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Vignettes of interdisciplinary technical art history investigation

Supplemented by the FAIC Oral History Archive In honor of Roger H. Marijnissen
Joyce Hill Stoner

Abstracts

The Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation oral history archive, which began in 1975, contains almost 300 interviews with pioneer conservators, conservation scientists, and art historians.  Technical examination and technical art history, as exemplified by Roger H. Marijnissen’s publications, has undergone many changes since the 1950s; this article briefly surveys the field, focusing on the examination of easel paintings, with the aid of voices and personal observations from the interviews available in the international oral history archive of the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation.

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Introduction

1Roger H. Marijnissen’s many publications have illuminated works of art and examined their authenticity through technical studies, and he was interviewed for the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation Oral History Archive by Muriel Verbeeck 5 March 2009.   He noted in his 2009 interview with Muriel Verbeeck that in 1958 Paul Coremans became the founding director of the Brussels Institut royal du patrimoine artistique; he had admired Coremans, and Coremans offered him the unique opportunity to be the art historian in charge of the conservation department.  For more than fifty years, Professor Marijnissen has worked in the field of conservation, museology, authentication, and technical investigation; he wrote in 2009:

  • 1  MARIJNISSEN, Roger H., “Introduction” in The masters’ and the forgers’ secrets. X-ray authenticati (...)

Since the 1950s, I have been in a position which allowed me to follow closely a phenomenal revolution in studying works of art: the rise and development of their technical examination.  It was an exciting period and a great privilege to have been involved. . . . We have to listen to the artists: from the very moment they started painting their works, they took the floor, and they are still talking1.

2That field of technical examination has undergone many changes since the 1950s; this article will briefly survey the field, focusing on the examination of easel paintings, with the aid of voices and personal observations from the interviews available in the international oral history archive of the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation.

Background of the FAIC Oral History Archive

3As of early 2015, there were 295 interviews with pioneer conservators, conservation scientists, and allied art historians in the FAIC oral history archive.  In 1974 Rutherford John Gettens, one of America’s pioneer conservation scientists who worked at the original technical laboratory of the Fogg Art Museum, spoke at the American Institute for Conservation meetings in Cooperstown, New York: “To come to the point quickly, I think we should begin to think about collecting material for a history of the conservation of cultural property”.  He went on to remark: “Knowledge of the beginnings and growth of our profession is a necessary background for training programs in art conservation. . . .We wouldn’t really be a profession without a stepwise history of growth”.  Gettens emphasized the necessity of recording personal recollections, anecdotes, and informal doings that would tie together “serious events”.  After the meeting, he went to his summer home and began to make handwritten notes about his early experiences at the Fogg, but ten days later he died.

4To continue Gettens’s proposal, George L. Stout (1897-1978), W. Thomas Chase, and I met in March 1975 and discussed beginning an oral history project and establishing an archive to safeguard early records associated with the conservation profession.  George Stout emphasized that the project should be international.  Six months later, in September, the board of directors of the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation (FAIC) approved the project under my leadership, and in 1976 Winterthur Museum consented to informally house the oral histories and archives in the conservation department.  In 2004, the files were officially transferred to the Winterthur Archives for professional management.  Over the last 39 years, more than a hundred and twenty international conservators and students have assisted with conducting interviews on a volunteer basis, and for the last two decades the FAIC/AIC office in Washington, DC, has provided funds for transcriptions.  As the file of interviews has grown, collaboration for enhanced international collection is in progress with the International Institute for Conservation (IIC) and the Working Group on History and Theory of the International Council of Museums Committee for Conservation (ICOM-CC).

Technical art history

5Technical art history studies have benefited greatly from the evolution of sophisticated analytical instrumentation and examination tools, the digitization of many archives and primary sources, an explosion of related literature, working groups such as Art Technological Source Research (ATSR) which was established in 2005 within the International Council of Museums-Conservation Committee (ICOM-CC), and the increased specialization, research, and depth of knowledge of the professionals in our field, especially in collaboration with one another.  George L. Stout, who pioneered standardization of museum records describing the examination of paintings, coined the phrase the “three-legged stool”, highlighting the need for interdisciplinary collaboration among scientists, art historians, and conservators.  With the many new scientific tools and concomitant expertise required to run them, complex bibliographic avenues and recently updated translations of old manuscripts, mounds of data being collected in connection to major museum conservation department cataloguing initiatives involving in-depth analysis painting-by-painting, and interdisciplinary research carried out to truly understand old recipes within such projects as Historically Accurate Reconstruction Techniques (HART), we probably now have at least a “twelve-legged settee” for international collaboration.

Examination tools, analytical techniques, and the development of conservation science

  • 2  NADOLNY, Jilleen, “A history of early scientific examination and analysis of painting materials ca (...)
  • 3  FARIES, Molly, “Technical studies of Early Netherlandish Painting: a critical overview of recent d (...)

6Jilleen Nadolny has compiled a survey of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century studies of historical painting materials, authenticity studies, and analytical techniques.  She noted that in 1863, a chair in geology, physics, and applied chemistry was created at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris for Louis Pasteur; Pasteur conducted investigations into the yellowing of varnishes and taught students about paint media.  In London, Michael Faraday tested the effects of various solvents on lead white and oil paint samples.  Nadolny has traced authenticity studies of paintings back to 1822 in Italy2.  Another excellent survey on technical art history (focusing on Early Netherlandish painting) was published by Molly Faries in 20033

X-radiography

  • 4  VON SONNENBURG, Hubert,  “X Radiography”, in Rembrandt/ not Rembrandt, vol. 1, Metropolitan Museum (...)
  • 5  SPRONK, Ron, “Preface”, in The masters’ and the forgers’ secrets: x-ray authentication of painting (...)

