WAACNewsletter
May 2001 Volume 23 Number 2


Book Reviews


Seeing Through Paintings: Physical Examination in Art Historical Studies

Andrea Kirsh and Rustin S. Levenson
Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2000.

Reviewed by Joyce Hill Stoner,
Professor and Paintings Conservator, Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation

Here is an ideal book for painting conservators to recommend as reading for art historians, artists interested in the work of their predecessors, and museum studies classes. It is also fascinating reading for conservation graduate students and their teachers. After finishing it I immediately assigned it as mandatory reading for qualifying exams. Would that Bernard Berenson could have read this book; he would have made fewer mistakes in attribution.

Andrea Kirsh, independent art historian (B.A. in art history from Harvard, M. A. from the University of Chicago), and Rustin S. Levenson, paintings conservator (B. A. from Wellesley, Certificate in Conservation from the Fogg Art Museum), have collaborated to produce an insightful publication that leads the reader painlessly through the visual and analytical examination of each layer of a painting. And the book is highly readable and copiously illustrated.

Both authors have ties to Harvard University, which is not a bit surprising. At Harvard and its Fogg Art Museum in the 1920s, Edward Waldo Forbes and Paul J. Sachs began a collaboration which sent more than 300 art historians out into the museum world with training in "looking, looking, looking" at paintings. These alumni understood connoisseurship in both the aesthetic and technical sense and took up positions of authority in over 100 art institutions in the U. S.

Recent advances in historiography of the history of art have sometimes diminished the focus on the actual physical fact of works of art in the training of young art historians. A number of publications have appeared in the last decade noting that current recipients of doctoral degrees in art history interested in curatorial positions may have received minimal training in issues of examining paintings before purchase, designing exhibitions and lighting, recognizing copies or fakes, or working with a conservator to determine if paintings are in stable condition and should be loaned or borrowed.

The Fogg in the 1920s is also known as the birthplace of professional conservation in this county. Fogg pioneers Rutherford John Gettens and George L. Stout authored Painting Materials: A Short Encyclopaedia in 1942, reprinted by Dover in 1966 and amazingly never yet superseded as a primary reference for the practicing conservator, especially on pigment properties and dates. Own only the new Kirsh and Levenson book and the Gettens and Stout book and you have a major reference library for looking at paintings.

The Kirsh and Levenson book addresses issues of technical art history directly to art history or museum studies teachers, collectors, and interested laymen. Its only competitor in such digestible scholarship in the physical under-standing of paintings is the much smaller but also highly valuable National Gallery, London Pocket Guide, Conservation of Paintings by David Bomford, 1997.

Seeing Through Paintings is already being used as a major reference by conservators who teach art history classes in universities; Lance Mayer and Gay Myers, who guest teach for Theresa Fairbanks's classes at Yale, have found it to be an ideal text to accompany their lectures. The book has been awarded the 2001 College Art Association/ Heritage Preservation Award for Distinction in Scholarship and Conservation which recognizes the enhanced "understanding of art through the application of knowledge and experience in conservation, art history, and art." This award, initiated in 1990, recognizes a growing cooperation between art historians and the field of conservation. The 1991 winner, Examining Velazquez, represented a three-way partnership: an art historian (Gridley McKim-Smith), a conservator (Greta Andersen-Bergdoll), and museum scientist (Richard Newman), accompanied by technical photography by Andrew Davidhazy. Examining Velazquez set a high standard for substantive scholarship on a particular artist and Spanish Baroque paintings in general attainable through looking with three pairs of eyes.

Andrea Kirsh and Rustin Levenson cover the techniques of a spectrum of high profile European and American artists. The book is worth purchasing for the 267 largely color illustrations alone. Twenty-five case studies illustrate lessons about structure from the format of a Giotto altarpiece to Jackson Pollock's technique for Blue poles (highly deliberate albeit once described as inspired by a "drunken fury").

