JAIC 2002, Volume 41, Number 1, Article 3 (pp. 21 to 42)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 2002, Volume 41, Number 1, Article 3 (pp. 21 to 42)



ABSTRACT—Many American painters of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s were fascinated by historic painting techniques and by the supposedly lost “secrets” of the Old Masters. Among the most important influences on American artists at that time were Max Doerner's book The Materials of the Artist and the theories and recipes of Jacques Maroger. John Steuart Curry and Reginald Marsh stand out among the artists who absorbed lessons from Doerner and Maroger in that they left behind a large body of material that documents their use of these methods. By studying notebooks, recipes, and letters, as well as test canvases and actual paintings, the authors have been able to establish detailed technical chronologies for Curry and Marsh. The research also provides insights into how these kinds of experimental methods have affected the state of preservation of paintings, not only by Curry and Marsh but by other painters whose techniques are less well documented.

TITRE—L'influence des recettes des grands maîtres dans les années vingt, trente et quarante: Curry, Marsh, Doerner et Maroger. RÉSUMÉ—Beaucoup de peintres américains des années vingt, trente et quarante étaient fascinés par les techniques picturales historiques et les soit-disant ‘secrets perdus' des grands maîtres des siècles passés. Parmi les sources qui ont le plus influencé ces peintres du vingtième siècle, se trouve l'ouvrage de Max Doerner intitulé The Materials of the Artist (Les matériaux de l'artiste) et les théories et les recettes de Jacques Maroger. John Steuart Curry et Reginald Marsh font figures à part parmi les artistes qui ont étudié Doerner et Maroger, car ils ont laissé une vaste documentation traitant de leur utilisation des méthodes décrites par ces auteurs. En étudiant les carnets de notes, les recettes et les lettres de Curry et de Marsh, ainsi qu'en analysant certaines de leurs toiles et peintures, les auteurs de cet article ont réussi à établir une chronologie détaillée des techniques de ces deux peintres. Cette recherche apporte aussi des renseignements qui aident à déterminer l'influence de ces méthodes expérimentales sur l'état de conservation des peintures de l'époque, non seulement sur celles de Curry et de Marsh, mais aussi sur celles d'autres peintres de la même époque qui n'ont pas aussi bien documenté leurs techniques.

TITULO—Recetas de los antiguos maestros en los años 1920, 1930 y 1940: Curry, Marsh, Doerner y Maroger. RESUMEN—Muchos pintores americanos de los años 20, 30 y 40 se fascinaron con las técnicas de la pintura histórica y por los “secretos” supuestamente perdidos de los antiguos maestros. Una de las influencias más importantes en los artistas americanos de esa época fue el libro Los materiales del artista, de Max Doerner. Las teorías y recetas de Jacques Maroger. John Steuart Curry y Reginald Marsh sobresalen entre los artistas que absorbieron lecciones de Doerner y Maroger por haber dejado como legado un gran volumen de material que documenta su uso de esos métodos. Al estudiar cuadernos, recetas y cartas, tanto como al hacer pruebas con lienzos y con los cuadros mismos, los autores han podido establecer cronologías técnicas detalladas para Curry y para Marsh. La investigación proporciona también una idea de cómo esa clase de métodos experimentales han afectado el estado de preservación de los cuadros, no solo de Curry y Marsh sino de otros pintores cuyas técnicas no han sido tan bien documentadas.


The period between the two world wars was a critical time for American painters, many of whom attempted to absorb lessons from Europe while at the same time making art that was distinctively American. One aspect of this struggle, which is of particular interest to conservators, was a resurgence of interest in the “secrets” of European Old Masters. This development led to a revival of tempera painting and experiments with “mixed” techniques that often combined underlayers of egg-oil emulsions with resinous glazes. The revival of historic painting techniques in America was greatly influenced by the theories and writings of European experts, especially Max Doerner (1870–1939) and Jacques Maroger (1884–1962). An important motive for many American painters at this time was concern for the permanence of their paintings. Many artists hoped to find increased permanence by studying the techniques of previous centuries, but this objective also led them into dialogues with manufacturers of artist's materials, and in some cases led them to carry out experiments with new, modern materials in addition to the allegedly rediscovered secrets of the past.

John Steuart Curry (1897–1946) and Reginald Marsh (1898–1954) epitomize these trends. Curry and Marsh each left behind enormous amounts of material that amplify our understanding of the techniques of the period, including notebooks describing their experiments using recipes from Doerner and Maroger and detailed descriptions of the methods used to construct individual paintings. Curry and Marsh exchanged letters in which they discussed technical issues in great detail, they corresponded with color manufacturers and other painters, and Curry made sample canvases to test the aging of various paints and media. Two other important sources of information were Kathleen Curry and William McCloy. Kathleen Curry (1899–2001), John Steuart Curry's widow, preserved and made her husband's papers available to scholars and gave the authors the opportunity to examine and treat a number of Curry's paintings that had never before been treated by conservators. The authors also interviewed William McCloy (1913–2000), a painter with a strong interest in technical matters in his own right, who was Curry's studio assistant during the 1940s. McCloy participated in many of Curry's technical experiments at that time and acted as secretary in the extensive technical correspondence between Curry and Marsh, which will be discussed in more detail below.

These sources have allowed the authors to construct unusually detailed technical histories for both Curry and Marsh and to study how various materials and techniques have affected the preservation and appearance of paintings today. This information not only should be of interest to conservators treating works by these two artists but also can provide insights into materials and methods used by many other painters during these important decades when so many different ideas were flourishing.



Curry's earliest paintings appear to have been done with a straightforward oil technique. Curry kept a notebook in which he documented the materials used in many of his paintings, and the earliest paintings are described in the notebook simply as “oil.” We were able to examine Kansas Pastures (1930, private collection), which is so described in the notebook (Curry 1932–38, 12), and saw that it indeed has the appearance and solubilities of a pure oil painting. (In this and other cases, we carried out small solvent tests, primarily to detect resinous additives; ready solubility in solvents such as acetone was taken to indicate the addition of a significant amount of resin to the paint.) Some parts of Kansas Pastures are quite glossy, as if a considerable amount of drying oil had been mixed into the paint in those areas, but when the painting was studied in 1997, it was found to be very well preserved, with little traction crackle or mechanical crackle and no flake losses. Curry had, however, noted technical problems with some of his early paintings, such as the 1921 Deer in Rocquette Lake (location unknown), described in his notebook as “oil.” He wrote of this painting: “Underpainting had begun to show through at time of sale 1930” (Curry 1932–38, 3). And of the 1929 Prayer for Grace (Jean Chapman Born; also described as “oil”), he recorded in his notebook:“This picture has begun to darken and crack. Painted on a grey ground which never seemed properly cured” (Curry 1932–38, 12). The problems that Curry noticed on paintings like these may have resulted, in part, from the tendency of oil paint to become more transparent over time (which could reveal a dark underlayer more clearly) or the fact that oil paint itself can become darker, especially if the percentage of medium is high (as it was in Kansas Pastures).

The development of such flaws may have contributed to Curry's dissatisfaction with his technique and his search for more stable materials. Curry had read Martin Fischer's The Permanent Palette (1930) shortly after its publication, and he wrote to Fischer asking for more detailed information about some materials described in the book. Fischer's response, dated May 8, 1931, included advice on how to obtain materials, including Valspar spar varnish, “Flugina” (a German boiled linseed oil), and Dutch stand oil, all of which were recommended in The Permanent Palette in place of spirit varnishes (Fischer 1931). The correspondence between Curry and Fischer marks the beginning of two themes that will continue throughout Curry's career: the artist's interest in obtaining detailed technical information and the varying quality of the information that he received. Coating paintings with oil or oil-resin varnishes, as Fischer recommended, could have put them at risk of irreversible discoloration.


John Steuart Curry's The Line Storm (1934, Babcock Galleries) was considered one of the artist's most important paintings during his lifetime (fig. 1). For many years, the painting was thought to have been lost, and when The Line Storm was rediscovered several years ago, it was brought to the authors for conservation treatment. According to Curry's biographer, Laurence Schmeckebier (1943), The Line Storm was one of the first works that Curry painted using tempera underpainting and oil-resin glazes after having read Max Doerner's The Materials of the Artist. The occasion of treating the painting seemed a perfect opportunity to see whether written evidence or information from other sources could corroborate or contradict Schmeckebier's assertion about the influence of Doerner's book.