7The German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered a new form of electromagnetic radiation and called it X-rays; in 1896 Röntgen made studies of paint samples, and in the next years, Töpler in Dresden and König in Frankfurt made “shadowgraphs” [x-radiograph images] of paintings; Alexander Faber, a radiologist in Weimar patented his x-ray method in 1914, which imposed restrictions on the use of x-radiography in other museums4, and there were also concerns about the effect of x-rays on the paintings themselves.  However, in 1925, Alan Burroughs of the Fogg Art Museum [Fig. 1] was able to begin x-ray examinations of paintings throughout many European museums (notably the Ghent Altarpiece, including the panel of the Just Judges, which was stolen from the church in 1934 and is still missing today)5.  Before his activities were curtailed by World War II, Burroughs had gathered

  • 6  BEWER, Francesca G., A laboratory for art: Harvard’s Fogg Museum and the emergence of conservation (...)

8around 4,100 shadowgraphs encompassing representative works by more than 650 artists—usually images of at least four paintings by significant artists, and even more if there were interesting questions about school relationships.6

  • 7  BEWER, F. G., personal e-mail to the author, 12 September 2014.

9Burroughs published Art Criticism from a Laboratory in 1938 in which he offered a methodological framework for studying x-radiographs using historical, aesthetic, and technical tools to characterize the development of an artist’s style and distinguish among the hands of various artists.  He also discussed the use of ultraviolet light, raking light, infrared photography, and “microscope photography” combined with art-historical research.  He included forgeries, copies and imitations, and artists at work.  The collection of cellulose nitrate x-radiographs was in declining condition, but Francesca Bewer of the Fogg now notes that the Burroughs archive has been digitized and the original images will soon be available online.7

Fig.1 Alan Burroughs

Fig.1 Alan Burroughs

Alan Burroughs, an early pioneer in the x-radiography of paintings.  

Credit: HUP Burroughs, Alan, (1), Harvard University Archives.

10In his oral history interview with me in 1996 (restricted access) Hubert von Sonnenburg (1928-2004) noted the great importance of the 1938 dissertation by Christian Wolters (1912-1998, Fig. 2) on the importance of x-radiographs in art-historical research.  In Rembrandt/ not Rembrandt, Sonnenburg wrote:

  • 8  SONNENBURG, “X Radiography”, in Rembrandt/ not Rembrandt, vol. 1, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New (...)

11Wolters focused on the subtle evolution of light in Early Netherlandish and German painting as recorded in X radiographs.  Regrettably this frequently cited but rarely read standard reference, based on X-ray material provided by [Kurt] Wehlte [in Germany] and [Johannes] Wilde [in Vienna], has never been translated into English8.

12Christian Wolters himself was interviewed by Michael von der Goltz in 1998, just a week before he died.  

13MG:  Once more back to your training: Was it not unusual in those days to study art history and restoring?

  • 9  WOLTERS, C. interview with VON DER GOLTZ, M., translated by KOTTENHAHN, Elizabeth, 6 January 1998. (...)

14CW:  Highly unusual, that is to say it never existed before.  I was the first art historian who dirtied his fingers as a restorer.  That is rather incorrect; Johannes Bell was naturally the first.  Later on, I also forced [Johannes] Taubert to study art history.  For me, it was the close, sensuous, yes, sheer erotic relationship which I have to painting and which was not satisfied by art history alone.  I had to go directly to the surface of the paint.  My doctoral dissertation had something to do with it: X-ray examination was a step closer into the matter of the picture, a further intensive sensuous experience9.

15Sonnenburg also told me that he thought it would be nearly impossible to truly translate Wolters’s dissertation into English as it is so poetic in its original German.  

Fig.2 Christian Wolters

Fig.2 Christian Wolters

Christian Wolters is the author of a landmark publication on x-radiography in 1938.

Credit: FAIC oral history file.

16A theme of sensual involvement in the close study of paintings appears occasionally in interviews; this is elegantly expressed by Ernst van de Wetering (interviewed by the author April 2003, who first studied art and music before moving on to art history and technical investigations of Rembrandt paintings):

  • 10  VAN DE WETERING, Ernst, Rembrandt: the painter at work, Amsterdam University Press, 1997, p. 271-2 (...)

17The tracks of Rembrandt’s hand, the visible brushstroke, always had a strong impact on viewers of his work. . . . Everybody knows that one experiences intense pleasure in observing spontaneity, whether in watching people engaged in sport, a skilled craftsman, or an artist at work, because we experience what we see not only with our eyes but with our whole body. . . . When we are looking at spontaneity or at its traces, we seem to enjoy the experience of the artist’s movements, and, as it were, to taste their spontaneity or freedom10.

  • 11  DE WILD, Louis, interview with STONER, Joyce Hill, 9 October 1977, FAIC Oral History File.

18Van de Wetering noted the importance of x-raying the entire painting; many technologists had been x-raying only parts of the paintings.  He also emphasized the importance of x-radiographs of Rembrandt paintings in the discussions during the historic 1969 conference marking the 300th anniversary of the artist’s death (a year after the founding of the Rembrandt Research Project).  [See Fig. 3] The Rembrandt Research Project serves as an excellent example of a pioneer formal collaborative technical art history investigation.  The 1969 photograph of the illustrious gathering of experts at the 1969 conference includes at least four conservators and a conservation scientist (Stolow) standing on the left side; all five were interviewed for the FAIC oral history archives [Fig. 3, from left to right: Louis de Wild (interviewed by the author in 1977), William Suhr (by the author in 1976),  Hubert von Sonnenburg (by the author in 1996), Nathan Stolow (by the author in 1976), and Alfred Jakstas (by Christine Leback Sitwell in 1977)].  De Wild proudly noted that believed himself to be the first restorer in the U.S. to have his own x-ray equipment that he “brought over in 1930” and then proceeded to “bombard himself unmercifully”11.

Fig. 3 Formal portrait of participants in the Rembrandt Research Project, 1969

Fig. 3 Formal portrait of participants in the Rembrandt Research Project, 1969

The five standing men on the left side are conservators or conservation scientists: Louis deWild, William Suhr, Hubert von Sonnenburg, Nathan Stolow, and Alfred Jakstas.  