The authors proceed, as conservators do in a condition report, from the support to the ground, paint, and varnish to concerns about framing and lighting. Yet the work is not off-putting with technical jargon or cluttered with irrelevant details about construction strata. Each observation is salient regarding such topics as the artist's original intent, changes that have happened since the artist laid down his brush, and investigations of authorship or working procedures.

For some years paintings conservators have talked about establishing an awareness campaign to alert viewers and scholars to "untouched" paintings—the rare 16th or 17th-century canvas painting that has never been subjected to the heat and steam of a glue lining, the painting that has miraculously never flaked or been scratched and has no restorer's retouching or "inpainting" whatsoever, or a dry, sandy Braque still life that has never been waxed or varnished. Could scholars be told in a museum catalogue, "write your dissertation on THIS work because it is still in exemplary state and represents the artist entirely; it is not 20% reconstructed by a restorer"? Could gold stars be put on the wall labels in the museums? "No," say many directors, because this would alert the viewers to the contrasting degree of restoration or change undergone by neighboring paintings.

However, Kirsh and Levenson have taken an excellent step forward in this direction by listing as their second appendix, "Paintings in Exemplary Condition in Public Collections. This includes:

  1. Canvases painted prior to 1800 that have never been lined (from 14 different museums, including a Velasquez at the National Gallery, London and a Titian at the National Gallery in Washington);
  2. Old master paintings in distemper that have not been varnished (from 13 museums, including a Mantegna at the National Gallery of Ireland and a Bouts at the J. Paul Getty Museum);
  3. Modernist paintings that have survived unvarnished, as the artist intended (from 20 museums, including Seurat's La Grande Jatte, Art Institute of Chicago, 1884, under glass as the artist intended and Braque's Music, Phillips Collection, 1914, oil mixed with sawdust and crayon);
  4. A "very preliminary list of unfinished paintings that reveal the artist's working order" (from 29 museums, including works by Allston, Burne-Jones, Cezanne, Correggio, David, Degas, Delacroix, Durer, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Homer, Ingres, Leonardo, Manet, Matisse, Mondrian, Monet, Moreau, Picasso, Rembrandt, Sargent, and Tintoretto).

The scholarly underpinnings of this book are also exemplary. After reading the entire book I also read all the footnotes and the bibliography; this is not a usual habit. The footnotes tell entire stories on their own about phone conversations regarding unlined paintings, relevant sections in other publications, adventures in craquelure study, and my favorite, footnote 57, p. 278:

"We must insert a cautionary note: when attempting close study of paintings on museum walls, viewers must learn not to point; they must keep their hands behind their backs and assume a nonthreatening posture. The security staff is often alarmed by such close attention to the paintings. The authors were almost thrown out of the Metropolitan Museum of Art when viewing Velazquez' Juan de Pareja (another painting in exemplary condition-never lined) with an intensity that upset the guards." This anecdote amusingly portrays the authors' visible passion for discussing the physical attributes of paintings.

The selected and carefully annotated bibliography lists more than 200 excellent examples of publications relevant to the examination and understanding of historical painting techniques and the look of paintings. The authors have provided the important service of referencing catalogues raisonnes and exhibition catalogues that contain technical sections; mention of such important sections is unfortunately often skipped by the promotional materials distributed by today's presses. I photocopied the bibliography to make certain that our Winterthur Library and the Getty Conservation Institute's Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts are updated accordingly. Ten outstanding videotapes "illustrating technical examination, conservation treatment, and artists' techniques" are also listed with annotations. Appendix 1 provides a brief chronology of common pigments according to initial use that give a general idea of which pigments can provide help with dating a work. There is also a useful glossary and an index that references the text and footnotes, and even includes topics from the annotated bibliography.