Conservators may know Doerner's The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting, with Notes on the Techniques of the Old Masters (to give its full title in English) partly from the very negative review written by Helmut Ruhemann in the 1960s. Ruhemann pointed out that copies of old paintings made by Doerner's students had discolored and remained easily soluble, and he concluded (correctly, as we now know) that Doerner had made many wrong guesses about the techniques of earlier painters (Ruhemann 1964; see, for example, Bomford et al. 1988 on Rembrandt's medium). But it is important to remember that Doerner's book was received very differently when it was first translated into English in 1934. George Stout's generally very complimentary review in Technical Studies pointed out “slight flaws and omissions”—for instance, Stout was more skeptical than Doerner about the wisdom of adding resin or wax to oil paint. But Stout concluded by calling the book a “splendid labor” and wrote that “the art of painting owes [Doerner] a large debt” (Stout 1935, 46, 50). According to William McCloy, the reaction of painters working in the 1930s was also very favorable, because the book was the first one of its kind to have been written by a practical painter. McCloy told us that Doerner's book included so much useful information that it was soon considered “the artist's bible” (this and subsequent McCloy quotations are personal communication 1997).

Fig. 1. John Steuart Curry, The Line Storm, 1934, tempera and oil on canvas, 76.3 x 121.9 cm (30 x 48 in.). Babcock Galleries, NewYork

Max Doerner's book, which was first published in German in 1921, can be seen as part of a larger revival of tempera painting during the first part of the 20th century. In 1901, Christiana Herringham (who had published an annotated translation of Cennino Cennini's Libro dell'Arte in 1899) founded in London the Society of Painters in Tempera, which published occasional technical papers by its members. The same year—1901—saw the publication in Germany of Ernst Berger's theory that Van Eyck used egg-oil emulsions (Berger 1901), and in France, J. G. Vibert published a book at about this time on painting in egg tempera in the manner of “primitive” painters (Vibert ca. 1900). By the 1920s the tempera movement had clearly gathered steam—A. P. Laurie's 1926 book The Painter's Methods & Materials documents the revival of painting with egg yolk and emulsions at that time in Britain and mentions the proliferating varieties of tempera paints being sold by colormen (Laurie 1926). There was sufficient demand by 1928 to justify the revision and reprinting of the earlier Papers of the Society of Painters in Tempera ([1901–7] 1928).

The tempera revival had crossed the Atlantic by the 1920s. The American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975), who had taught himself to paint with egg tempera in 1925–26 (Benton 1969, 57–58), showed Reginald Marsh how to use egg tempera in 1929 (Marsh 1929). John Sloan (1871–1951) had begun using a kind of tempera (which he called “flaxseed emulsion”) for underpainting in 1928 (Sloan with Farr 1939, 299, 300). Curry owned a copy of Laurie's 1926Painter's Methods & Materials, which cited the earlier publications by Berger in Germany and the Society of Painters in Tempera in Britain (Laurie 1926, 190), but which did not mention the German edition of Doerner's book. (In a recent article, Sprague [1999] describes possible routes for the transmission of information about tempera from Britain to America via the British painter Maxwell Armfield [1881–1972], who was in the United States from 1915 to 1922, and Edwin Waldo Forbes [1873–1969], who taught courses on technique at Harvard beginning in the 1920s. However, we have not seen any evidence that either of these men had a direct influence on the artists we have studied.)

Many of Doerner's recipes involve a “mixed technique” of underpainting with an egg-oil emulsion, followed by oil-resin glazes. When we looked into Schmeckebier's allegation that Curry had used these kinds of materials on The Line Storm after Doerner's book was published in English in 1934, we found that the situation was more complex than it had appeared at first.

We found, first of all, that Curry (and Reginald Marsh as well) had obtained some of Doerner's recipes from sources other than Doerner's book. An undated manuscript sheet in Curry's papers, headed “Doerner Technique according to student in Munich,” describes grounds made from glue, zinc white, and whiting; oil-tempera underpainting; and overpainting in oil-resin colors (Curry undated a). Curry's 1932–38 notebook also lists several recipes attributed to Doerner, including a detailed recipe for a glue/zinc white/chalk/oil ground called “Prof. Dörner method for preparing chalkground canvas— obtained from Emil Gauss” (Curry 1932–38, 98ff.), and egg-oil emulsion and glazing media “from Bocour Co. after Dörner” (Curry 1932–38, 101ff.). A notebook kept by Reginald Marsh describes an eggoil emulsion recipe under: “Doerner—Mrs. Koehl, Munich” (Marsh 1930–37). Although none of these recipes are dated, they may well have been obtained—in fact, are likely to have been obtained— prior to 1934, when the publication of The Materials of the Artist in English made such recipes easily available in America without the aid of intermediaries.

In fact, the first firmly dated reference to a “mixed” technique in Curry's notebook occurs in 1932, two years before Doerner's book appeared in English: “Began using tempera underpainting on Circus material” (Curry 1932–38, 16). The descriptions of many of Curry's circus paintings are terse, most being listed simply as “tempera-oil,” but some of the 1932 “tempera-oil” paintings have more detailed descriptions that describe glazes containing 50% damar and 50% oil (Curry 1932–38, 17), as in one of the Doerner recipes that also appears in Curry's notebook (Curry 1932–38, 101). Some of the 1932 circus paintings are described in Curry's notebook as being painted on a “chalk ground”— quite possibly the Doerner recipe obtained from Emil Gauss that is cited in the same notebook—and one includes Venice turpentine as an ingredient in a painting medium (Curry 1932–38, 19), which again is a Doerner favorite cited in Curry's notebook (Curry 1932–38, 99–100).

A little later, Curry's descriptions of techniques become more detailed for some paintings. The artist's notes on The Line Storm (painted in November 1934) read: “tempera-egg underpainting—white shellac in alcohol over tempera—Stand oil and turpentine for painting medium for oil overpainting.” The previous entry, for Portrait of Sue Marsh (location unknown), begun April 20, 1933, describes “Dorner chalk ground,” followed by an egg-oil emulsion, coated with a damar–stand oil mixture. The following entry, for The Fugitive (private collection), begun in November 1934, shows still other differences: “Nearly full tempera underpainting—egg yolk medium—Damar and mastic varnishes between— Stand oil thinned with turpentine for oil finish.” In the winter of 1935–36 The Fugitive was “Lightened with tempera white and repainted with Dammar & oil glazes” (Curry 1932–38, 96).

When seen in context, The Line Storm turns out to be less a revolutionary technical departure than part of a sequence of many variations that Curry was trying out before and after 1934. Instead of following a single recipe, each painting was painted a little differently, as if Curry was trying to learn from his experiments. Occasionally, during these years, we find comments like:“Found ground very absorbent” or “This did not dry properly” (Curry 1932–38, 20, 96). It is also significant that, interspersed with recipes attributable to Doerner, Curry's notebook lists recipes from many other sources, including Harold Zimmerman, James Watrous, Helen Farr, and Lynn Fawcett (Curry 1932–38, 99, 102, 103, 104). Kathleen Curry remembered that about this time, she worried that her husband was going to poison them by using her kitchen pots and pans for experimenting with painting materials (personal communication 1997).


The Line Storm shows some of the problems of preservation that will become very familiar in Curry's paintings done with a mixed tempera-oilresin technique. One problem is traction crackle. In the case of The Line Storm, the shellac layer that he described putting over his tempera underpainting may have been too glossy for the upper layers of paint to stick to, although cracking may have also been exacerbated—in this and other cases—by the practice of applying faster-drying, resin-containing layers on top of slower-drying ones.

Many paintings by Curry from around this time that we have examined or treated show similar problems. The Rainbow (Babcock Galleries) is undated but probably dates to around 1935, when Curry was painting other versions of the subject (Curry 1932–38, 21). While The Rainbow is not described in his notebook, Curry made pencil annotations on the unpainted margin of the panel itself, which read: “Shellac size/Aug 13th/Repainted over wet paint.” In this painting, some areas of wide traction crackle are found where fairly matte passages of oil paint are clearly not adhering to the glossy shellac underlayer. Curry's inscription hints that the timing of the application of paint over layers that were not dry may also have been a factor and corroborates McCloy's description of Curry as an impatient, impulsive painter. The Rainbow also demonstrates the ready solubility of many of Curry's paintings of this period and later: some areas are very sensitive to solvents like acetone, as if a large percentage of resin had been added to the paint.

