Old World prints; a thrilling ‘Revelation’

Baltimore Sun

Mark McDonald peered closely at the 15th century hand-colored print of St. Jerome by Albrecht Durer, then examined the black-and-white version of the same work hanging next to it. McDonald wanted to get a good look; after all, he’d traveled across an ocean to see them side by side.

An art historian and curator at the British Museum, McDonald has spent a lifetime specializing in prints made during the 15th and 16th centuries -- the great Age of Discovery. And the works he traveled to see this week at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s new show “Painted Prints: The Revelation of Color,” are among the rarest and most beautiful examples of their type in the world.

“This is possibly one of the most important print shows in the last 20 years,” the curator said earlier this week as he strolled through the galleries. “It’s a completely new and fresh subject, and I’m quite stunned by it.”

The BMA show, put together by prints and drawings curator Susan Dackerman, has created quite a stir in the art world. As a result of meticulous research in historical archives, Dackerman has presented an astonishing thesis: that printed images, which first became widely popular during the 15th and 16th centuries, were from the start not only made in black and white, but also in brilliantly colored versions that until now have remained largely unknown.


“Revelation” offers many examples of such colored prints side by side with their monochrome counterparts, and, since it opened two weeks ago, has attracted curators and print-lovers from across the country.

But for McDonald, the BMA show holds a particular attraction beyond its groundbreaking revelations about the history of color printmaking.

As director of the Columbus Print Collection Project at the British Museum, McDonald is working on an ambitious project to reconstruct the fabulous collection that once belonged to Ferdinand Columbus (1488-1539), son of the Italian explorer who discovered the New World for Spain.

Showered with royal favor as a result of his father’s exploits, Ferdinand amassed some 40,000 prints during his lifetime.

And McDonald thinks some of the hand-painted prints in the BMA show may well have once been part of Columbus’ collection.

“By showing prints as rare, refined, valuable objects,” he said, “this exhibition is opening up whole new areas in print studies, collecting and works on paper. That’s important.”


Glenn McNatt is art critic at the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune company.