new founded ideas of ‘nature’ and nationalism on the other. His personal experimentation in and support of the northern, German aesthetic helped formulate an enlightened and pre-Romantic conception of a national art. This is of particular interest in the enlightened cultural scene of Mannheim, a city that had become a center for national artistic emancipation in the second half of the century. The print could play a key role in the national endeavor: Its experimental nature and possibility for wide distribution allowed the printed image to be a projector for new aesthetics and political ideas. In such context, Wille’s publications were crucial for the new movement. While his graphic works had become part of the artistic canon and thus his artistic authority was unquestioned, his personal support of local artists and movements validated and expounded their engagement in the national discourse. Moreover Wille’s support of Mannheim’s artists helped establish a modern printmaking school and graphic aesthetic in the region of Palatinate, and projected the regional artistic production onto an international stage. Wille enlisted influential dealers, such as the auctioneer Chariot in Paris, to represent Mannheim’s print makers and distribute their work throughout Europe. The publishing and distribution of images by and through Wille had far reaching consequences: The print maker, printer and publisher launched innovative experimentation toward a national art and identity.
Relevant research areas: Western Europe, 18th Century, Engraving, Etching