Osage Orange (private collection), dated 1934, has extreme problems with very wide traction crackle (fig. 2). In this case, it is less clear that a glossy underlayer caused the crackle, because all layers of the painting are glossy, with many wrinkled areas suggesting that the paint was mixed with excessive amounts of drying oil. Curry's problems with crackle may have been compounded by several additional factors that William McCloy described to us. When McCloy was working with him, Curry often used cobalt drier. McCloy also said that Curry often used a great deal of added medium—a normal palette cup was not large enough to hold his medium, so Curry adapted a flash powder container, which would hold much more, to use as his palette cup.

Fig. 2. Detail of John Steuart Curry, Osage Orange, 1934, tempera and oil resin on canvas, 101.5 x 76.3 cm (40 x 30 in.). Private collection

It is interesting that in some of Curry's paintings, it is not only glazes but also opaque body colors that are unusually sensitive to solvents; this is true, for instance, of the 1937 Self-Portrait (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). Curry's 1938 sketch for the mural The Homestead (private collection) also has paint that is very sensitive to solvents and is somewhat sensitive to heat. Curry's notebook does not describe the media used for the paint in The Homestead, but in other paintings in the same series he recorded in his notebook that he was using for his underpainting an emulsion made of egg and damar, with no oil. A medium containing one-third to one-half damar was then used to finish some of these paintings (Curry 1932–38, 106–7). The presence of so much damar in both lower and upper layers could help explain why even opaque body colors on paintings like The Homestead react so strongly to heat and to solvents.


Curry's grounds varied a great deal. Notebook references to some paintings from 1932 to 1935 describe them as having been painted on a “chalk ground” (Curry 1932–38, 19). This is most likely the Doerner recipe obtained from Emil Gauss cited in the notebook (Curry 1932–38, 98), which Doerner also called a “half chalk” ground, consisting of chalk, zinc white, glue, and oil (Doerner 1934, 23ff.). In 1936 Curry made, on a large scale, a version of the half-chalk ground containing lead white as well as zinc white for the murals in the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. (Curry 1932–38, 104). McCloy remembers making half-chalk grounds for Curry in the early 1940s; he said that he had to “beat like hell” to combine the oily and aqueous components, and then it was a horrible job to clean up the tools that had been used to mix them.

The 1938 sketch for The Homestead described above also has an unusual ground. The tacking margins of the fabric show what appears to be an oil tide line from the application of the ground, but the ground is also sensitive to water. An entry in Curry's notebook explains the behavior of the ground on this painting, which is described as two-thirds glue mixed with titanium white and zinc white, and one-third “Dutch Boy” (Curry 1932–38, 106). “Dutch Boy” refers to a lean mixture of lead white and linseed oil manufactured by the National Lead Company. A metal paint bucket found by the authors (not connected with Curry, but from approximately this time period) labeled “Dutch Boy Soft Paste White Lead” lists the ingredients as lead white 88%, linseed oil 10%, and turpentine 2%. Directions on the side of the bucket indicate that the paste was intended to be mixed with 50% to 100% additional linseed oil to make a house paint.

But Curry's notebook shows that by 1938 he was also using commercial products made by Benjamin Moore & Company for the grounds of some of the sketches that he made for murals at the Department of the Interior (Curry 1932–38, 106). There is evidence that this idea came from Grant Wood (1892–1942). Curry's papers contain an undated sheet of Mrs. Grant Wood's stationery that says: “Moore's White Enamel Underbody. Pour off liquid before using as a thick paste” ([Wood] undated). Two letters that chemist H. D. Rasmussen of Benjamin Moore wrote to Curry in January 1938, in response to questions from Curry, verify the connection with Grant Wood. Rasmussen told Curry that Grant Wood used Moore's primer sealer, but he was not sure whether Wood used it over a layer of size or directly on the canvas. Rasmussen suggested that Curry use Moore's underbody enamel with its full amount of liquid, rather than pouring off the liquid,“as you are now doing.” He said that if a heavier body is needed, Curry should consider Moore's Nuwhite. Rasmussen also told Curry that primer sealer was made of mostly tung oil (China wood oil), with the balance linseed oil, and that Moore's underbody enamel was made of the same oils but with 7½% resin content as well (the resin is not specified) (Rasmussen 1938a, b; see also Horns and Parkin 1995 and Martin 1995). In 1938, Curry recorded that he was using both primer sealer and underbody enamel, sometimes a layer of primer sealer followed by a layer of unadulterated underbody enamel, but often adding lead white pigment to the underbody enamel in amounts ranging from “a little” to 50% (Curry 1932–38, 105–6). In 1938, Curry's notebook indicates that he was also experimenting with “Martz mixture” for grounds, consisting of lead white and titanium white in equal parts, with 12% linseed oil added (Curry 1932–38, 107). Again, the pattern is one of a compulsive experimenter who sought out recipes from a variety of sources and felt free to modify recipes if they did not suit his needs.


We found fewer descriptions of Curry's varnishing practice than might have been expected from a man who was so concerned about every other aspect of a painter's technique. Two letters make it clear why this was so, especially with regard to his easel paintings. The letters indicate that Curry left decisions about varnishing easel paintings to his dealers, but they also make it clear that he assumed that his paintings would be varnished once they had dried adequately. A 1938 letter from Maynard Walker of Walker Galleries to Curry reads: “The football pict. doesn't seem to need varnishing very much but we will take care of it. … Reggie Wilson just came in and agrees with me about the football picture. It is dried in only a few little spots which are not visible at all. I think it would be better off if it were not varnished for a while” (Walker 1938). In 1941 Curry wrote to R. Lewenthal, his new dealer at Association of American Artists, about paintings he had sent to New York the previous month: “A great many of these paintings are fairly green and should be given a final varnish about a year from now” (Curry 1941a).

Many of Curry's easel paintings that were in his studio at the time of his death (and remained in his widow's possession) are unvarnished, the exceptions being paintings that were treated at a later time by conservators. The surfaces of the unvarnished paintings vary a great deal; some are quite glossy, others are quite matte, and many have both matte and glossy passages. It seems possible that the survival of so many unvarnished easel paintings by Curry could be partly explained by the trajectory of his career: after a period of success in the 1930s, he had fewer exhibitions and sales during the rest of his life, and it is likely that the unvarnished pictures would have been varnished if and when they had been wanted for exhibition or sale.

Curry's mural paintings are a separate case. There are several references in Curry's papers to his struggle to find an appropriate varnish for murals. He wrote about his 1937–42 murals in Topeka, Kansas:“When I had finished the painting, the coloring was very brilliant and shiny, and I felt it desirable to dim it a little by covering the surface with a special kind of wax varnish” (Curry undated b). But it seems that neither Curry nor John Mathieson, one of his assistants in the project, was entirely happy with the wax varnish they applied, in part because it adversely affected the appearance of the dark blue sky (Curry 1942a; see also Mathieson 1945). About the same time, Curry received a letter from Thomas Hart Benton, apparently in response to a question about wax varnishes, in which Benton included his recipe for a beeswax-carnauba coating (Benton ca. 1943). Curry also used on his murals the new matte varnishes Matvar 39 and Matvar B, which had been developed by F. Weber Company. Curry's papers contain correspondence with F. W. Weber about problems he was having with the application of these varnishes, as well as explanations on Weber's part about how they were intended to be used on mural paintings (and on tempera paintings as well) (Curry 1942b; Weber 1942a; Curry 1945a; Weber 1945).


Interviews with William McCloy shed additional light on the technical practices of the period. McCloy shared with Curry a strong interest in the techniques of earlier European painters and in the recipes contained in Max Doerner's book. Like Curry, McCloy also knew about Laurie's writings, but McCloy said that an additional influence on him in the mid-1930s was a less well known book written by Vytlacil and Turnbull (1935). Vytlacil and Turnbull rehashed much of Doerner's material (and were criticized for doing so; see the review by York [1936] in Technical Studies), but they also introduced the American reader to the ideas of Jacques Maroger, whose writings had previously appeared only in French-language journals. Another of the main themes of Vytlacil and Turnbull's book was the use of an egg-oil emulsion of varying proportions that they called “putrido,” a term Doerner does not use but which McCloy used throughout his career.