Credit: FAIC oral history file.

19Van de Wetering wrote that radiography of Rembrandt paintings is especially useful to detect pentimenti, but continued:

  • 12  VAN DE WETERING, Ernst, Rembrandt: the painter at work, Amsterdam University Press, 1997, p. 36-41

20On closer examination, however, x rays have proven to provide important information about Rembrandt’s painting method. . . .A meticulous comparison of the outlines of the shapes left in reserve in the light background, as visible in the X ray, with the forms seen at the surface shows that the latter usually are somewhat broader than the contours of the reserves.  They must, therefore, have been painted at a later stage.  This phenomenon can be noted from close comparison of a great many radiographs with the corresponding paintings, and is seen not only in the foregrounds and backgrounds but in various intermediate planes of the compositions as well.  We may therefore assume that Rembrandt did in fact make a general rule of working up his dead-coloured compositions from the back of the scene to the front12.

  • 13  MARIJNISSEN, Roger H., “Reading an x-radiograph”, in The masters’ and the forgers’ secrets: x-ray (...)

21Professor Marijnissen published a 431-page book focused on x-raying paintings in 2009.  He noted in his author abstract for Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts that the book was conceived as an illustrated manual with limited text; the physical and technical data are discussed in their historical and art-historical contexts.  He emphasizes the acquisition of experience in studying genuine paintings for years; “after years of practice, the expert knows what kind of x-ray image may be expected” when looking at paintings by a particular artist.  He added that “creating false age crackle is also an instructive exercise for the intended expert in the field of old masters”13.  [One of the important early figures of the Brussels IRPA was Albert Philippot whose astounding expertise in imitating aged craquelure was mentioned by several interviewees.]

22Von der Goltz asked Wolters if the x-ray restrictions early in the twentieth century mentioned earlier hindered the writing of his dissertation.  Wolters responded:

  • 14  WOLTERS, Christian, with VON DER GOLTZ, Michael, 6 January 1998.  FAIC Oral History Archive.

23CW:  No, it did not hinder me.  The ban existed because of possible damage to the paintings.  Wehlte immediately argued massively against that.  He had made experiments with a multiple overdose which resulted in discoloration of white lead.  The overdose was, however, so enormous that the experiment after all was quite unrealistic.  I have had to mention in my dissertation at the end, that X-rays can be dangerous14.

24When neutron activation analysis was introduced in the 1960s, the same doubts were expressed, and once again, overdoses were applied to check for possible damage (please see below).

  • 15  MACBETH, Rhona, “The technical examination and documentation of easel paintings”, in Conservation (...)

25Ultraviolet radiation was discovered by another German, Johann Wilhelm Ritter, in 1801, and used in the examination of paintings by the 1920s15 especially to aid in the detection of fairly recently applied repainting or brush strokes in fluorescing varnishes.  James J. Rorimer (1905-1966), who later became the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, published a small book, Ultra-violet rays and their use in the examination of works of art, in 1931.  [It is difficult to imagine a twenty-first century museum director publishing a book about a technical method of examination.  Both Stout and Rorimer were recently “brought back to life” by American motion picture actors in the 2014 film The Monuments Men.]  

Infrared photography and reflectography

  • 16  MACBETH, Rhona, “The technical examination and documentation of easel paintings” in Conservation o (...)
  • 17  LYON, R. Arcadius, “Infra-red radiations aid examination of paintings”, in Technical Studies in th (...)

26Infrared radiation was discovered by German-born British astronomer and composer Sir William Herschel in 1800; the earliest infrared photographs were published in 1910, and by the 1930s infrared photography was established as a valuable painting examination practice16.  R. Arcadius Lyon at the Fogg Art Museum (who used a variant of cross-hatched tratteggio a decade before the Moras and taught conservation techniques to Sheldon Keck) published “Infra-red radiations aid examination of paintings” in Technical Studies in the Field of the Fine Arts in April, 1934.  Lyon published photographs comparing normal, ultra-violet, infrared, and macro-photographic approaches.   About the photograph taken with an infra-red sensitive plate he noted, “This exposure records the repainted areas to a great degree and also gives a much more readable negative with the detail quite clearly revealed and the lines of the folds in the Madonna’s mantle in full relief”. He also made a chart of paint-outs with gum Arabic, egg, glue, and oil and noted the penetration of the infra-red radiation through certain pigments and the transparency of gum Arabic.  Lyon provided a re-assuring note regarding the infra-red radiations: that “no harm will ensue from their use in photographing the most delicate times of paint films”17.

  • 18  FARIES, Molly, “Technical studies of Early Netherlandish painting”,p. 17.
  • 19  VAN ASPEREN DE BOER, J.R.J.  Infrared reflectography: A contribution to the examination of earlier (...)
  • 20  VAN ASPEREN DE BOER, J.R.J., Infrared reflectography, 1970, p. 79.

27In the 1960s, the Dutch physicist Johan Rudolph Justus van Asperen de Boer adapted an industrial infrared camera to study paintings; his 1970 dissertation on the theory and practice of this technology marks the beginning of a generation of sustained scholarship”.18 In 1970 his little green booklet with 91 pages and 20 plates called Infrared reflectography: A contribution to the examination of earlier European paintings was published by the Amsterdam Central Research Laboratory for Objects of Art and Science. Author Van Asperen de Boer, noted, “The scientific examination of paintings in art history is only slowly developing”19, and he also mentioned other techniques in use at that time: x-radiography, neutron-activation radiography, paint cross-sections, thin layer chromatography, gas liquid chromatography, infrared spectrophotometry, and IR and UV photography.  He noted the problems of penetration caused by azurite and “greenish parts” and identified an aim to “improve the detectability of underdrawings”; he did so with a modified Barnes Infrared Camera equipped with a room temperature lead sulphide detector20.  His system, which he named infrared reflectography or “IRR”, was capable of penetrating the blues and greens that had remained opaque in infrared photography, and entire underdrawings could now be studied.  In 1976, Molly Faries’s study appeared on Jan van Scorel’s workshop.  

