Palettes in Reproductions – Rembrandt

What do we see when we look at our screens?

 

 

 

 Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), De roof van Proserpina,ca. 1632, oil-paint on panel,
84,5 x 79,9 cm., Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

The above are three images, of many more, that pop up in my browser when searching for Rembrandt’s Proserpina.

Their differences are huge and what makes it even more confusing is the strong blue in the lower image. 
So which one of these three images represents the original painting? The palette used in it’s creation? How to choose? 
Unlike Vermeer, Rembrandt is not known for an abundant use of blue pigments. The blue sky is probably a mistake and the image can be discarded.

Picturing Rembrandt’s body of work, we see brown as the leading colour, followed by reds and yellows. 

In pigments this would be:
red & yellow earth (ochre and sienna)
umber (burnt & raw)
black (ivory, lamp, bone)
vermillion
lead tin yellow
lead white
madder & other red lakes

A palette that dominated painted art from the 16th up to the 18th century.

Following this reasoning, one of the two other  images should be the one resembling the original.

The middle one shows the familiar warm browns, but is extremely yellow. Even with many layers of an oily varnish, it’s unlikely this would be the result. 

Leaves us with the top image. Yes, this one certainly has it’s points. The brown hues and the subtle grey of the sky, both part of a convincing 17th century old master’s palette. It  brings to mind other landscapes painted by Rembrandt.

 

 

Rembrandt, Landscape with a stone bridge, ca. 1638, oil-paint on panel, 29.5 x 42.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

A landscape like this one with the stone bridge, which I have seen many times in the museum. I have always been impressed how it appears to have been painted with ease , the beautiful umbers and browns and the golden light. The efficient use of middle-tones, creating deep and lively shades.
This painting has been my reference point for landscape painting by Rembrandt.
It still was when I visited Berlin and the Gemaeldegalerie.
I was not prepared for the confrontation with a  brighter, apparently different palette.
When I saw the Proserpina painting  on the wall in the museum, I had to read the attribution twice to be convinced it really was a Rembrandt.
The painting in situ in Berlin, daylight conditions. Photo monica rotgans

Like his colleagues, Rembrandt did use strong blues and greens, but most of these pigments  have turned brown or disappeared. However, in this particular painting the blue is still as stunning and overpowering as it was when it was painted, which sets it apart from his other works.

According to the colour-temperature the blue is probably made from lapis lazuli, natural ultramarine (I haven’t read the conservationist’s report yet) and it shines. Applying the extremely expensive natural ultramarine had to be done with care. The use of a non-oily binder is the reason why it still stands out in it’s bright hues.

The sky was originally in harmony with the greens of the full green foliage, and the strong colouring of the clothing of the main characters: reds, purples, blue (other), violet, and yellow. However, the greens based on copper-pigments and a warm lake yellow, have fallen away, as have the purples and reds, and the other, cheaper blues.

What we see is what time has left us of the original palette, helped along by the instability of some of the pigments and the negative effect of an abundant use of oils.
This detail shows clearly the loss of greens, purples, and blue.

 

The conclusion is that of the three images presented the lower one is the closest to the original. Also brown pigments were not the dominating colour in Dutch baroque painting, but the instability of pigments, the ageing of oils, in combination with layers of yellowed varnishes, have for a long time clouded our view and set the standard.

Fortunately, the revolution in conservation science enables us to be more aware of how art-works were originally intended, to recreate their colour-schemes in our mind when looking at painted art. Both in old and modern art.

The abundance and availability of (digital) images and reproductions are no guarantee, as long as there is no international standard or reference checkpoint, for a better understanding of the painter’s materials.

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Rembrandt’s faded colours

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) ‘De Staalmeesters’, 1662, 191 x 279 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

 Watching Time at Work

 Paint is an unreliable partner as Primo Levi remarked to the point in his book The Monkey’s wrench (1978). However, we  painters have to work with it and hope it will not play tricks on our work too quickly. 