McCloy documented very thoroughly the materials employed in several of his paintings from the 1930s and 1940s. For instance, a portrait of a man painted in 1936–37, following Doerner's descriptions of the methods of Hals (Slater Museum, Norwich Free Academy), is described in a paper McCloy wrote in 1937: over an oil-primed fabric, underpainting was done with pigments ground in mastic and linseed oil (2:1), and then overpainted with pigments ground in linseed oil and mastic (9:1), with added painting medium of linseed oil, mastic, and turpentine (4:4:1) (McCloy 1937). It is interesting that apart from some developing cupping and a hazy surface (the painting is unvarnished), the picture is still in very good condition. Solvent tests show that the paint is not sensitive to acetone, probably because relatively small amounts of resinous medium were used in the upper paint layers. In other paintings by McCloy from the same period, there is some sensitivity to solvents like acetone, especially in glazes where a resinous medium was likely to have been added in higher proportions.

The only time that McCloy remembered getting into trouble following Doerner's advice was when he used a fair amount of Venice turpentine on a painting, which cracked so badly that he had to scrape it all off the next day. But it is impressive that most of McCloy's paintings from this period are in excellent condition, with little or no traction crackle or mechanical crackle. Some, such as Portrait of Patricia (1940, private collection), done in egg tempera with some oil-resin glazes but generally in a lean manner (the surface has a low gloss), are nearly perfectly preserved. One of the most interesting discoveries of our study has been that an artist like McCloy was able to get stable results using techniques that proved unstable in the hands of other painters. Part of the reason may be that McCloy (unlike Curry) avoided the use of driers. McCloy was also very conscious of the principles of allowing layers to dry properly, layering fat over lean, and not using excess medium. He was a fastidious craftsman, whereas he remembers that Curry was not. McCloy showed us some of Curry's paintbrushes, and, pointing out some slight traces of color in the heel of the bristles, he commented,“John never did clean his brushes properly.”

Interviews with McCloy also reinforce the impression from Curry's writings that the question of varnishing was not given the same importance as other technical aspects of painting (which is frustrating to conservators, who always want to know an artist's intention on this topic). When asked why one of his paintings from the late 1930s was varnished while most of the others were not, McCloy replied, “Quite frankly, I don't remember why I varnished one and not another.”



Reginald Marsh, like Curry, began his career using oil paint in a straightforward manner. For instance, his 1928 New York Skyline (private collection) is unremarkable in technique. The canvas has a commercially applied oil ground, the paint behaves like pure oil paint that is not sensitive to solvents like acetone, and the surface has a slight gloss, although the painting is unvarnished.

But in 1929, the year after New York Skyline was painted, Marsh recorded in a notebook: “Met Tom Benton. He has boils on his neck and isn't painting. Comes up to my studio and shows me how to paint with eggs—fortunate event” (Marsh 1929). A few years later, Ralph Mayer recalled the experiments with tempera that both Marsh and Kenneth Hayes Miller (who taught at the Art Students League) carried out in 1929: “Marsh finally worked out a satisfactory formula with yolk of egg glazes as in watercolor but on white gesso.‘ Only this and nothing more' except a coat of varnish” (Mayer 1933). Marsh later described being introduced to egg tempera by Benton and by Denys Wortman (1887–1958). “It opened up a new world to me. Egg is a fine‘ draughtsman's' vehicle and very easy to handle. The luminosity and clearness of drawing is preserved, yet a certain greasy quality of the yolk gives a‘ fat' oily effect. Drying is instantaneous, and superimposed brush strokes are easily made. … I put egg yolk on a kind of belt line production for a dozen years and chucked oil forever.” Marsh said he used egg tempera from 1929 until he became dissatisfied with it in 1939 (Goodrich and Irvine 1955, 8, 13).

But with Marsh, as with Curry, the written evidence and the evidence of the paintings themselves indicate a much more complicated story.

Marsh had a lifelong habit of copying down information about technique. There are undated sheets in his papers containing notes from such early sources as Herringham's 1899 translation of Cennino Cennini and A. H. Church's late 19th-century book The Chemistry of Paints and Paintings (Marsh undated a). A notebook that can be dated between 1930 and 1937 is full of recipes for various kinds of egg-oil emulsions, including “Abell's” tempera (a mixture of whole egg, damar, linseed oil, and water), glue, gum, casein, and “Durex” media, as well as descriptions of glazing over tempera with pigments in varnish. The sources of these recipes include Max Doerner (via “Mrs. Koehl” in Munich), Kenneth Hayes Miller, Ralph Mayer, and Thomas Hart Benton. Notes that Marsh kept in 1931 indicate that he was experimenting with pigments mixed with gelatine or an unspecified gum for underpainting, followed by glazes in an egg medium (up to seven coats of “egg wash”); in 1932–33 he describes an “all egg picture” (Marsh 1930–37).

Examination of Marsh's paintings from these years gives further evidence that his description of the years 1929–39 as “egg yolk on a belt line” was an oversimplification. For example, Irving Place Burlesque (1930, William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut) has some thick strokes of paint with bristlemarks that look exactly like oil paint straight from the tube. Some of the glazes on this painting are sensitive to solvents like acetone as well, which argues against a pure tempera medium. Similarly, the painting Two Women (1938, William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut) has some areas of paint that are sensitive to solvents as mild as benzine.


Marsh once wrote,“Wouldn't it be wonderful to be an apprentice in the studio of Rubens?” (Marsh undated b). He must have thought that he had found the next best thing when he met Jacques Maroger, a former restorer at the Louvre, who had arrived in New York in 1940.

Maroger was not the first person who thought that he had discovered the secrets of the Old Masters. (For instance, a book called The Secret of the Old Masters had been published in 1906 by Albert Abendschein, a painter working in New York, and Abendschein's influence passed through Kenneth Hayes Miller to the generation that studied under Miller at the Art Students League [see Miller 1907 for Abendschein's influence on Miller, and Curry undated c and Marsh 1930–37 for recipes from Miller in those two painters' papers].) As discussed above, some of Maroger's ideas had appeared in English as early as 1935, and Vytlacil and Turnbull wrote that Maroger's media were being sold in America at that date (Vytlacil and Turnbull 1935, 66). But it was only upon his arrival in America that Maroger became very successful, attracting students in both New York and Baltimore, and part of the reason for this success may have been that Maroger found a devoted pupil and proselytizer in Reginald Marsh. In 1942, Marsh wrote a highly complimentary introduction to Maroger's first article in English, “The Secret of Van Eyck Regained” (Maroger 1942; Marsh 1942a).

Marsh had been ripe for a change in his technique. According to his own testimony, in 1939 (the year before he met Maroger) he had become dissatisfied with egg tempera, feeling that it lacked the richness of oil and that the darks were too opaque:“I'm through with tempera and egg yolk. It gets a painting all gummed up” (Goodrich and Irvine 1955, 13). Marsh was at that time experimenting with oil emulsions, watercolors, and Chinese ink (Goodrich and Irvine 1955).


What is most interesting for our purposes, because it documents so thoroughly the initial promise and subsequent controversy over Maroger's techniques, is the correspondence that soon developed between Marsh in New York and Curry in Wisconsin. Beginning in 1940, Marsh tried to convince John Steuart Curry that Maroger had, indeed, discovered the secrets of van Eyck, Rubens, and other Old Master painters, which had allegedly been lost since the death of Rubens.

Only some of Marsh's and Curry's letters are dated, but if the letters are arranged in a plausible sequence, it becomes clear that the correspondence was in full bloom by December 1940 and lasted at least until 1942. Marsh's earliest letters, which record Maroger's ideas at the time that he first arrived in America, are especially important because Maroger's theories were constantly evolving. The recipes that Maroger published in Magazine of Art in 1943 are different from those he advocated in 1940, and by the time he published his book The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters in 1948, the recipes had changed again and had become still more elaborate (Maroger 1943, 1948).

In a 1940 letter, Marsh drew diagrams that introduced the various components of Maroger's system and explained to Curry how to use them (fig. 3). A 50% solution of gum arabic in water was component A in Marsh's diagram, and a solution of damar resin that had been dissolved by heating it with coldpressed raw linseed oil (one-third damar to two-thirds linseed oil) was component B. Marsh showed himself vigorously mixing equal portions of components A and B with a palette knife “like making mud pie” until it made an emulsion and stood up like mayonnaise. In one letter Marsh tells Curry to mix powdered pigments with this emulsion or “mayonnaise,” and then mix an additional 50% of the emulsion into the paints. In a second letter he contradicts this advice and says one should mix the dry pigments first with the damar-oil mixture, and then add the emulsion (Marsh 1940a, c).

