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.

Behind the Painted Surface – M-Classes

 7Colours Project

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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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What do we see?

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…a 17th century painting of course. Recognisable by its golden-brown appearance.
A rich table full of desserts and costly glass and earthenware. In short: the typical wealth of a Golden Age Dutch still-life.
Indeed, this work comes from the hand of a renowned painter. His name is Henri Matisse. Yes, really. The famous French modernist, creator of revolutionary and colourful works of art. 
And yes, this is no mistake. The painting is on view in the Musée Matisse in Nice.



What we see, is a product of the classical academic schooling in the arts, which lasted in Europe up to the 1960’s.  A schooling that focused on a thorough training of the eye and hand, and mastering various techniques and styles. In this process copying was considered a very useful tool in learning to understand the basic elements of composition and harmony.
When in 1893, the painter Gustave Moreau sent his pupil Henri Matisse to the Louvre, this large painting looked like it does on Matisse’s copy. A dark yellow-brown, which was then considered to be the original colour scheme of 17th century painting.
If you would visit the Louvre now, looking for the original by Jan Davidsz. De Heem, it’s very likely you will have trouble finding it. Because this is how De Heem’s work looks today. Cleaned from thick layers of yellow varnish and dirt.

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Now the original colours are  clearly showing the painter’s lively composition,  the huge purple draperies embracing and accentuating the vibrating colour-scheme in the foreground. Some of the pigments have faded but still, it is clearly a totally different image and atmosphere then when Matisse studied it in 1893. 

We can enjoy this brilliant palette thanks to the revolution in conservation science. New techniques and insights are lifting the brown smog in many art museums around the world.
In the catalogue Matisse, radical invention (Art Institute of Chicago, 2010), the two paintings are  shown in a insightful article on Matisse’s later interpretation of this work, the large Still-life after Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s ‘la Desserte’, 1915. 
What would have been the effect on Matisse’s choice of colours, had he known about the de Heem’s hidden colours-scheme? It’s an intriguing question.
His still-life might have turned out quite differently.




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