With the developments in modern art and the focus on concept, combined with the avalanche of new pigments and binders like acrylics, it is still uncertain what the next generations will be able to see from what has been made since the 1960’s. Those years in which tradition and craft were condemned to be irrelevant and even a hindrance for the creative process.
But the times, and our thinking, are changing.
Crafts are being rediscovered and with them the historical materials and techniques. The ‘Old Masters’ are studied anew: their painting practice, thinking and works.
Masters like Rembrandt, whose once revolutionary and wilful artworks became icons in art, like his famous painting ‘De Staalmeesters’ (Syndics of Draper’s Guild).

‘ It is an old saying that rules are meant to be broken. No one did this more successfully than Rembrandt. For instance, the rich red in the table cloth in the Syndics is obtained by glazing a translucent red over brown, instead of over a brighter red. Rules are meant to be broken, but it is necessary to know first what the rules are. ‘

The above quotation is an example of the re-appreciation of the grumpy Dutchman’s craft. I encountered this quote in an instructional post offering advice on painting materials and techniques.
Indeed, you have to know the rules before you can break them. But you need to know all the rules involved. In this case the rules of time and colour need to be taken into account.
The author was not familiar with Primo Levi’s observation, which applies to most old art:  paint  is unreliable, ages, deteriorates, changes or even vanishes as a colour. All of these factors are visible in this still brilliant painting, which was radiant when it left the painter’s easel.

Yes, Rembrandt did paint a translucent red lake, but no, not over brown, which would have produced a dull, uninteresting red-brown. Most likely the glaze (some thickly applied parts are still visible) was used to intensify and darken a warm red. originally probably a purplish red, a combination of blue smalt and red lake(s), intended as a darker hue of the bright part of the cloth. This way the deeper and cooler red enhances the light falling through the high window. It opens up and accentuates the space in which the action is taking place. However, both pigments are famously unstable and can loose practically all their original colour.

Obviously my simple photo-shop tool can’t mimic the richness of the original paints, the rich glazes, the  lakes, blues and umbers, the hand of the painter. However, with a partial reconstruction you can get an  idea of the effect this richly coloured, costly, and exotic rug would have had in the composition. 

Nowadays we do not realise how extremely precious, special, and sought after these rugs once were.
In the picture it is a loud, clear, visual social statement, like today’s designer fashions and watches. The  Amsterdam Syndics belonged to the very wealthy and influential of the 17th century Dutch Republic. Expensive housing, furniture, cutlery, clothes, art-collections, and the status of the commissioned artists, were all vehicles to underline the social position of the portrayed.

Looking at the painting in it’s present condition, it is obvious how much the original paint-layers have suffered, losing colour due to the properties of the pigments, Rembrandt’s technique, and the impact of time. Losing an essential part of it’s symbolic meaning.

An antique Persian rug

Using what we know, the familiar, can be very helpful when we are studying a work of art. In this case, we know these rugs. They are commonly available as carpets. Often in red’s with blue, yellow and green decorations. Colourful pieces, so why does the painting show an undefined brown example of textile? 
Combining the practical knowledge of why and how these carpets are made with the awareness of the properties of historical pigments, binders and techniques, we can imagine the painting’s original colour-system.

The two Dutchmen below were portrayed during the same period as the Staalmeesters. And like the ‘Syndics’ these men are displaying who and what they are, using the commonly known symbols of their time to do so. 
These paintings share with Rembrandt’s the similar effects which time has on painted colour, though less obvious. Both have lost their blues, again this tricky smalt-blue and perhaps some indigo, and the red lakes. 
The landscape on the left has transformed into a dull grey background, as has the blue in the man’s costly clothing and that of his servant. The vanished lakes flatten the reds and blacks.

As a result of the tricks of time, Dutch oil-painting of the 16th, 17th and 18th century, seems to be dominated by the stable and sturdy red, brown, and yellow earth-pigments, vermilion, lead-white and blacks.

  It is unstoppable time at work.

Freshly finished rugs.

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Painting with Broken Glass

a Reconstruction

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Since prehistory man has attempted to reproduce the deep blue colour of a clear summer sky. The heavenly blue that is thought to house and represent the unpredictable, divine powers.
Blue is a rare colour in our earth’s colour-scheme which is dominated by floral greens and the many hues of ochres. Easy to find ochres used in colouring the earliest art, supplemented with the whites of lime and charcoal blacks.