Another element of the secret was something that Maroger called “black oil,” which was—in 1940—linseed oil cooked with 10% litharge by weight until it turned black. A sketch by Marsh (fig. 4) shows a palette set with the preground colors, a little pile of emulsion on the palette, and black oil in the palette cup (Marsh 1940b). Marsh told Curry to “smooch black oil & emulsion over the panel just prior to painting to get Rubens striping effect, draw in monotone and get black oil in every brush stroke—for opaque effects dip into black oil, for transparent effects into emulsion” (Marsh 1940a).

Fig. 3. Detail of letter from Reginald Marsh to John Steuart Curry [December 1940]. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers

It is interesting that even at this date Devoe and Raynolds in New York were selling Maroger's black oil (which they called Devoe and Raynolds Special Dryer N10386) and the damar-oil mixture (which they called “Special White Dammar Varnish”). Marsh sent Curry a bottle of each of these on December 22, 1940, telling him that Devoe would not sell the materials to anyone except through the Maroger class at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art (Marsh 1940b).

Fig. 4. Detail of letter from Reginald Marsh to John Steuart Curry, December 22, 1940. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers

In response to Marsh's descriptions of the Maroger method, Curry sent Marsh elaborate sheets of written questions, which Marsh then answered. McCloy acted as secretary in these exchanges, and sometimes transcribed Marsh's scribbled responses into neatly typed sheets for Curry. Marsh's responses clarified a number of points that were unclear in his initial letters, but they also document changes in the technique. For instance, an undated letter from Marsh was transcribed into typescript by McCloy under the heading “Addenda to Maroger's Method.” Maroger had apparently changed his mind and was at that time recommending that the colors be ground in black oil (not in the emulsion or damar-oil mixture as stated previously), except for the whites and yellows, which should be ground in linseed or walnut oil (Marsh undated c).

By January 1942, Curry had expressed his first doubts about the technique, asking whether any written documents could corroborate Maroger's views on Rubens's technique. A little more than a year earlier, Marsh had jokingly written to Curry: “Rubens used the Maroger medium—Rubens has just confirmed this from his grave—for you & me” (Marsh 1940d). But in response to Curry's serious question in 1942 about written corroboration, Marsh responded:“No, all is confused” (Curry 1942f).

In 1942, Curry turned his inquiries in a different direction, asking F. W. Weber of F. Weber Company in Philadelphia for his opinion of Maroger's materials. Weber warned Curry that the litharge in the black oil would make it tend toward yellowing and that gum arabic could make a film brittle. Weber made some samples of the Maroger media and sent them to Curry, and Curry then ordered larger quantities from Weber, saying that he would be glad to hear of any tests that Weber had carried out on the Maroger formulas. Curry must have been alarmed at the response he received from Weber on May 1, 1942: “We found that where the Gum Arabic was employed to obtain the emulsion, a very considerable lack of adhesion was noticed where the proportion of Gum Arabic in water was not kept down in quantity. … Even on an absorbent surface, where paint was employed impasto, the emulsion caused a breaking away and falling off of the paint” (Weber 1942a, b; Curry 1942ce).

The very next month (June 1942), a flurry of letters and transcribed questions and answers between Marsh and Curry shows that Maroger had introduced several changes to his method. Maroger was now recommending lead white instead of litharge to make his black oil. Marsh wrote that he had been working in Baltimore with Maroger, developing the new materials, and that Maroger started with 30% lead white, then changed to 20%, and then 10%, but had finally arrived at 3–4%. Maroger also introduced an entirely new medium, made of mastic varnish (either a solution of mastic in turpentine or mastic resin dissolved in linseed or walnut oil) mixed with the new black oil until it formed a jelly. Neither Marsh nor Maroger admitted it, but this was in fact megilp, a medium that had been known since the 18th century. Maroger was now recommending that the pigments on the palette be ground with linseed or walnut oil, not with an emulsion or with black oil (Marsh undated d, Marsh 1942b, c; on megilp, see Carlyle 2001, 101ff.).

Curry began to show signs of impatience. He wrote on June 17, 1942: “Dear Reggie: Thank you very much for your information. The new medium is as clear and transparent as a piece of coal.” Curry also asked whether the 10% litharge black oil that he had been using previously was dangerous and concluded: “Also, why has Maroger given up gum arabic? I thought that was the secret of Rubens. What does Rubens think now?” (Curry 1942g). Marsh's responses to these questions, if indeed he ever answered them, do not survive.


Paintings from this period by Maroger and by Curry show problems that may have led Maroger to make repeated changes to his recipes. A still-life painting by Maroger dated 1940 (private collection) has a fine pattern of traction crackle that is very disfiguring on a picture with such a smooth surface and such fine detail. A painting by Curry that was identified for us by McCloy as having been done using the Maroger media, Flowers (1940, private collection), shows very dramatic traction crackle as well as mechanical crackle and a serious lack of adhesion between paint layers that has caused flake losses in some areas.

McCloy showed us two paintings that he himself painted following Maroger's recipes at the time that Curry was corresponding with Marsh. McCloy's Horse in a Thunderstorm (1940, former collection of the artist, present location unknown) was painted following Maroger's first method—the one having gum arabic as an ingredient. The painting is generally in very good condition, with no crackle, although its gloss is very uneven. It does not look very much yellowed except a little in the most transparently painted areas (which presumably contain the highest percentage of medium). A Self-Portrait (private collection) by McCloy is undated, but McCloy remembered that it was done using Maroger's second medium (the one containing megilp). This painting, too, is in good condition and not noticeably yellowed. As is the case with the Doerner-type mixed technique, McCloy seems to have gotten good results using a method that had the potential to produce serious problems of preservation. Again, the reason for this success may have been that McCloy was a meticulous painter who allowed his layers to dry properly and refrained from using excess medium.

Marsh was not so fortunate, and many of his problems with the Maroger method seem the result of his having painted with too much medium. An exhibition label on the reverse of the painting Pursuit (1941–42, Toledo Museum of Art) has had the words “oil painting” crossed out and replaced by the artist with the words “Maroger medium.” This painting has a surface that is badly wrinkled from excess medium. Another painting that is annotated by Marsh is Seated Girl (1944, William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut). Marsh wrote on the reverse of Seated Girl that he ground his pigments with black oil and mastic and also added a medium from his palette cup consisting of half stand oil and half turpentine. This painting, like Pursuit, has a surface that is very noticeably wrinkled. The artist's notations on the reverse of Seated Girl about the variations used on that particular painting are a caution against making generalizations about the exact materials used in “Maroger” paintings, even in a painting by one of the master's most devoted followers.

A portrait painted by Maroger himself, not dated but apparently from the 1940s (David Randall-MacIver, Lyman Allyn Art Museum), shows that Maroger himself had problems with excess medium. This painting does not have a discrete varnish layer but is glossy from medium that was mixed into the paint. There is some traction crackle and wrinkling, but the uneven yellowing of some of the lighter, cooler colors, caused by excess medium on the surface, is a very noticeable problem.

By 1948, when Maroger published his book The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters, he had abandoned gum arabic completely but had developed many additional recipes that purportedly allowed one to paint like masters of various schools and periods. Egg yolk is added in some recipes, and beeswax is an ingredient in many others, especially in the recipes of Italian painters. Many unsubstantiated claims are made, such as the statement that the Dutch “Little Masters” did not use wax but Rembrandt used “the maximum quantity of wax” (Maroger 1948, 168). A detailed discussion of all of these recipes is beyond the scope of this article, but it is obvious that their increasing complexity is a further warning against making generalizations about paintings done using Maroger techniques.

In terms of solubility, the Maroger-type paintings done by Maroger, Curry, Marsh, and McCloy that we have tested often vary in solubility from area to area within each painting, which is what one might expect from a technique in which the artist was adding different media in various amounts directly on the palette. It is also interesting that the Maroger-type paintings that we have tested have been generally much less easily soluble than the Doerner-type paintings, probably because the Maroger recipes often involve adding a medium consisting of drying oil (the black oil), while many of the Doerner recipes involve adding easily soluble resins like damar. However, it should be noted that paintings made according to the later Maroger formulas described in his 1948 book (of which we have seen fewer examples) could potentially remain very easily soluble because many of the recipes contain wax.

