Prince Rupert of the Rhine is one of the great oddities in the history of printmaking. Born in 1619 in Prague as Rupert Count Palatine, Duke of Bavaria, 1st Duke of Cumberland and 1st Earl of Holderness, he was the third son of the Elector Palatine, Frederick V and Elizabeth Stuart, the eldest daughter of James I of England. He grew up in the turmoil of the Thirty Years War, living between the courts of The Hague and London. At the tender age of 14 he was already fighting the Spanish in the Netherland. Following his move to England, he joined in the Royalist Army during the Civil War. Being exiled under Cromwell, he once more fought against Spain, this time on the side of French, then became a Royalist corsair in the Caribbean. After the restoration he returned to England where he became a high commander of the Navy and was finally appointed the first governor of the Hudson Bay Company in Canada.
A soldier all his life, he was a very unlikely artist and printmaker. During his early youth in The Hague however he enjoyed a careful education, had a quick and versatile mind, and was taught drawing and painting by Gerard van Honthorst. Rupert was long thought to have invented the mezzotint printing technique - a rumour he himself may have spread – but it was probably first developed by Ludwig von Siegen (1609-circa 1680), an amateur artist and tutor of a German cousin of his, whom Rupert appears to have met at Brussels in 1654. Rupert did however introduce the technique into England and created only a few, but undoubtedly the most impressive works in the medium.
The mezzotint technique, whereby the image is scraped into a roughened copper plate, thus burnishing lighter areas into an otherwise darkly printing surface, has one main advantage compared to engraving and etching: it allows the printing of very soft and gradual, tonal effects. It was therefore ideally suited for the recreation of paintings as prints and became a widely used and very popular reproductive method, in particular for portraits, in the 18th century.
The present print of an executioner holding the head of Saint John the Baptist is based on a painting once thought to be by Jusepe de Ribera (but probably by a follower; Staatsgemäldesammlung, Munich). It is a stunning image, rendered in an intense, nocturnal chiaroscuro: the executioner, almost in half life-size, dressed in rags in a very Ribera-like way, stands sideways towards the viewer. In his left hand he still holds the sword, while in his right he grips the severed head of the Baptist by the hair and holds it up to his face to look at it. On his left stands the saint’s staff with the words ECCE AGNUS DEI, ECCE QUI TOLLIT PECCATA MUNDI on the banderole tied to the top, thus referring to Christ, but also to the sacrificial nature of Saint John’s martyrdom – of being slaughtered like a lamb.
Although this was only his third attempt in the new technique, Prince Rupert at this point has completely understood the possibilities of mezzotint method and is making the most of the fine tonal effects and velvety black shadows and surfaces. At the same time, the traces of the rocker used to texture the plate are still clearly visible, as are the marks of burnisher and scraper. The print has a roughness and physicality to it, which make it much more expressive than the technically perfect mezzotints of the 18th century. The Great Executioner is Prince Rupert’s largest, most dramatic and celebrated print – and a great rarity: Hollstein records only three impressions of the first state (Bremen, London, Paris), one of the second state (Paris) and there are probably no more than a dozen of the third state. To our knowledge, no other impression has appeared on the market within the last thirty years.