Blue and green pigments and paints, and the words used to name them, appeared much later.
As usable pigments and stable colours they were hard to come by, they were either hidden in ore, like cobalt and copper, or embedded in enclosing rock, like lapis lazuli.
Azurite is the oldest source for blue pigment, first used in the ancient cultures of the Middle East. It is a member of the copper-family, hence it’s blue is tinted with a green hue, making it less suitable to imitate the warm blue of the heavens.

For about 6000 years the only  genuine alternative was the pigment made from the deep blue variety of lapis lazuli. However, it’s scarcity meant that for most people it was unavailable or unobtainable. For the whole of Eurasia and Africa the only known sources were from the remote mines of the hostile Kokchan-valley in Badakshan, modern Afghanistan.
A very welcome alternative became available around 5000 years ago as a product of the expanding Middle-Eastern glass-industries. Red, green, yellow and blue glass grew to be the man-made alternative for colourful but rare gemstones, easily manipulated in moulds of various sizes.
The blue variety of glass, the imitation lapis, was made by adding cobalt to the basic glass-ingredients.

The famous funeral mask of Tutankhamen is a beautiful example of the use of  blue cobalt glass and enamel in combination with genuine lapis lazuli.

Christianity established as the main religion on the European continent during the Middle Ages. With it’s increasing power, the need for representative and dominating symbols grew, culminating in the extraordinary piece of architecture: the cathedral.

the intense blue of the Saint Denis Cathedral stained-glass Rose window

The abbot of Saint Denis, Suger (ca. 1081-1151) is considered to be the initiator of the first grand stained-glass windows. They were commissioned for the far-reaching expansion of the monastery’s church, turning it into the first known cathedral. For his church, Suger wanted the windows to represent ‘.. the inaccessible light where God lives’. Light which could only be of the most intense, enveloping blue.
And thus were they created.

Cobalt, the raw material used in colouring blue glass was a by-product from the mining of silver and other ores. It was used to produce the so called saffer, after sapphire. Not the gemstone we know under that name, but the lazuli-stone, then considered far more precious than gold and sapphire. Somewhere  the idea was had by someone to turn Saffer into smalt by grinding the  blue lumps of molten glass into a pigment. A pigment resembling lapis, but readily available and far less costly.

a piece of smalt/saffer, as sold by Kremer Pigmente

 Painters and decorators welcomed the solution which put an end to the constant scarcity of genuine ultramarine and the unsatisfying hues of azurite. Despite it’s caprices smalt became one of the regular pigments. However,  to maintain it’s colour it had to be used rather coarsely: the finer the grain, the paler the colour.

Coarsely ground smalt, so called strooiblauw. Collection of author

Smalt, as a warm blue, raised considerably the colour-temperature of the painter’s palette. Beautiful examples are the skies in Dutch landscape paintings, as in the ‘River-scene’ by Jan van Goyen (1596-1656).

http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/jan-van-goyen-a-river-scene-with-a-hut-on-an-island

Kobold (hence ‘cobalt’) the little blue ghost, believed by the miners to inhabit the ore, continued to play it’s games. Painters knew of the problems ill treated smalt could give; I wonder whether they could really imagine the enormous impact of discoloured smalt on their work. 
Old smalt-blue can still be enjoyed today, as seen in Van Goyen’s painting, but it can also have lost it’s colour completely. Changed into a dull brown, deforming the composition and, importantly, changing the meaning of a painting. Actually diminishing all of the painter’s hard work.

http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/jan-jansz-treck-still-life-with-a-pewter-flagon-and-two-ming-bowls

The above still-life by Jan Jansz. Treck (1605-1652) is, unfortunately, a fine example. It seems an old  painting displaying the golden-brown glow of age. However, we may ask ourselves does this kind of greenish china-ware exist? Does it make sense?
What we are in fact looking at is a coat of yellowed varnish in combination with a vanished blue. Linseed-oil and smalt don’t really like each other. The colour of the tiny glass-particles is eventually swallowed by the oil when not applied properly, or when the smalt is not of the right quality. What Treck originally painted was a fine blue tablecloth with a blueish background, and on the table a still-life of the most exquisite blue-white china and an expensive crystal glass. Symbols of wealth as the Dutch liked to display.