In the space I have remaining, I would like to present highlights from the six chapters. The introduction notes the types of question the book answers, including:

Chapter 2, "The Support," notes that "the most significant information revealed by study of the support is the approximate age of the painting and whether the work has survived in complete or fragmentary form." The chapter discusses choices of wood or canvas, dendrochronology, aging of wood panels, cradling, transfer, stretchers and strainers, pieced supports, stone and metal supports and artists' board. Photographs show Seurat's use of warm tones of unprimed wood; a detail of an original engaged frame; how x-radiographs helped determine that seven separated panels painted by Giotto had a common origin; diagonal scoring in a wood panel to simulate the appearance of a twilled canvas in a portrait by Gilbert Stuart; Ruffino Tamayo's use of a prominently striped serape for a painting support; a seamed addition to a Velazquez painting with the artist's paint on both the original canvas and the addition; and major editing by cutting of canvas paintings by Picasso, Degas, and Manet.

Chapter 3, "The Ground and Preparatory Layers," notes that study of the ground is essential for historians in understanding the painter's intent. Was the initial preparation rough or smooth? Colored? Absorbent? Or omitted entirely? One cross section of a red ground from a Tiepolo painting is reproduced. Again, excellent case studies and photographs show a painting by Lemoine of the artist Vigee-Lebrun working on a gray-grounded canvas with a chalk underdrawing (Lemoine uses the same tonality for her own painting); a coarsely textured ground by Gauguin; a ground textured by J.-L. David to resemble the granular surface of plaster; grounds by Jacob Lawrence or Georges Braque textured to resemble the surface of fresco; incisions in a ground by Uccello that delineate the perspectival scheme; and free-hand incisions in the ground by Caravaggio.

Chapter 4, "The Paint Layer," covers pigments, cross-sections, gilding, tooling, punchwork, binding media, egg tempera, distemper, drying oils, acrylics, textural paint additives, and aging effects. Photographs and case studies are used to explain misleading later repaint on Georges de la Tour's Fortune Teller; sgraffito work on an Agnolo Gaddi panel; the distinctive appearance of "glue tempera on canvas; the exceptional unlined condition of a Titian painting; the increasing transparency of the white paint in Winslow Homer's Milking Time; deconstruction of the idea of complete "spontaneity" in the surfaces of works by Monet and Pollock; unvarnished lean paints in certain works by Degas; scraping away of paint for surface effects by Munch; Van Goyen's intentional use of visible wood grain in the final composition; fading yellows in a Hopper, fading pinks in a Van Gogh, and the famous faded Harvard crimson of the Rothko murals from 1962; the use of tratteggio to reconstruct large losses on a Lorenzetti; extensive changes revealed in x-radiographs of works by Velazquez, Judith Leyster, and Joaquin Torres-Garcia; infra-red reflectography of paintings by de Kooning and Raphael; and technical investigation of three versions of Chardin's Soap Bubbles; the working methods of El Greco and Velazquez; and hidden histories of Constable's White Horse sketch and a repainted Mondrian.

(pause for breath. Ed.)

Chapter 5, "The Varnish Layer," notes that "the practice of replacing discolored varnish dates from at least the seventeenth century. . . . During times of active debate about varnish, its presence or absence can indicate a painter's allegiance to a theoretical position. . . . If the varnish is a later addition or replacement, it is most useful as an index of changing taste about standards of picture `finish.'" The authors quote historical and contemporary sources about artists' varnish preferences and trace unique evidence of original varnishes on 15th-century panel paintings, formerly thought to have been unvarnished. Varnishing controversies are discussed along with basic descriptions of removing and replacing discolored varnishes accompanied by mid-treatment photographs. Aesthetic issues regarding varnishes are famously difficult to illustrate, but the authors have persevered and found excellent color plates of a selectively varnished 1928 painting by Kazimir Malevich and a specular light photograph during varnish removal on a Matisse still life painting. Pierre Bonnard penciled on the reverse of one painting "n'est pas de vernis" (do not varnish).

The final chapter, "Beyond the Painting," considers labels and collectors'marks, engaged frames, frames painted by an artist (e.g. Marsden Hartley-an excellent color photograph of the frame and painting together), Whistler's concerns for the presentation of his works, viewing conditions and lighting, and Frederic E. Church's dramatic framing of Heart of the Andes in 1864.