Maroger media are still available from several sources, and the authors painted out test panels using materials ordered from David Davis in New York. It was impressive to see how effective the black oil is as a drier, making even very rich, oily paint mixtures dry to the touch overnight. This quick-drying quality could encourage a painter to paint with too much medium, running the risk of wrinkling and discoloration. Fine wrinkling was produced in samples where a substantial proportion of medium was added to commercially made oil paint, and after four years, the media used straight from the container, as well as light-colored paint mixtures containing a large proportion of medium, have turned noticeably yellow. After four years, samples of oil paint to which the wax medium had been added are still slightly soluble in benzine and are readily soluble in xylene. The tests suggested to us that one of the main reasons that painters have been attracted to the Maroger techniques (and tempera-oil methods as well) is that the quick-drying paint allows artists to apply multiple layers of paint, as earlier painters did, without having to wait long periods of time for the underlayers to dry.


Marsh's correspondence with Curry sheds some light on Marsh's views about varnishing. In January 1942, Curry asked Marsh whether Matvar (made by F. Weber Company) or wax could be used to dull the gloss if paintings done with the Maroger method were too shiny. Marsh responded that “beeswax can be put over after 2 weeks,” but added that “all the old masters were shiny” (Curry 1942f). In a sheet of lecture notes that Marsh wrote in 1941, a copy of which ended up in Curry's papers, Marsh said that if parts of a painting made with Maroger's methods were matte and other parts were glossy, the painting “can be varnished with a commercial varnish” (Marsh 1941).

Marsh's notebooks provide even more details about his varnishing practice and help to explain some of the peculiarities of his varnishes that have been noted by conservators. Marsh's paintings are often coated with thick, smooth varnish layers that have unusual solubilities and are susceptible to damage from abrasion, which can be annoying to conservators because such damage can be difficult to repair. The notebooks document the use of a great variety of different coatings, often applied in many layers on the same picture, including egg, “Mayer's damar,” “Montross mastic” (sometimes sprayed, sometimes brushed),“Toch's flat varnish,” and “Edgar Levy's wax.” Figure 5 shows Marsh's diagram of the eight layers of surface coatings that he applied in 1936 to his painting Bowery at Coney Island (1936, location unknown). Marsh was apparently dissatisfied with some of his varnish coatings, because several notebook entries say “varnish removed 1933—revarnished by Pichetto” (Marsh 1930–37).

Fig. 5. Detail from notebook of Reginald Marsh, 1936. Archives of American Art, Reginald Marsh Papers


Marsh kept his close association with Maroger through the latter part of the 1940s and even into the 1950s. Marsh was one of 14 painters who showed their work at the exhibition Paintings in the Maroger Medium (1947, Lyman Allyn Museum). Marsh never gave up trying to paint like Rubens; in one notebook is a sheet headed “Rubens” and dated 1951, where he describes going over a dry “jelly” layer with “1–10 wax oil,” with black oil added. A page from Marsh's papers dated 1952 was clearly written by Maroger at a time when he was working with Marsh in Mystic, Connecticut. Maroger was apparently attempting to refine the “Rubens gelée” by adding a 2:1 mixture of stand oil and Venice turpentine. Recipes in Marsh's notebooks during the last two years of his life (1953–54) show that he was still experimenting, modifying, and using many different combinations of media, with “Rubens medium” or simply “jelly R” appearing frequently (Marsh 1951; Maroger 1952; Marsh 1953, 1954).

It should be noted that Curry was not the only painter who was skeptical of Maroger's theories during this period. As early as December 1942, Frederick Taubes had responded to Maroger's first article in The Magazine of Art with a highly critical article in the same journal (Taubes 1942). And after Maroger's book appeared in 1948, it received a scathing review from Ralph Mayer (Mayer 1949).

Even during the period of Curry's infatuation with the Maroger media, he had been experimenting with other materials. In May 1941, Curry wrote that he was trying “a new method of oils or tempera and watercolor” for book illustrations (Curry 1941b). In October of this same year he ordered a new kind of tempera paint from Weber. The exact medium is not identified, but in a letter to Curry, F. W. Weber explained that the new paints differed from egg-emulsion tempera in that “upon drying [they] do not become absolutely insoluble in water as do the egg Tempera” (Weber 1941).

By 1943, it is clear that Curry's flirtation with Maroger was over. He canceled an order for gum arabic in that year (Curry 1943a), and he never mentioned Maroger in his correspondence again. After having not received a satisfactory response the previous year when he had asked Marsh for written sources that would corroborate Maroger's theories about the methods of Rubens, in 1943 Curry wrote to Mrs. Bruce Moore to inquire about references to Rubens's and Van Dyck's techniques in the de Mayerne manuscript (Curry 1943b). From 1943 until his death in 1946, Curry continued to correspond with a variety of experts, including Henry Levison of Permanent Pigments and Frederic Taubes as well as F. W. Weber. Toward the end of his life, Curry seems to have become most interested in copal as a painting medium, and he also ordered from Weber a material called “Durvar 39,” which Weber had designed to be incorporated into painting media as a synthetic substitute for copal (Curry 1944; Taubes 1944; F. Weber Co. 1945; Weber 1945; Curry 1945b; Curry 1946; Taubes 1946).


The most interesting manifestation of Curry's spirit of skeptical inquiry is a series of test canvases, the majority of which are now in the Archives of American Art and one of which is at the Worcester Art Museum (fig. 6). F. W. Weber suggested in 1942 that Curry paint out samples of the Maroger media (Weber 1942b), but the evidence of notations on the canvases themselves reveals that Curry had already begun his testing program by that time. In November 1939, Curry made tests in which he added damar and sun-thickened linseed oil to tube oil paint, and during 1941 he painted out samples of many different white oil paints, with and without various additives (including Maroger media). The brands of white paint tested included Weber, Bocour, Schmincke, Blockx, Dutch Boy, and Sherwin-Williams, as well as lead carbonate from “Merk Drug,” which Curry mixed with linseed oil. Curry also carried out experiments with egg, egg-oil mixtures, egg-oil–gum arabic mixtures, oil-damar-water mixtures, Venice turpentine, casein paints, and oil-casein mixtures. In studying the test canvases, one gets the impression that Curry was making up his own variations rather than directly copying the recipes of others. Not all of the samples are dated, but new tests continued to be added to the canvases until at least 1944.

Fig. 6. Detail of test panel painted by John Steuart Curry, 1939–1944, oil (with other added media) on canvas. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers

Tubes of paint that were owned by Curry also survive (at the Worcester Art Museum, the gift of William McCloy). The majority of these are products of Weber, Bocour, Schmincke, and Blockx, but there are also tubes carrying the labels of Rembrandt (made by Talens), Winsor & Newton, Grumbacher, Shiva, and Chemically Perfect Pigments (made by Rich Art Color Company, New York).

Interpreting the results of Curry's test canvases is somewhat difficult because Curry did not always write down the details of the recipes he was testing. For instance, lead carbonate from Merck plus linseed oil was the most discolored of the white samples, but Curry does not tell us the ratio of oil to pigment or the type of linseed oil used.

However, some conclusions can be drawn from the test canvases. As might have been expected, adding medium of any kind to various lead white oil paints made them discolor more than paint straight from the tube, and adding more medium made the samples discolor still more. Black oil was not noticeably worse than other additives in producing discoloration, although it is difficult to make precise comparisons because Curry did not state the amounts of each additive. Again, as might have been expected, zinc white and titanium white have generally discolored less than lead white. Weber Permalba stands out as having remained noticeably whiter than any of the other white samples. Samples of Permalba having gum arabic and damar medium added to them have remained quite white, while samples of lead white with the same additives are noticeably dark. In 1941, Curry experimented with adding small amounts of black oil or cobalt drier to Permalba white, without any obvious ill effects on the white color of the samples.

Curry's experiments prompted an interesting exchange of letters with Leonard Bogdanoff of Bocour Inc. in 1941. Curry explained why he had requested that his name be removed from a list of artists recommending Bocour colors:

You need not feel personally hurt about my not using your colors. If you remember, I complained several times about the dirty oil in your white. You said that it made no difference.

I found the paintings made with your color beginning to get very dingy and spotty. I have made some very complete tests of various lead whites and found yours to be among the poorest. I am sorry to tell you this, but you will remember my complaints. I found your other colors satisfactory. (Bogdanoff 1941; Curry 1941c).

