Picture Meeting 16 april 2009: The Technical Examination of Paintings

Picture Meeting Report, April 16th 2009

The picture meeting of April 16th had as theme ‘The Technical Examination of Paintings’. This theme allowed for a broad range of subjects, making the day varied and interesting. It also gave the ICN researchers the chance to present some of their own ongoing projects. After a word of welcome from Klaas Jan van den Berg, Janneke Ottens, head of Research at the ICN, gave a quick overview of the current organisation of the research department at the ICN.

The first talk was presented by Margriet van Eikema Hommes (UvA/ICN) and was about the artist Romeyn de Hooghe (1645-1708). De Hooghe is best known for his graphic work. Of his paintings, only one example is known today: the wall paintings he did for the town hall of Enkhuizen in 1707. This research project revolved around the question if De Hooghe actually painted the wall hangings himself, something that has been doubted in the past. Based on two other commissions, nowadays known only from the archives, Margriet convincingly argued that De Hooghe designed the compositions, transferred them onto the canvasses and gave a first paint layer, comparable to a death colouring stage. But it seems very likely that other hands have executed the last phase of the painting process.

The second presentation was given by Jaap J. Boon (AMOLF/ Molart Centre). It was titled ‘Material science of Mark Rothko’s Seagram Paintings at Tate’. The Seagram works are a late series of paintings by Mark Rothko, originally painted for the Seagram building in 1958-’59, but pulled back by the artist himself before they could be hung there. The exhibition at Tate Modern of seven Seagram paintings, next to their own nine, in 2008/ 2009, offered new possibilities to study the painting technique of the series. The layer build-up was comparable in all cases, but the materials used varied greatly per painting and even per paint layer. A second research question involved the intentionality of the whitish haze that unevenly covers one of the Seagram paintings, owned by the Tate (no 1165). This haze turned out to be a separate paint layer, from which a red pigment, the unstable dye lithol red, has faded and part of the binding medium, dammar, has become highly oxidized and degraded.

The presentation by Muriel Geldof (ICN) reported on the progress in the research on Vincent van Gogh and his contemporaries. This Shell sponsored project runs from 2005 to 2012 and looks into all types of influence that has affected the painting materials and techniques used by Vincent van Gogh and his direct contemporaries. This presentation looked forward to the 2-day symposium on the same subject, on 14th and 15th May 2009 in the Van Gogh Museum. For each of the three periods in Van Gogh’s artistic life, aspects of his paintings, for example the materials and build-up of his grounds, are compared to those of the artists that Van Gogh had direct contact with. In one instance, paint from the same batch of Chrome yellow, is found on works by Van Gogh and by Bernard, when they knew each other in Paris. The results of this project will be presented in 2012 in both a book and an exhibition.

The talk by Maarten van Bommel (ICN) gave a preliminary report on another project: the ICN project on early synthetic pigments, which had started in 2003. The aim of the project is to research synthetic, organic colorants – many of which have also been used for pigments – from the period 1856 to 1900. Although there must have been many hundreds of dyes known in that period, 65 dyes were chosen for this project, covering all dye classes. The overall aim of the project is a better insight into different aspects of the dyes: their history, their original appearance and the changes or degradation. Research into the degradation of the dyes is not only important for the original appearance of the dye, but also to predict future degradation, such as fading of colour.

Matthijs de Keijzer (ICN) gave two presentations concerning two parts of the early synthetic organic dyes-project, mentioned above. His first presentation was about yellow dyes. For this research De Keijzer combined historical research into – among others – patent literature with scientific analyses of case studies. There are three groups of yellow dyes researched: nitro dyes, azo dyes and miscellaneous dyes. One of the important historical sources in this research is the sample book “Tabellarische Üebersicht über die Kunstlichen organischer Farbstofffe” (1893) by Adolf Lehne. But case-studies are also important sources of information: yellow dyes were found in the so-called wool box owned by Vincent van Gogh and on the embroidery “Breton women” (1892) by Emile Bernard. Also the Wiener Werkstätte used a lot of yellow dyes and is an interesting area for research.