Fig. 4 J. R. J. van Asperen de Boer and Molly Faries

Fig. 4 J. R. J. van Asperen de Boer and Molly Faries

J. R. J. van Asperen de Boer and Molly Faries working with infrared reflectography (1986).

Credit: Molly Faries.

28Van Asperen de Boer was interviewed by Molly Faries in 1999 [Fig. 4] (and Molly Faries was interviewed in turn by Cynthia K. Berry in 2012).   Van Asperen de Boer noted that for his thesis research, Arthur van Schendel and Professor Forbes (a history Professor at the University of Amsterdam)

29arranged for my coming to the Central Laboratory with the possibility of buying a very expensive piece of equipment, because I proposed the Barnes Infrared camera which, at the time, was already …well, a 100,000 guilders, which was then something like $30,000 or so.  But anyway, it was an expensive research thermograph.  I got my first infrared reflectography results, in May, 1965, I think it was.  

30While waiting for the equipment to arrive, he had gone to Rome and worked with the Moras, watched Laura Mora do tratteggio, and visited Johan Lodewijks and Jentina Leene among others. The Central laboratory was set up following what he called the

  • 21  VAN ASPEREN DE BOER, J.R.J., interview with FARIES, Molly, 22 June 1999, FAIC Oral History File

31“Coremans dictum” that one should try to have the different disciplines working together, that is to say, scientists and restorers and curators and art historians.  Coremans called that the “interpenetration des disciplines”, which is a very nice phrase21.

32Later in his 1999 interview, Van Asperen de Boer continued to emphasize the importance of multidisciplinary collaboration.  He was a physicist, but he had read books by Panofsky and Friedländer and noted that the Brussels Institute Bulletin followed the model of the Ghent Altarpiece research: “always multidisciplinary with art historians, curators, restorers, technical examination”.  He cited the subsequent “splendid examples” at the National Gallery, London, with its Technical Bulletin and the Art in the Making books.   Van Asperen de Boer also had further multidisciplinary adventures editing Studies in Conservation and chairing the ICOM-Committee for Conservation.  

33Molly Faries, in her 2012 interview beautifully describes the beginning of her art history-science collaboration:

  • 22  FARIES, Molly, interview with BERRY, Cynthia Kuniej, 23 September 2012, FAIC Oral History File.

34when I met Dolf, it was in a lab, south of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  He had on a white coat . . . he was a scientist, but he was very able; he knew a lot about art history.  I think he especially liked 15th century Netherlandish painting.  So he could talk to art historians, and he was very interested in that point in time in finding art historians who would be willing to take on subjects related to this new technique. . . . . He wanted to find people who would invest the time and would learn about the field.  His point of view was that art historians should be there during the examination.  That you shouldn’t simply sit at your desk and have the person who did all of the hard work come and say, “here are the documents”!  You work with them and analyze them . . . it’s a learning experience, and that’s what I think he understood: that you work through the process of seeing what infrared is revealing, and you evolve your interpretation; your interpretation evolves as you work through the examination22.

35Improvements in computer technology and IR detectors have led to more sensitive IRR systems, and the IRR illustrations can be digitized and no longer resemble tediously assembled gray-scale mosaic pavements.  By the mid-1990s, scientists and conservators began to exploit certain types of infrared semi-conductor sensors, a technology that was initially developed for thermal imaging devices used in the military. In the twenty-first century other detectors are used for their increased sensitivity and contain indium gallium arsenide (InGaAs/900-1700 nm), indium antimonide (InSb/1000-3000 nm), and cadium mercury telluride (MCT/1000-2500 nm)23.

  • 24  SAYRE, Edward V. “Revelation of internal structure of paintings through neutron activation autorad (...)
  • 25  AINSWORTH, Maryan W., BREALEY, John, HAVERKAMP-BEGEMAN, Egbert, and MEYERS, Pieter, Art and autora (...)

36Neutron activation autoradiography was first developed by Heather N. Lechtman and Edward V. Sayre in the 1960s at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center24 and was used in the 1970s and ‘80s to study paintings by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Vermeer in New York, and American paintings by Ralph Blakelock, A. P. Ryder, and Thomas W. Dewing in Washington, DC.  The interdisciplinary team in New York consisted of Maryan Wynn Ainsworth and Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann (art historians), John Brealey (paintings conservator), and Pieter Meyers (physical scientist).  The paintings were exposed to a beam of thermal neutrons for a short period of time, and a series of nine exposed films produced over the ensuing six weeks or so showed the distribution of pigments and other painting materials as they de-radioactivated and thereby took their own radiographs, thus: “auto” – “radiography”.  As promised by the title of the 1982 report from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Insights into the genesis” of the paintings were produced including a hidden self-portrait by Van Dyck and Rembrandt’s many variants on the profiles of hats chosen for portraits25.  

37Pieter Meyers, interviewed by Kristin de Ghetaldi in 2006, noted that when he first met John Brealey, he was told,

38“Pieter, it’s very nice to meet you.  But I have to be fair.  I have to tell you that I’ve never met a chemist that could do anything useful for me”.  I swallowed a couple of times, and I said, “Well, John that’s fine, but we’ll see” . . . . I took him to Brookhaven, where we were at that time doing this autoradiography program on Albert Pinkham Ryder and on Blakelock, and we showed him what we could do with it, and he showed a little bit of interest, but most of the time he looked completely bored. . . . A couple of months later, he called me and said, “Pieter I’m working on a painting and I cannot figure out what’s happening, the x-rays don’t tell me everything I need to know.  I know there is an underpainting, we don’t know what it is, and there are many important questions about this particular painting. . . .We could maybe use that technique that you were working on at Brookhaven”.  

  • 26  MEYERS, Pieter, interview with DE GHETALDI, Kristin, 11 August 2006, FAIC Oral History File.