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Van Gogh Blues


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Imagine….a world without blue pigments. Not just blue paints but also dyes, the colourants for textiles and leather, inks and plastics. Leaving the sky above our heads as the only large blue surface in sight, in summer accompanied by the short-lived flowers of fields and mountains.
For thousands of years this was the actual situation.
Strong, warm and bright blue pigments were rare, with lapis lazuli as the ultimate, most revered and exclusive exception.
A painting like Van Gogh’s Dr Gachet from 1890, with its abundant use of blue and red, would have been a phenomenon. Displaying colours and pigments normally reserved for the religious and worldly elite.

The 19th century was an exceptional age having an unprecedented effect on the use and possibilities of colour and paint with France, and in particular Paris, as the driving forces.
Napoleon’s hunger for territory and power resulted in almost endless processions from every corner of the new Empire to it’s capital, Paris, transporting artworks to what later would become the Musée du Louvre.

Napoleon is considering an Egyptian mummy for his collections, ca. 1800.

This art-flood had it’s consequences. Many art-works were damaged during the often long transports and needed restoration before being displayed. To this purpose the French government installed in 1794 a Conservatoire du Muséum des Arts. The demand for historic and rare blue pigments, like lapis lazuli and azurite, gave birth to the development of new pigments that changed the painters palette and finally brought an end to the scarcity of bright blue paints.

Cobalt-blue was developed by Thénard around 1802, followed by ultramarine, the long sought for replacement of lapis lazuli, in 1828 by Guimet.

Cobalt-blue was and still is relatively expensive (cheap cobalt is not the real thing!), but ultramarine turned out to be a rather economic pigment. The cheapest varieties were used as whiteners for laundry, of which Reckitt’s Blue is one of the best known. The latter is an ideal substitute for painters lacking resources to buy proper pigments, like the young Van Gogh, who even used coffee grounds to make his brown paints. 

Van Gogh ‘The poor and the money’, 1882, mixed media on paper

Van Gogh considered cobalt-blue to be une couleur divine, a divine colour, ideal for suggesting space in the restricted two-dimensions of a canvas. The portrait of Dr. Gachet is a beautiful example of his love for an abundant use of cobalt, indirectly made possible thanks to the expeditions of Napoleon.

Le Docteur Paul Gachet, 1890, 68 x 57 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
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Paint & Pixels, the battle

Discolouration and the Public Eye

 

Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) The finding of Moses, 1651, 116 x 175 cm.,
oil on canvas, National Gallery, London.                 Photo by author

An idyllic representation of the finding of baby Moses by the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh. It’s Poussin’s third and last version of the topic, and a painting displaying an abundant use of exclusive pigments, especially the warm blue of natural ultramarine (from lapis lazuli). A rare blue,for many centuries more sought after and more valued than gold. It’s specific colour-temperature in combination with the special way it has to be applied in oil-painting, makes it stand out even more than was intended by the painter.
Poussin would not be pleased at all seeing his work in its present state, with the isolated red, yellow and blues, dominating and dis-balancing the composition.
One of the main colours that went missing is green: the warm, vibrant greens. We see some greenish foliage and a cool blueish green in some of the women’s clothing, they are too cool and too weak to stand their ground. The cause is discolouration. A combination of fading yellow lakes and the browning of copper-greens such as verdigris.
Until the 19th century the painter’s palette was limited to greens that were made by mixing blues and yellows, or the cool, blueish copper-greens (including malachite). These could be turned into warm greens using yellow lakes. Simple, bright, and warm green pigments were unavailable until the 19th century.
The result of the then available limited palette and the tricks of paint, is a not very attractive, unharmonious painting.

However, this problem may be more or less solved by reproducing the painting in pixels or prints.