In fact, one sample of Bocour Cremnitz white that Curry painted out in 1941 is darker than many of the other whites, although another sample similarly labeled (but not dated and perhaps applied at a different time) is less dark.

Other interesting observations about Curry's test panels are that an “egg wash” is very noticeably dark and brownish, and a complex test area containing lead white, gum arabic, and zinc white is noticeably browner in the area labeled “same with turpentine.” Two samples of Permalba that had gum arabic added to them are disfigured by a pattern of fine mechanical crackle, confirming what Weber told Curry about the brittleness and lack of adhesion of gum arabic, although there is no way of knowing whether Curry saw this effect during his lifetime or if it influenced him against the Maroger recipes that contained gum arabic.


The investigative trail that began with The Line Storm led to an enormous amount of information, not only about the techniques of specific painters at different points in their careers but also about the spirit of this period, when American art was a crossroads for so many different ideas. By the 1940s, the spirit of inquiry that was epitomized by Marsh and Curry would lead to much better sources of information for artists and would also contribute to the growth of modern conservation in the United States. For instance, the pivotal first few years of the 1940s saw not only the publications of Maroger but more reliable and authoritative publications such as Ralph Mayer's The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques (1940), Frederic Taubes's The Technique of Oil Painting (1941), and Rutherford Gettens and George Stout's Painting Materials: A Short Encyclopaedia (1942). It should be noted that the scholarly periodical Technical Studies in the Field of the Fine Arts was published between 1932 and 1942, during much of the period under discussion, but both Technical Studies and Gettens and Stout's Painting Materials: A Short Encyclopaedia apparently went unnoticed by the artists we have studied. The more popular books written by painters such as Doerner, Mayer, and Taubes, as well as technical columns that began to appear in art magazines during the 1940s by Mayer and Taubes, seem to have had a much greater influence on practicing artists than did the more academic publications.

This was also a critical time for manufacturers of artist's materials, who tried to respond to painters' demands for products that were historically accurate and scientifically sound. Like the authors of treatises and the artists themselves, the manufacturers did not always get it right, and their successes and failures had an effect on a wide range of painters. F. Weber Company of Philadelphia is particularly striking in this regard. We have previously discussed Weber's innovations in matte varnishes, synthetic media, and tempera paints. Weber also manufactured innovative supports, including its very ambitious “Renaissance Panels,” which were handmade, numbered, and inscribed to artists like Curry who ordered them, and which claimed to be “the finest, best and most permanent and reliable artists panel” (see illustration in Katlan 1992, 440). William McCloy told us that Weber's products had a special cachet at that time and were considered better than any other brand. In spite of this, some of Weber's experiments appear to have gone terribly wrong. Among the worst conservation problems that we have ever seen are paintings from the 1930s and early 1940s by the American painter Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), in which the artist's paint has adhered very poorly to the weak, easily soluble grounds on labeled Weber academy boards.

While the focus of this study has been on artists in America, parallel developments were of course taking place in Europe. For example, the Americanborn painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), who had been working in France since 1891, is known to have carried out experiments with various emulsions in the 1920s and 1930s (Rankin 2000; see also Mathews 1969, 236–37). Doerner's ideas about tempera and the “mixed technique” were especially influential in German-speaking countries, and Maroger claimed that his methods were used by French and British painters including Raoul Dufy, Augustus John, and Roger Fry (Maroger 1942; Marsh 1942a).

The ramifications of these ideas lead forward in time as well, and to the work of abstract artists in addition to figurative painters like Curry and Marsh. Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), who had studied with Thomas Hart Benton, used tubes of ready-made tempera paint among the many other materials that he experimented with in the 1940s (Coddington 1999). And as late as the mid-1960s, Mark Rothko (1903–1969) was making emulsions by mixing egg and damar with oil paint (Mancusi-Ungaro 1990). This late usage might seem surprising at first, but in a sense it is not surprising that when Rothko was pushing painting in new directions, he reached back for some of the technical innovations that were current when he was coming of age as a painter during the 1930s and 1940s, in the era of Curry, Marsh, Doerner, and Maroger.


The authors would like to dedicate this article to Kathleen Curry and William McCloy, who did not live to see its publication but without whose help and interest our research would not have been possible.

We would also like to thank Edward Shein of American Art Search; George Mazeika, formerly of the William Benton Museum, University of Connecticut; the patient staff members at the Archives of American Art branch at the Boston Public Library; Elizabeth Joffrion at the Archives of American Art in Washington, D. C.; Patricia Junker, formerly of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and now at the Amon Carter Museum; Rita Albertson and Maura Brennan at the Worcester Art Museum; John Driscoll of Babcock Galleries; and Quentin Rankin at the National Museum of American Art. We would also like to thank Jeannie Ingram and Susan Frankenbach of the Slater Museum, Norwich Free Academy, Norwich, Connecticut, which received a bequest of many of William McCloy's paintings after his death.


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Benton, T. H. ca. 1943. Letter from Thomas Hart Benton to John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 166, frames 0311, 0312. [Undated, but refers to the recent publication of Schmeckebier's book, which appeared in 1943.]

Benton, T. H.1969. An American in art: A professional and technical autobiography. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Berger, E.1901. Beiträge zur Entwicklungsgeschichte der Maltechnik. Munich: Dr. W. Callwey.

Bogdanoff, L.1941. Letter from Leonard Bogdanoff, New York, to John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, June 9. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 164, frame 0366.

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Curry, J. S.1932–38. Account and records of works etc. Manuscript notebook. Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Mass. 60.99.234.

Curry, J. S.1941a. Letter from John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, to R. Lewenthal, New York, March 20. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 165, frame illegible.

Curry, J. S.1941b. Letter from John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, to George Macy, Limited Editions Club, NewYork, May 26. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 165, frame illegible.

Curry, J. S.1941c. Letter from John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, to Leonard Bogdanoff, New York, June 20. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 164, frame 0367.

Curry, J. S.1942a. Letter from John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, to Jack Harris, Hutchinson, Kansas, June 4. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 166, frame 1065.

Curry, J. S.1942b. Letter from John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, to F. W. Weber, Philadelphia, April 29. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frame 013-[final digit illegible].

Curry, J. S.1942c. Letter from John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, to F. W. Weber, Philadelphia, February 26. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frame 1294.

Curry, J. S.1942d. Letter from John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, to F. W. Weber, Philadelphia, March 6. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frame 1295.

Curry, J. S.1942e. Letter from John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, to F. W. Weber, Philadelphia, March 7. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frames 1296–97.

Curry, J. S.1942f. Letter from John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, to Reginald Marsh, New York, January 28 (returned with comments by Marsh). Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frame 0726.

Curry, J. S.1942g. Letter from John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, to Reginald Marsh, New York, June 17. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frame 0735.

Curry, J. S.1943a. Letter from John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, to F. W. Weber, Philadelphia, October 25. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 165, frame illegible.

Curry, J. S.1943b. Letter from John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, to Mrs. Bruce Moore, New York, January 13. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 165, frame illegible.

Curry, J. S.1944. Letter from John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, to Henry Levison, Permanent Pigments, Cincinnati, March 8. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frame 0054.

Curry, J. S.1945a. Letter from John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, to John Mathieson, February 14. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 166, frame 22--[final two digits illegible].

Curry, J. S.1945b. Letter from John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, to F. W. Weber, Philadelphia, November 16. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 164, frame 0053.

Curry, J. S.1946. Letter from John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, to Frederic Taubes, New York, April 9. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 164, frame 0557.

Curry, J. S. undated a. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frame 0871.

Curry, J. S. undated b. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 168, frame 0127.

Curry, J. S. undated c. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frame 083-[last digit illegible].

Curry, K.1997. Personal communication.

Doerner, M.1934. The materials of the artist and their use in painting, with notes on the techniques of the Old Masters, trans. Eugen Neuhaus. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

F. Weber Co. 1945. Technical Facts for the Artist 11(1) (January). Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frames 1319ff.

Fischer, M.1930. The permanent palette. Mountain Lake Park, Md., and New York: National Publishing Society.

Fischer, M.1931. Letter from Martin Fischer, Cincinnati, to John Steuart Curry, May 8. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frame 0851.

Gettens, R., and G.Stout. 1942. Painting materials: A short encyclopaedia. New York: D. Van Nostrand.

Goodrich, L., and R.Irvine1955. Reginald Marsh. New York: Whitney Museum of Art.