39Well, to make a long story short, he couldn’t have chosen a painting that would be a better example to show the strength of this particular neutron activation autoradiography technique.  The underpainting that was on there, the painting that was overpainted, which was they thought was an old man, turned out to be a self-portrait of Van Dyck when he was about 19 years old.  It showed up very clearly26.  

40Maryan Ainsworth, interviewed by Rebecca Rushfield in 2007, was a doctoral student at Yale when she began assisting with the autoradiography project in New York.  She noted:

  • 27  AINSWORTH, Maryan, W., interview with RUSHFIELD, Rebecca, 29 November 2007, FAIC Oral History File

41And pretty soon, I found myself on the Long Island train going out to Brookhaven Laboratory. And learning how to change x-ray films in solutions. And develop them. And even putting on a lead-lined vest and going to the reactor with a painting. So that wasn’t anything I had ever learned about in PhD courses at Yale27.

42To take the series of autoradiographs, the paintings had to be away from their museums for almost two months, and reactor facilities moved on to focus on other projects; this technique has not been readily available for research in the twenty-first century.

Microscopy

  • 28  NADOLNY, Jilleen, “A history of early scientific examination and analysis of painting materials ca (...)
  • 29  EASTAUGH, Nicholas and WALSH, Valentine, “Optical Microscopy”, in Conservation of Easel Paintings,(...)
  • 30  GETTENS, R. J., “An equipment for the microchemical examination of pictures and other works of art (...)

43Nadolny notes a citation of the use of a microscope in connection to the analysis of painting materials in 1834, traces line drawings of layer structures in cross-sections of paintings back to the mid-nineteenth century, and cites photographs of paint cross-sections published in 1910 in Technische Mitteilungen für Malerei28.  Nicholas Eastaugh and Valentine Walsh continue the historical narrative on microscopy of art materials quoting A. P. Laurie recommending use of a microscope to distinguish retouching or forgeries in 1927 and provide additional examples up to and including Roger H. Marijnissen’s use of macrophotography to illustrate his points on modern methods of examining paintings in his book of 198529.  In 1934, Rutherford John Gettens published “An equipment for the microchemical examination of pictures and other works of art” in Technical Studies in 1934.  Gettens described a worktable, noting the top of the desk should be “painted with a black enamel”, a comfortable chair, lamps, toggle switches, a photomicrographic camera, small tools, glass rods, slides of known pigments “permanently mounted” with Canada balsam, a wide variety of chemical reagents, a small table microtome, and a laboratory-made electrical hot stage30.  

  • 31  RUHEMANN, Helmut, “Criteria for Distinguishing Additions from Original Paint”, Studies in Conserva (...)

44In his 1958 article on distinguishing later paint, Helmut Ruhemann noted the use of a low-power binocular microscope to examine cracks and also noted that “microchemical analysis is undoubtedly the method with the widest application.  Any pigment may be readily identified”31.  Joyce Plesters had already been working with Ruhemann for some years at that point and commented in her history interview with Christine Leback Sitwell in 1978 [Plesters was his studio assistant at first]:

45He always liked a kind of amanuensis who would sit beside him and pick up the brushes and little tissue scraps. But he used to think aloud, and he would describe the layer structure of the painting and what he thought the paint would be like and or if he saw under modeling or underdrawing. And it did make one look at the pictures very, very carefully. And he also did regularly use a binocular magnifier or binocular microscope. And it was very good training indeed. I have never looked at pictures, the condition of pictures with the same awe as I did when I was working with him. And all his pupils had to do this.

  • 32  PLESTERS, Joyce, “Cross-sections and chemical analysis of paint samples” in Studies in Conservatio (...)

46After this introduction, Joyce Plesters went on to write one of the most referenced articles in the conservation literature: “Cross-sections and chemical analysis of paint samples” in Studies in Conservation in 195632.  However, she noted to Sitwell in 1978:

  • 33  PLESTERS. Joyce, interview with SITWELL, Christine Leback, 2 July 1978, FAIC Oral History File.

47The only microscope I had then was an 1895 Leitz one which had belonged to [Tony] Werner’s father. And by some trick he managed to sell it to the National Gallery for twenty pounds. And I’ve still got it. And Leitz almost wanted it for their museum. It has superb lenses. Really lovely and I still use some of them. And when I did photography, I and the photographer had to balance an old Leitz camera on top of the microscope and just guess what the exposure would be. And for the article I wrote—for Studies in Conservation -- the work was done entirely on that microscope in those conditions. And by then I had a kind of cupboard under the stairs that was used for microscopy, and then I made a nice collection of pigments and that sort of thing. I had managed to get quite a range of samples from different pictures being restored. Usually I did make a case for taking samples-- when they restored. I can still make a case for taking samples chosen straight from the canvas. Well, I managed to get enough material together to write that article33.

The establishment of major conservation science laboratories

  • 34  GILBERG, Mark, and VIVIAN, Dan, “The rise of conservation science in archaeology (1830-1930)”, in (...)
  • 35  PLENDERLEITH, Harold J., “A history of conservation”, Studies in Conservation, 42, 1998, p. 129-14 (...)

48The first museum to establish scientific facilities was the Royal Museums of Berlin, and in 1888 Friedrich Rathgen became chemist in charge; he held this position for the next 40 years34.  The focus was largely preservation of antiquities. In 1920, just after World War I, the British Museum Research Laboratory was established under the direction of Alexander Scott as a “direct response to the poor state of the museum’s collections”35. Harold Plenderleith [in Fig. 5] was appointed to the laboratory in December 1924 by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.  He noted in his 1998 article that the Treasury had insisted that the museum laboratory should be “Purely a temporary experiment to come to an end in three years”; however, at the end of that time it was given a further least of life.  The grant to cover equipment, chemicals, and everything else was £100 per annum, “a crippling feature that nearly killed the project at birth”.  Plenderleith continued:

  • 36  PLENDERLEITH, Harold, “A history of conservation”, Studies in Conservation, 42, 1998, p. 129-143

49I cannot resist recalling the conditions in the house at 39 Russell Square that was allotted to the Museum for laboratory purposes. Two families of firemen lived on the third and second floors-to say nothing of the cat, whilst on the first floor two capacious rooms had been set apart as reception areas for objects returning from the 'Tube' [the London underground railway system] for treatment. . . . Around the walls of each room a continuous bench system had been arranged, very narrow, provided with plenty of sinks, water, and gas, all very useful, but with inaccessible drains, no fume extraction cupboard, and most of the electric lights in the wrong places. It all had to be changed and remodeled and the tables cut down to a reasonable size. On the ground floor was the chemical laboratory, equipped with many pots and pans and an assortment of dishes, and with a fume-cupboard that seemed to have jammed and could not be persuaded under any circumstances to operate36.  

