Art in Focus: "Phlegyas" by Sean Caulfield

This story of "Phlegyas" by Sean Caulfield is part of the University of Alberta Museums Art Collection Spotlight Series.

In the 14th century epic poem Inferno, the writer Dante Alighieri travels through the various levels of Hell. In the fifth level, Dante encounters Phlegyas—a demi-god and king of the mythical Lapithae people—who transports him across the daunting river Styx.1 Phlegyas serves as the inspiration for printmaker and alumnus of the University of Alberta Sean Caulfield with his 2007 mezzotint print in the University of Alberta Museums Art Collection. This print is also named after the demi-god. Phlegyas appears in many ancient Greek narratives, but perhaps most prominently in Virgil's ancient text Aeneid. His story is most often associated with the Hellenic underworld and the numerous battles encountered there.

In this print, we see a helmet-like vessel sprouting flames, and hovering over a small circular pool. This non-representational image evokes the fiery underworld and impetuous behaviour of Phlegyas, but is also a study in balance and form, where both mechanized objects meld with more organic forms.2 Phlegyas is part of a portfolio titled, Agave which was produced to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the University of Alberta in 2008.

Though not as old as the story of Phegyas, the process of mezzotint helps convey both the softness of the background and the graphic nature of Caulfield’s print. Translated as ‘half-tone’ from Italian, the process involves using a copper plate that has been ‘grounded’ using a fine-toothed tool (that resembles a chisel) so that the plate is textured. A design or image will then be made by carving down and polishing areas of the plate, which will hold less ink and print more lightly.3 The process is generally attributed to a 17th-century German soldier Ludwig von Siegen and Prince Rupert, Count Palatine (Ruprecht von der Pfaltz), an early member of the Royal Society (Bavaria).4

A Centennial Professor in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Alberta, Sean Caulfield is also a celebrated alumnus of the university’s printmaking program (MFA ‘95). A recipient of numerous grants and accolades, his work is represented in private and public collections such as the Houghton Library, Harvard University (USA), Fitzwilliam Museum (UK), Blanton Museum of Art (USA), and the Art Gallery of Alberta. He was elected to the Arts Division of the Academy of the Arts and Humanities of the Royal Society of Canada in 2017.  

More recently, Caulfield was part of a collaborative, interdisciplinary group exhibition <Immune Nations> at the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton (2021). Curated by University of Alberta Associate Professor Natalie S. Loveless, the exhibition “explores complex issues related to the use and distribution of vaccines in the world today and the capacity of artistic research to solicit complex forms of affective engagement.”5 The work presented in <Immune Nations> builds upon the complexity of Phlegyas and represents the multidisciplinary and wide reaching impact of printmaking today.

Download and colour "Two Clouds" by Sean Caulfield  

Purchase the full colouring book from SNAP Gallery.

1“Dante’s Inferno,” accessed November 9, 2021.

2 “Sean Caulfield, accessed November 9, 2021,

3 Early history of mezzotint,” accessed November 9, 2021,

4 Ibid.

“Immune Nations,” accessed November 9, 2021,

This web story is part of the University of Alberta Museums Art Collection Spotlight Series, a collection of web stories aimed to share works of art from the University of Alberta Museums Art Collection with the world. Posted monthly, these stories connect works of art in the Collection to important matters on our campus and in our world.