Another groups of early synthetic organic dyes are the Ponceaus. In his second presentation, Matthijs de Keijzer, gives several examples of the azo dyes that belong in the Ponceau family, which was named after the corn poppy. Historical research after 19th century synthetic dyes like the Ponceau family, often show an aggressive competition between mostly German and French chemists. Case studies demonstrate that also in Austria synthetic dyes were often used, for example in the different royal damasks for Schönbrun and the Hofburg or in the painting technique of the artists Helene Funke (1869 – 1957).

The lecture called ‘Comparing X-ray tomographic microscopy and virtual sectioning to ion polished paint cross sections of 19th century paints with and without metal soap aggregates’ was given by Jaap Boon (AMOLF/ Molart Centre). X-ray tomographic microscopy is one of the more new and exciting techniques to study paint samples. With the aid of computer imaging, it becomes possible to digitally travel through the paint sample at a high resolution. Of course this is a big advantage to the more traditional techniques of studying samples, were only one plane of the sample is visible. One of the aspects of a sample that can now be visualised is the particle distribution throughout the sample. As a case study Boon showed a sample from work by the American nineteenth century painter F. Church. His work often has problems with protrusions, caused by metal soap formation.

The next presentation was given by the Brussels private conservator Celine Talon. She talked about the technical examination of paintings from the Fine Art School of Indochina (FASI) and Vietnamese paintings from the years of war. Her talk was a heartfelt cry for attention for the care of this group of very interesting paintings, which has so far been very much neglected. The FASI painters had a very interesting painting technique. They mixed Asian traditions, such as lacquer work, with European painting techniques, brought there by the founder of FASI, the French painter Tardieu. These paintings are now spread over Vietnam and Western Europe. Conservation problems are present in both continents. Vietnam has little to no trained conservators. But European conservators also have problems with the unfamiliar painting techniques. The works of art that were made during and after the independence war and the war with America, are even more problematic in terms of conservation, because of the poor quality of the materials used. These are still mostly in Vietnam.

Klaas Jan van den Berg gave a talk called ’20th century oil paint media, issues in interpretation of analytical results’. The ICN project on 20th century water sensitive oil paints has been the subject of previous Picture Meetings. Klaas Jan wanted to take this opportunity to elucidate some of the points of discussion that were raised during past meetings. He discussed the different analytical methods – their advantages and disadvantages – to analyse the different components of the binding medium in oil paint, especially where present in small quantities. The fact that from the 19th century onwards lipidic compounds of mixed origin are used increasingly (mixed drying oils, dispersion agents, stabilisers), makes it difficult to establish the type of drying oil only on the basis of organic analysis. A second issue he raised, which has been a point of discussion in the past, is the question whether it can be determined, if oil has been heat-treated or not. Heat treatment is a form of pre-polymerisation of the oil, which is difficult to distinguish analytically from the drying and ageing of oil on a painting.

3rd year Courtauld student Hannah Tempest gave the last presentation of the day. It was about water sensitive oil paints, part of the ongoing ICN project with the same name. The research was a continuation of the research done by Courtauld students Laura Mills and Polly Saltmarsh (see previous Picture Meeting reports). Hannah presented two cases where the oil paint layers had turned out to be water sensitive: Rosy Fingered Dawn by Willem de Kooning (1963, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam) and Horizontal Stripe Painting by Patrick Heron (1957-58, Tate Modern, London). Of De Kooning it is known that he added his own materials to tube paint, thus increasing the risk of paint defects like water sensitivity. Of Heron, it is known however, that he used his paint straight from the tube. Unfortunately that doesn’t make his paints less problematic. Hannah also discussed testing results on the reconstructions that Polly Saltmarsh constructed earlier. The studies further confirmed the influence of additives such as metal stearates on the water sensitivity of the paints.
The amount of information in the 25 minutes talk was slightly high but Hannah´s study has shown promising results.

Verslag: Esther van Duijn

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