50He noted, however, that shortly:

51The laboratory soon operated, in fact, as a scientific presence that came to be regarded by the Museum as of such value that, after further applications to the Treasury for its continued existence, it was at last incorporated as a fully- fledged Department of the Museum in 1931, under the title of the Research Laboratory.

  • 37  PLENDERLEITH, Harold, interviewed by SITWELL, Christine Leback, 17-18 March 1978, FAIC Oral Histor (...)

52[Agatha Christie, the famous author of British mystery novels, was actually among the volunteers who came to help, according to Plenderleith’s article.]  In his 1978 FAIC oral history interview, Plenderleith told Christine Leback Sitwell that he helped advise on the establishment of the National Gallery, London, laboratory in 1934 under Ian Rawlins and the Courtauld Institute during the time they appointed Daniel V. Thompson.  Plenderleith also praised the work of Stephen Rees Jones at the Courtauld and W.G. Constable, the Director37.

Fig.5 Giorgio Torraca, Paul Philippot, Vic Hanson and Harold Plenderleith

Fig.5 Giorgio Torraca, Paul Philippot, Vic Hanson and Harold Plenderleith

Vic Hanson, conservation scientist at Winterthur Museum, demonstrating an early X-ray fluorescence unit, in 1969.

Credit: Winterthur Museum Archives.

  • 38  ICOM, Manual on the conservation of paintings, 1940 International Institute of Intellectual Cooper (...)

53Beginning in 1933, twelve art historians, chemists, and conservators served as a “committee of experts” to compile the Manual on the Conservation of Paintings following the 1930 International Conference for the Study of Scientific Methods for the Examination and Preservation of Works for Art.  The manual, published in French in 1939 and English in 1940, listed the following “special methods of examination applied to pictures”: x-rays, ultra-violet rays, infra-red rays, microscopy and microchemical examination, refractive index determination, colorimetry to study “pigments and colour mixtures”, x-ray crystal structure analysis (“photographing the characteristic pattern of the rays resulting from diffraction by crystals in the paint film”—even without taking a sample, the manual suggests), and spectrographic examination of a sample of a few milligrams containing metallic constituents, to form a “pattern of lines on a photographic plate”.  The compilers noted that methods of absorption spectrography might be useful in the future to study binding media, organic pigments, and natural dyestuffs38.  

  • 39  TOWNSEND, Joyce, and BOON, Jaap, “Research and instrumental analysis in the materials of easel pai (...)

54An informal scan of early articles on analysis of materials of art and artifacts abstracted for publication in Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts revealed x-ray diffraction and x-ray fluorescence used on pottery by at least 1949, spectrography of archaeological iron in 1950, IR absorption of Turner’s painting materials in 1953, and Fourier-Transform infrared analysis of painting materials by 1979.  As Townsend and Boon note, “early papers dealt with pigments and media as separate entities that would not influence one another39.  Later, classic texts on the chemistry of paint media were published, such as Mills and White’s The Organic Chemistry of Museum Objects (1987).   However, when Raymond White first encountered what was to become the conservation science department at the National Gallery, London, he noted:

  • 40  WHITE, Raymond with MORRISON, Rachel, 1 December 2009, FAIC oral history file.

55when I got to the chemistry laboratory I was just simply appalled because there was a gas chromatograph, quite a primitive gas chromatograph, dating from the early ‘60s and so forth. But the hydrogen lines would have just been glued, and every inch of the bench was just littered with old experiments and so forth. It was unbelievable; I went into a state of shock. I thought, “My God! It would take me five years to get some order into this”40.

56Townsend and Boon continue:

  • 41 TOWNSEND, Joyce, and BOON, Jaap,  p. 341-342 and CAPITELLI, F. and JONES, H. “Defining conservation (...)

57In-house analytical facilities became the norm for major national collections in both Europe and the USA from the 1970s, a period of high investment.  The term “conservation scientist” came into use at this time in English-speaking countries to describe a museum-based scientist with specialist knowledge of artists’ and historic materials, and their use.  By the close of the twentieth century, instrumental developments had completely outstripped museum budgets, and collaborations with universities and national research institutes came back into vogue in order to enable use of state-of-the-art instrumentation41.

Epilogue

58In 1950, the International Institute for Conservation was founded, and its first triennial (later biennial) meeting was held in London on the topic of Museum Climatology.  [See Fig. 6.] About the early years of IIC, Plenderleith told  Christine Leback Sitwell:

  • 42  PLENDERLEITH, Harold, interview with SITWELL, Christine Leback,17-18 March 1978, FAIC Oral History (...)

59We never envisioned more than 50 fellows because there weren’t 50 fellows in existence who shared our ideas or were adequately experienced in scientific conservation throughout the years; it had to come gradually42.

Fig.6 Participants in the first IIC international congress

Fig.6 Participants in the first IIC international congress

First IIC international congress, on Museum Climatology, in front of the Royal Albert Hall, London, 1967.  

Courtesy IIC.