Horns, J. S., and H. M.Parkin. 1995. Grant Wood: A technical study. In Grant Wood: An American master revealed. San Francisco: Davenport Museum of Art/Pomegranate Artbooks. 67–91.

Katlan, A.1992. American artists' materials. Vol. 2, A guide to stretchers, panels, millboards, and stencil marks. Madison, Conn.: Sound View Press.

Laurie, A. P.1926. The painter's methods & materials. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott. [The book is undated on its title page, but the year 1926 is included in the printer's note at the end of the index.]

Lyman Allyn Museum. 1947. Painting in the Maroger medium by 14 painters, July/August 1947. New London, Conn.: Lyman Allyn Museum, Archives of American Art, Reginald Marsh Papers, roll 2233, frames 0703–0704.

Mancusi-Ungaro, C.1990. The Rothko Chapel: Treatment of the black-form triptychs. In Cleaning, retouching and coatings, ed. J. S.Mills and P.Smith. IIC preprints. International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works 13th Annual Conference, Brussels. London: IIC. 134–37.

Maroger, J.1942. The secret of Van Eyck regained. Magazine of Art35(6):219–22.

Maroger, J.1943. How to make the Maroger medium, trans. Eleanor Beckham. Magazine of Art36(1):40.

Maroger, J.1948. The secret formulas and techniques of the Masters. New York and London: Studio Publications.

Maroger, J.1952. Sheet of recipes. Archives of American Art, Reginald Marsh Papers, roll 2234, frame 0531.

Marsh, R.1929. Archives of American Art, Reginald Marsh Papers, roll 2233, frame 1207.

Marsh, R.1930–37. Archives of American Art, Reginald Marsh Papers, roll 2234, frames 0432ff.

Marsh, R.1936. Archives of American Art, Reginald Marsh Papers, roll 2234, frame 0471.

Marsh, R.1940a. Letter from Reginald Marsh to John Steuart Curry, December. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frame 0723.

Marsh, R.1940b. Letter from Reginald Marsh to John Steuart Curry, December. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frame 0724.

Marsh, R.1940c. Letter from Reginald Marsh to John Steuart Curry, December. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frame 0728.

Marsh, R.1940d. Letter from Reginald Marsh to John Steuart Curry, December 27. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frame illegible.

Marsh, R.1941. Lecture given at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, April. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 166, frames 23--[final digits illegible]. [The notes are unattributed, but in context it seems certain that they were written by Marsh.]

Marsh, R.1942a. The Maroger medium. Magazine of Art35(6):218.

Marsh, R.1942b. Letter from Reginald Marsh to John Steuart Curry, June 18. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll and frame not recorded [typed transcription is Marsh 1942c].

Marsh, R.1942c. Letter from Reginald Marsh to John Steuart Curry, June 18. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frame 0736 [typed transcript by William McCloy].

Marsh, R.1951. Archives of American Art, Reginald Marsh Papers, roll 2234, frame 0530.

Marsh, R.1953. Archives of American Art, Reginald Marsh Papers, roll 2234, frame 0448.

Marsh, R.1954. Archives of American Art, Reginald Marsh Papers, roll 2233, frame 0095.

Marsh, R. undated a. Archives of American Art, Reginald Marsh Papers, roll 2234, frame 0283.

Marsh, R. undated b. Archives of American Art, Reginald Marsh Papers, roll 2236, frame 0017.

Marsh, R. undated c. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frame 23--[final digits illegible].

Marsh, R. undated d. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 166, frame 23--[final digits illegible].

Martin, J.1995. A technical study comprising fourteen paintings by Grant Wood. In Grant Wood: An American master revealed. San Francisco: Davenport Museum of Art/Pomegranate Artbooks. 67–91.

Mathews, M.1969. Henry Ossawa Tanner: American artist. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Mathieson, J.1945. Letter from John Mathieson to John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, February 4. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 166, frame 22--[final two digits illegible].

Mayer, R.1933. Tempera painting. Creative Art (April 1933). Copy in Archives of American Art, Reginald Marsh Papers, roll 2233, frames 1276–77.

Mayer, R.1940. The artist's handbook of materials and technique. New York: Viking Press.

Mayer, R.1949. Review of Jacques Maroger, The secret formulas and techniques of the Masters. The periodical is not given, but the review is dated November 1949, and a copy of it is in Archives of American Art, Ralph Mayer Papers, roll D-211, frame 725.

McCloy, W. A.1937. Techniques of painting. Unpublished manuscript. In possession of the authors.

McCloy, W. A.1997. Personal communication.

Miller, K. H.1907. Letter from Kenneth Hayes Miller, New York, to his mother, March 2. Archives of American Art, Kenneth Hayes Miller Papers, roll N583, frames 7–9.

Papers of the Society of Painters in Tempera [1901–1907] 1928. Vol. 1, 1901–1907. 2d ed., revised by the Society of Mural Decorators and Painters in Tempera, 1928. Vol. 2, 1907–1924. Santa Fe, N. M.: Society of Mural Decorators and Painters in Tempera.

Rankin, Q.2000. The technical mysteries of Henry Ossawa Tanner. Paper presented at meeting of the Washington Conservation Guild, January, Washington, D.C.

Rasmussen, H. D.1938a. Letter from H. D. Rasmussen, Chicago, to John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, January 5. John Steuart Curry Papers, Archives of American Art, roll 167, frames 0784–85.

Rasmussen, H. D.1938b. Letter from H. D. Rasmussen, Chicago, to John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, January 13. John Steuart Curry Papers, Archives of American Art, roll 167, frames 0786–87.

Ruhemann, H.1964. Review of Max Doerner, Malmaterial und seine Behandlung im Bilde, and The materials of the artist and their use in painting. Studies in Conservation 9 (1964):170–72. Reprinted in H.Ruhemann. 1968. The cleaning of paintings: Problems and potentialities. New York and Washington: Frederick A. Praeger. 355–60.

Schmeckebier, L. E.1943. John Steuart Curry's pageant of America. New York: American Artists Group.

Sloan, J., with H.Farr. 1939. The gist of art. New York: American Artists Group.

Sprague, A.1999. The Pre-Raphaelites and the link with America. Apollo150(453), new series (November):47–52.

Stout, G.1935. Review of Max Doerner, The materials of the artist and their use in painting. Technical Studies4(1935):44–50.

Taubes, F.1941. The technique of oil painting. New York: Dodd, Mead.

Taubes, F.1942. Viewpoints: Van Eyck's secret once more. Magazine of Art35(December):298.

Taubes, F.1944. Letter from Frederic Taubes, New York, to John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, February 14. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frame 0050.

Taubes, F.1946. Letter from Frederic Taubes, New York, to John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, February 11. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 164, frame 0539.

Vibert, J. G. ca. 1900. Renseignements sur la peinture a l'oeuf et sur les procédés des peintres primitifs. Paris: Lefranc.

Vytlacil, V., and R. D.Turnbull. 1935. Egg tempera painting, tempera underpainting, oil emulsion painting: A manual of technique. New York: Oxford University Press.

Walker, M.1938. Letter from Maynard Walker, New York, to John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, January 20. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frame illegible.

Weber, F. W.1941. Letter from F. W. Weber, Philadelphia, to John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, October 7. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frames 0774–75.

Weber, F. W.1942a. Letter from F. W. Weber, Philadelphia, to John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, May 1. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frames 0774–75.

Weber, F. W.1942b. Letter from F. W. Weber, Philadelphia, to John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, February 24. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frames 0772–73.

Weber, F. W.1945. Letter from F. W. Weber, Philadelphia, to John Steuart Curry, Madison, Wisconsin, October 30. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 164, frame 0495.

[Wood, G., or Mrs. G.]. Undated. Sheet of Mrs. Grant Wood's stationery. Archives of American Art, John Steuart Curry Papers, roll 167, frame not noted.

York, L.1936. Review of V. Vytlacil and R. D. Turnbull, Egg tempera painting, tempera underpainting, oil emulsion painting: A manual of technique. Technical Studies4:240.


LANCE MAYER and GAY MYERS are both graduates of the conservation training program at the Intermuseum Laboratory in Oberlin, Ohio. Since 1981 they have been in New London, Connecticut, where they spend the majority of their time working as independent conservators for many large and small museums as well as private collectors. In 1999 they were awarded a Winterthur Advanced Research Fellowship to study American painters' techniques. Address: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London, Conn. 06320.

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