Corpuscular conchology: Gautier's shells and the metaphorics of mezzotint

Ruth Ezra*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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In 1741, Jacques Gautier d’Agoty asserted his position as the inventor of tri-color mezzotint, advertising his process in the pages of the Mercure de France December 1741, with an image of a Drap d’or shell. This article takes the shell as a case study to demonstrate one way in which Gautier’s early artistic experimentation with print processes fed his later natural philosophical theorizing, which he published in the pages of his new scientific journal, the Observations (1752–1757). The burr of the Drap d’or’s copperplate, the stratigraphy of its tonal inking, and the corrosive action of its mordant informed Gautier’s conception of shell discoloration as a process based on the collapse of a mollusk’s surface texture and the movement of salts in and out of its pores. His first-hand experience of achieving mechanical color impressions with mezzotint furnished him with an artistic metaphor with which he could then comprehend a natural process.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)137-164
Number of pages28
Issue number1
Early online date7 Jul 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2023


  • Shells
  • Color
  • Mezzotint


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