60From the early IIC Fellows to the conservators, art historians, and scientists working together today, many of the stories in the FAIC oral history file have been about successful interdisciplinary collaborations.  I will end with a description of the collaboration of art historian Paul Philippot and the Moras [Fig. 7] to write the book The Conservation of Mural Paintings in two different interviews, all three called their cooperative effort a form of marriage or a multi-disciplinary, multi-lingual “three-way love triangle”, and scientist Giorgio Torraca [in Fig. 5] was their honorary “brother” in explaining concepts of chemistry.  Paul Philippot [in Fig. 5] noted that Paolo Mora experimented and worked with the practical problems while Laura provided the “sensitive approach to the surface of the color of the object”, but added that in the end it was impossible to know who had written which sentence:

  • 43  PHILIPPOT, Paul, interview with STONER, Joyce Hill, 16 July 1997, and MORA, Paolo and MORA, Laura, (...)

61After a few years, when we had gathered the material and an experience of lecturing in English and in French, we got more or less fed up with repeating ourselves for new students, and we thought that if we put it in writing once, forever, that we would be freed of the lectures and the conferences and so on and so on, but that was not the case, of course.  Anyway, it was one of the reasons to write the book.  And then writing the book, when you pass from teaching orally to writing, you deepen into the subject, of course.  It becomes a lot of work, in fact, it grows bigger and bigger, so that we used to meet practically every weekend in their home and discuss-- partly discuss, partly drinking wine. Partly you were eating, reading Vitruvius, and so on.  And then, according to the kind of subject, we divided the first approach in the technical and practical parts, started with an abbozzo, a first draft by Paolo or Laura or both.  The more historical or theoretical/aesthetical approaches I wrote directly myself in French.  They wrote in Italian and I in French43.

62Let us hope that our successors will be privileged to continue such warm, multi-lingual, multi-disciplinary collaborations.

Fig.7 Paolo and Laura Mora

Fig.7 Paolo and Laura Mora

Paolo and Laura Mora demonstrating tratteggio at the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1985.

Photograph by Joyce Hill Stoner.  

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Notes

1  MARIJNISSEN, Roger H., “Introduction” in The masters’ and the forgers’ secrets. X-ray authentication of paintings, Mercatorfonds, 2009, p. 1.

2  NADOLNY, Jilleen, “A history of early scientific examination and analysis of painting materials ca. 1780 to the mid-twentieth century”, in Conservation of Easel Paintings, ed. STONER, Joyce Hill, and RUSHFIELD, Rebecca, 2012, p. 336-340.  

3  FARIES, Molly, “Technical studies of Early Netherlandish Painting: a critical overview of recent developments”, in Recent developments in the technical examination of Early Netherlandish painting: methodology, limitations and perspectives, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA, in collaboration with Brepols Publishers, Turnhout, Belgium, 2003, p. 1-37.

4  VON SONNENBURG, Hubert,  “X Radiography”, in Rembrandt/ not Rembrandt, vol. 1, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, vol. one, 1995, p. 12, and BURROUGHS, Alan, Art Criticism from a Laboratory, Boston, Little, Brown and Company 1938, p. vii-viii.

5  SPRONK, Ron, “Preface”, in The masters’ and the forgers’ secrets: x-ray authentication of paintings from Early Netherlandish till modern by R. H. MARIJNISSEN, Mercatorfonds, 2009. [no page number]

6  BEWER, Francesca G., A laboratory for art: Harvard’s Fogg Museum and the emergence of conservation in America, 1900-1950. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2010, p. 201.

7  BEWER, F. G., personal e-mail to the author, 12 September 2014.

8  SONNENBURG, “X Radiography”, in Rembrandt/ not Rembrandt, vol. 1, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, vol. one, 1995, p. 12.

9  WOLTERS, C. interview with VON DER GOLTZ, M., translated by KOTTENHAHN, Elizabeth, 6 January 1998.  FAIC Oral History Archive housed at the Winterthur Museum, Library, and Archives.

10  VAN DE WETERING, Ernst, Rembrandt: the painter at work, Amsterdam University Press, 1997, p. 271-273.

11  DE WILD, Louis, interview with STONER, Joyce Hill, 9 October 1977, FAIC Oral History File.

12  VAN DE WETERING, Ernst, Rembrandt: the painter at work, Amsterdam University Press, 1997, p. 36-41.

13  MARIJNISSEN, Roger H., “Reading an x-radiograph”, in The masters’ and the forgers’ secrets: x-ray authentication of paintings from Early Netherlandish till modern, Mercatorfonds, 2009, p. 4.

14  WOLTERS, Christian, with VON DER GOLTZ, Michael, 6 January 1998.  FAIC Oral History Archive.

15  MACBETH, Rhona, “The technical examination and documentation of easel paintings”, in Conservation of Easel Paintings, ed. STONER, Joyce Hill and RUSHFIELD, Rebecca, 2012, p. 294.  

16  MACBETH, Rhona, “The technical examination and documentation of easel paintings” in Conservation of Easel Paintings, p. 296.  

17  LYON, R. Arcadius, “Infra-red radiations aid examination of paintings”, in Technical Studies in the Field of the Fine Arts, vol. II no. 4, April, 1934, p. 203-212.

18  FARIES, Molly, “Technical studies of Early Netherlandish painting”,p. 17.

19  VAN ASPEREN DE BOER, J.R.J.  Infrared reflectography: A contribution to the examination of earlier European paintings was published by the Amsterdam Central Research Laboratory for Objects of Art and Science, 1970, p. 11.

20  VAN ASPEREN DE BOER, J.R.J., Infrared reflectography, 1970, p. 79.

21  VAN ASPEREN DE BOER, J.R.J., interview with FARIES, Molly, 22 June 1999, FAIC Oral History File

22  FARIES, Molly, interview with BERRY, Cynthia Kuniej, 23 September 2012, FAIC Oral History File.

23  KRESS-University of Delaware website, “Examination methods”, http://www.artcons.udel.edu/about/kress

24  SAYRE, Edward V. “Revelation of internal structure of paintings through neutron activation autoradiography”, 1966 Proceedings First International Conference on Forensic Activation Analysis (San Diego, Calif.), p. 119-132; SAYRE, Edward V. and LECHTMAN, Heather N. “Neutron activation autoradiography of oil paintings”, Studies in Conservation, 13, (1968), p. 161-185.