The Poussin on the website of the National Gallery

To achieve an optical balance, the image on the website of the National Gallery has been markedly darkened, reducing its contrast and brightness. The difference between my photo taken in the museum, and the image from the website, is more than remarkable.
This demonstrates one of the many problems we are confronted with when looking at a painting in reproduction, whether it be in pixels or print.

We may conclude that a confrontation with a real work of art can never be replicated by viewing a reproduction, regardless of the medium.

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Azurite, an ancient, universal blue

Linking cultures

A beautifully stylized marble head, in every inch appealing to our modern appreciation of sculpture. A product of the Cycladic civilisation and approximately made somewhere between 2500 and 2000 B.C.  I am combining this little gem with a large one from the 14th century, the Scrovegni Chapel in Italy’s Padua. The walls of the chapel and ceiling have been decorated with luminous paintings by the so-called father of Renaissance, Giotto di Bondone (1266/67-1337).

You are probably wondering why both are featuring in this page on azurite, the ancient blue pigment. It’s exactly that, the presence of azurite.

The intense blue in the fresco’s by Giotto is mainly made from azurite, a mineral mined in mountainous parts all over the world. In Europe some of the historic mines were located in today’s Hungary, France and Germany. Azurite was a main- source for blue, well-known in Mesopotamia, old Egypt, Greece, the Roman Empire, Asia, Africa and pre-Christian America. It is often found together with it’s green twin-brother malachite. See the image below in which the malachite is embracing the azurite.

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 So what is the connection bewteen Giotto’s blue and the colourless Cyclade head?

Because we don’t see at first sight what we could see, if we would know about the significance and meaning of colour in old cultures. A colourless sculpture to us is ‘normal’, but that is a relatively recent opinion. Colour was (and still is) language, defining status and meaning of people and objects. Objects that were not produced as a work of art, but as a practical object for religious or profane rituals. Like this head, missing the body it used to be attached to.
An idol.
Thanks to research we now know this head was once decorated with bright blue and red paint. Weather-beaten, cleaned and scrubbed, all traces of that colour seem to have disappeared. What we can observe though, is a difference in structure of the surface. A difference between the pock-pitted head and the smooth lining of eyes, lips and hair. This is how paint can be rediscovered. Investigation showed minuscule remains of azurite and vermilion hidden in the pores of the marble. Time and erosion have marked the soft stone, except where the azurite and vermilion provided a protective layer, showing the original smooth surface.
A reconstruction in 2006 for the ‘Shaping the beginning’ exhibition in Athens, reveals more of the original colour scheme; a vivid decoration in blue and red, which is so very much in contrast with our idea of a colourless, classical past.

Two painters from very different cultures and times, are joined by their pigments and palettes.

For more information read  ‘Bunte Goetter die farbigkeit antiker Skulptur’ SM Berlin, Hirmer

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Indigo

 

P.P. Rubens, Desecend of the Cross, oil on panel, 209 x 148 cm., Antwerp Cathedral.

When Rubens painted this large altar-piece in the beginning of the 17th-century, he was using the same blue pigment as his colleagues in Asia and South-America: dried indigo, mixed with a binder. 
Antwerp, Rubens’ home-town, was at the time one of the main-ports in the booming global trade between Eurasia and the America’s. Transshipping anything from spices to gems, from delicate textiles to commodities. The unique position of Antwerp enabled Rubens to use a new, powerful, dark-blue pigment, shipped from today’s Mexico to Europe: indigo. 
Indigo is a cool, blackish blue, which accounts for the rather gloomy appearance of the triptych. Despite the disadvantage of a cool colour-temperature, it became a welcome substitute for the costly lazurite (ultramarine) from lapis lazuli, frequently unobtainable for painters outside Asia. This precious and heavenly stone  was mined in the Afghan mountains of the Hindu Kush, due to  grimm weather conditions only accessible in summer.

 Bonampak, Maya-mural, ca. 650, with Maya-blue, made of indigo and polygorskite. 

Nowadays we know indigo mainly from the multicultural ‘jeans’. Originally a sturdy working outfit for Californian miners, now a globally accepted uni-sex piece of clothing.

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The oldest surviving pair of jeans, a Levi’s from ca. 1890. Indigo-dyed cotton.

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