Friday, August 14th, 2015...2:58 pm

Early Home Entertainment: Engelbrecht’s Miniature Theatres

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The Harvard Theatre Collection has recently acquired three works by Martin Engelbrecht, an eighteenth-century engraver and printer. He is perhaps best known for the series of intricate, hand-colored prints he created, designed to form theatrical scenes when viewed in peepshows.

A form of entertainment very popular in Europe by the mid-18th century, peepshows could be viewed and displayed in the comfort of one’s own home. A peepshow consisted of a set of pictures arranged in sequence in a box, to be viewed through a hole set into one end (with or without a lens, depending on the design). The boxes ranged in size; some were large enough to rest vertically on the floor and serve also as pieces of decor, while others could be lifted to one’s eyes for a horizontal viewing. The effect of the boxes was to showcase a single scene that deepened into a multi-layered, one-point perspective.

 Praesentation eines ruinierten und verzauberten Schloss. (TS 562.300.18)

Praesentation eines ruinierten und verzauberten Schloss. TS 562.300.18


Martin Engelbrecht (1684-1756) was an artist, print-seller, and engraver who cornered the market in Augsburg as the only publisher to get royal permission to produce these miniature scenes. He established a publishing house in Augsburg, Germany in 1717 and produced well over 5,000 prints. The success of his firm enabled him to employ several artists, including Jeremias Wachsmuht and Johann David Nessenthaler, who were mostly involved in developing the peepshow series.

Each peepshow view was composed using 6 to 8 printed, hand-colored and hand-cut sheets. Sometimes the vistas were of elaborate gardens or ballroom dances, sometimes moments taken from daily life–the interior of a busy pharmacy, for example. Frequently they depicted biblical subjects, and on rare occasion, contemporary events such as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

The following three images are component sheets of Engelbrecht’s La Place de S. Marc à Venise (TS 562.300.16). The number at the top of each print indicates the order in which it is to be placed (this set is numbered 225-231). As the scene stretches further away from the viewer, the amount of cut out negative space in each print gradually decreases.

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The seven prints that comprise La Place de S. Marc à Venise, when assembled together, depict Venice’s Piazza San Marco as seen by one arriving from the lagoon by boat. Below is an image of the final three prints in the series as they might have appeared through a viewing box.

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For more of Martin Engelbrecht’s theatre scenes, see the 1987/1988 exhibition catalog titled La Camera dei sortilegi : autoritratto di una società nei diorami teatrali del ‘700 (available in Hollis as PN2091.S8 C25 1987). Houghton Library also has additional instances of Engelbrecht’s printed work—see for example his illustrated alphabet in the Printing & Graphic Arts Collection (*52L-1076).

[Thanks to Megan McNiff, Bibliographic Assistant, for contributing this post.]

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