25  AINSWORTH, Maryan W., BREALEY, John, HAVERKAMP-BEGEMAN, Egbert, and MEYERS, Pieter, Art and autoradiography: Insights into the genesis of paintings by Rembrandt, Van Duck, and Vermeer.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, 1982.

26  MEYERS, Pieter, interview with DE GHETALDI, Kristin, 11 August 2006, FAIC Oral History File.

27  AINSWORTH, Maryan, W., interview with RUSHFIELD, Rebecca, 29 November 2007, FAIC Oral History File

28  NADOLNY, Jilleen, “A history of early scientific examination and analysis of painting materials ca. 1780 to the mid-twentieth century”, in Conservation of Easel Paintings, 2012, p. 339

29  EASTAUGH, Nicholas and WALSH, Valentine, “Optical Microscopy”, in Conservation of Easel Paintings, 2012, p. 307.

30  GETTENS, R. J., “An equipment for the microchemical examination of pictures and other works of art” in Technical Studies Vol. II, no. 4, April 1934, p. 185-202.

31  RUHEMANN, Helmut, “Criteria for Distinguishing Additions from Original Paint”, Studies in Conservation, Vol. 3, no. 4 (Oct., 1958), pp. 145-161.

32  PLESTERS, Joyce, “Cross-sections and chemical analysis of paint samples” in Studies in Conservation 2, no. 3 (1956), p. 110-157.  

33  PLESTERS. Joyce, interview with SITWELL, Christine Leback, 2 July 1978, FAIC Oral History File.

34  GILBERG, Mark, and VIVIAN, Dan, “The rise of conservation science in archaeology (1830-1930)”, in Past practice – future prospects, The British Museum Occasional Paper No. 145, ed. ODDY, Andrew, and SMITH, Sandra, 2001, p. 91.

35  PLENDERLEITH, Harold J., “A history of conservation”, Studies in Conservation, 42, 1998, p. 129-143.

36  PLENDERLEITH, Harold, “A history of conservation”, Studies in Conservation, 42, 1998, p. 129-143

37  PLENDERLEITH, Harold, interviewed by SITWELL, Christine Leback, 17-18 March 1978, FAIC Oral History File.

38  ICOM, Manual on the conservation of paintings, 1940 International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation; reprinted by Archetype Publications, London, 1997, p. 40-55.

39  TOWNSEND, Joyce, and BOON, Jaap, “Research and instrumental analysis in the materials of easel paintings”, in Conservation of Easel Paintings, 2012, p. 341.

40  WHITE, Raymond with MORRISON, Rachel, 1 December 2009, FAIC oral history file.

41 TOWNSEND, Joyce, and BOON, Jaap,  p. 341-342 and CAPITELLI, F. and JONES, H. “Defining conservation science: training and the profession”, V&A Conservation Journal, 2000, p. 36.

42  PLENDERLEITH, Harold, interview with SITWELL, Christine Leback,17-18 March 1978, FAIC Oral History File.

43  PHILIPPOT, Paul, interview with STONER, Joyce Hill, 16 July 1997, and MORA, Paolo and MORA, Laura, interview with  STONER, J. H., 16 January 1998, FAIC Oral History File.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig.1 Alan Burroughs
Caption Alan Burroughs, an early pioneer in the x-radiography of paintings.  
Credits Credit: HUP Burroughs, Alan, (1), Harvard University Archives.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4508/img-1.png
File image/png, 372k
Title Fig.2 Christian Wolters
Caption Christian Wolters is the author of a landmark publication on x-radiography in 1938.
Credits Credit: FAIC oral history file.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4508/img-2.png
File image/png, 328k
Title Fig. 3 Formal portrait of participants in the Rembrandt Research Project, 1969
Caption The five standing men on the left side are conservators or conservation scientists: Louis deWild, William Suhr, Hubert von Sonnenburg, Nathan Stolow, and Alfred Jakstas.  
Credits Credit: FAIC oral history file.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4508/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 40k
Title Fig. 4 J. R. J. van Asperen de Boer and Molly Faries
Caption J. R. J. van Asperen de Boer and Molly Faries working with infrared reflectography (1986).
Credits Credit: Molly Faries.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4508/img-4.png
File image/png, 345k
Title Fig.5 Giorgio Torraca, Paul Philippot, Vic Hanson and Harold Plenderleith
Caption Vic Hanson, conservation scientist at Winterthur Museum, demonstrating an early X-ray fluorescence unit, in 1969.
Credits Credit: Winterthur Museum Archives.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4508/img-5.png
File image/png, 801k
Title Fig.6 Participants in the first IIC international congress
Caption First IIC international congress, on Museum Climatology, in front of the Royal Albert Hall, London, 1967.  
Credits Courtesy IIC.
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4508/img-6.png
File image/png, 744k
Title Fig.7 Paolo and Laura Mora
Caption Paolo and Laura Mora demonstrating tratteggio at the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1985.
Credits Photograph by Joyce Hill Stoner.  
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4508/img-7.png
File image/png, 274k
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References

Electronic reference

Joyce Hill Stoner, « Vignettes of interdisciplinary technical art history investigation  », CeROArt [Online], HS | Juin 2015, Online since 10 April 2015, connection on 20 October 2017. URL : http://ceroart.revues.org/4508

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About the author

Joyce Hill Stoner

Joyce Hill Stoner has taught for the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation for 38 years and served as its director for 15 years (1982-1997). She earned her diploma in conservation at the NYU Conservation Center (1973) and a Ph.D. in Art History in 1995.  Stoner has treated paintings for many museums and private collectors.  She has authored more than 85 book chapters and articles.  She founded the international oral history project for the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation and has coordinated it since 1975.  Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Material Culture Studies - Professor and Paintings Conservator, Winterthur/UD Program in Art Conservation and Art Conservation Department, University of Delaware - Director, Preservation Studies Doctoral Program, UD

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
CeROArt – Conservation, exposition, restauration d'objets d'arts est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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