This is a remarkable, comprehensive, and fascinating book worth reading and re-reading about the basic details and the surprising anomalies that can be found in the study of the physical presence of paintings.


Reviews in Conservation

International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works

Editor: Sally Woodcock
Editorial Board: Robert L. Barclay; Andreas Burmester; Dinah Eastop; Francoise Flieder; E. Melanie Gifford; Ian Donald MacLeod; Tim Padfield; Alice Boccia Paterakis; Clifford Price; John Winter.
Editorial Office, 130 Coleridge Road, Cambridge CB1 3PR, UK, Tel/Fax +44 (0)1223 562244, mail@sallywoodcock.co.uk

Reviews in Conservation is published annually by the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. It is a review journal, with each paper providing comprehensive coverage of the literature on a specific subject area. It encompasses all disciplines within the conservation field. Papers are welcomed on all areas relevant to conservation including practical conservation treatment, materials, technical art history, science, theory etc.

The journal is intended to provide an overview of the current state of knowledge on a given subject by discussing the literature, both historic and modern, but is not intended as a blow-by-blow account of each and every article published. It is intended to draw on what is known about the subject and present the main results discussed critically, pointing out omissions, inconsistencies, areas for future research, etc.

It is hoped that the papers will be thematic and analytic, rather than strictly descriptive. It would be useful if the paper could include analysis of why and how opinions have changed, if relevant, and how this is reflected in the literature. A discussion of the limitations of the present state of knowledge or practice, and how this knowledge or practice has been reached, would also be welcome.

Each paper within the journal should ensure that all the relevant literature is covered, synthesised, and assessed, both providing an access point to the subject for newcomers and enabling the experienced researcher to benefit from a probing distillation of the subject. It is intended, by providing a critical review of what is published, to produce an overview of what is known.

Papers discussing the literature relating to practical treatments, materials, technical art history, science, theory, and any other area relevant to conservation are welcomed.

The journal comprises seven or eight literature reviews, each covering a specific aspect of conservation. Authors are paid a fee of £350. At up to 8,000 words, it is intended to provide an opportunity to write something rather longer than is possible in a journal such as Studies in Conservation. Illustrations are welcome, although they can only be published in black and white unless specific arrangements are made. All papers will be submitted to peer review. The journal will be distributed to all IIC members as a benefit of membership in the institute.


Images Past, Images Present: The Conservation and Preservation of Rock Art.

IRAC Proceedings, Vol. 2.

J. Claire Dean (editor). Published: December 1999, American Rock Art Research Association, Tucson. 59 pages, with black and white and one color illustration. Price: $16 (plus shipping).

Anyone who has tried to carry out a literature search on rock art conservation will have noticed a rather thin return for their efforts. Not only is there relatively little published, but of the readily available material few contributions have been written by professional conservators, the bulk having been produced by archaeologists, anthropologists, land managers, and others.

In the last few days of 1999 a new addition to the literature was published by the American Rock Art Research Association (ARARA). Images Past, Images Present: The Conservation and Preservation of Rock Art represents the proceedings of a session on rock image conservation organized as part of the 1994 International Rock Art Congress (IRAC), held in Flagstaff, Arizona. Due to post-editing production problems, the volume was rather slow to appear, consequently some of the research outlined in the papers is now rather dated. However, it remains a slim but sincere addition to the existing archive of published conservation material on this subject.

Amongst the papers included in the volume are offerings from conservators J. Claire Dean, John Griswold, Nancy Odegaard, and Connie Silver, and the volume is edited by J. Claire Dean. Topics covered include an overview of professional conservation, a Native American's comments on the concept of "conservation" as it pertains to rock images, some case studies of conservation materials, methods and actual treatments, and topics relating to site management and general preservation issues. The papers also cover several different geographical areas, including North America, South America, and Africa.

The book is available from ARARA through the Deer Valley Rock Art Center. An order form—along with a list of ARARA's other publications—is available on their web site at www.arara.org or by writing to ARARA Publications, P.O.Box 41998, Phoenix, AZ 85080-1998.

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