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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Painting with Broken Glass

a Reconstruction

www.monicarotgans.nl

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’s faded colours

Van Gogh’s Paint

  A lost battle between Colour & Time?

http://www.monicarotgans.nl/agenda/

Flowers, wheat-fields, starry nights and colourful portraits, some of the words associated with the famous painter’s work. Paintings with surfaces that reflect the intensity, concentrated haste, and often rising frustration, in which they were  painted.
We know Van Gogh (1853-1890) as a colourist, a painter who took full advantage of the new possibilities  offered in the field of paint and colour by the Industrial Revolution. Innovations that swept like a tsunami first through the western world and then flooded the rest of the globe. The new pigments with strong reds, yellows, greens and blues allowed for a broader and more effective use of colour-theories. Colours which were until then either too rare and expensive, or just not existent, like warm blues, strong, clear greens and solid yellows. A situation which is now difficult to imagine living in a modern world with our daily and unlimited access to thousands of colours.

The interaction of colour is one of van Gogh’s main tools. Strategically placing primary and secondary colours, opposing cool and warm, and using structure to enhance or to break the intensity of a hue. The complexity of this thinking should be visible and give us better understanding of his approach and goal, and writing. How his works were meant to be. Unfortunately many of the newly available pigments Van Gogh (and his colleagues) used, turned out to be unstable. Some drastically unstable. The consequence is that the slow disintegration of the colours is unstoppable, even in the strictly controlled circumstances in the museums.

In 1913, 23 years after Van Gogh’s death, Charles Moreau-Gauthier published the book La peinture. Les divers procédés in which he included examples of discolouration in modern paints. Discolouration caused by exposure to light. The effect on some colours is quite disastrous. Chrome yellows turn brown (the brown dots in the painting at the top)  and some red lakes completely disappear. Unfortunately these were two of van Gogh’s popular paints, playing an important part in his balanced colours-schemes. The impact on how Van Gogh’s work has survived is big. The combination of unstable pigments, destroying varnishes, thin grounds, haste and transports, have altered the canvases irreversibly.
But thanks to the Digital Revolution we can try and undo some of the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Using natural and conservation science and original pigments, in combination with my experience as a painter and colourist, I have developed a method to recreate van Gogh’s palettes. These palettes provide the base of a digital reconstruction of which the Metropolitan’s ‘Irisses’ can be seen here.

The painting in it’s actual state. 
Van Gogh describes the irisses in his letter from May 11, 1890 as

‘…de grands bouquets de fleurs d’Iris violets, les unes contre un fond rose où l’effet est harmonieux et doux par la combinaison des verts, roses, violets….’

  There is no mentioning of white, blue and brown. The result based on the remade palette with violets, red, yellow and warm greens, alters the painting considerably, showing the harmony Van Gogh describes in his letter.
This partial digital reconstruction is an example of the importance of the material side of an art work. How the knowledge and understanding of the colours handled by the artist to transform an idea into matter, changes our perception.

my partial reconstruction of background and bouquet (monicaR all rights reserved 2015)

The reconstructed  paint on a linen surface. It is a clear example of the gap between paint, print and pixels, which can be so misleading when looking at reproductions.
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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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Mona Lisa’s hidden colours

 

A modest painting by the great Leonardo DaVinci (1452-1519) and the icon of the Louvre Museum in Paris. A genuine blockbuster with ca. 20.000 visitors a day. It is one of the worlds most famous works of art, the source of hundreds of theories and books in which authors attempt to explain uncommon aspects in the painting, like the missing eyebrows.
It is difficult, if not impossible to study the ‘Mona Lisa’ in sitio. The partly discoloured paint is hidden under layers of dirt and varnish, and protective glass, a balustrade, endless crowds of admirers (busy taking selfies) and onlookers frustrate any genuine contact.
Fortunately, in Spain’s capital, Madrid, it’s compeer is well accessible: no yellow varnish, less discolouration, no crowds and, very important, no glass or balustrade. Few of the Prado’s visitors are interested in the portrait by a not well-known Italian painter by the name  of Andrea Salai (1480-1524). Even though the painting was on show in the Louvre’s big Leonardo DaVinci exhibition in 2012.

DaVinci and his pupil Salai could have been sitting side by side when they were portraying the woman. Changes made by DaVinci during the painting process (invisible in the top-layers) were followed by Salai. The latter’s palette has survived considerably better and reveals some of the original colour-scheme in the Louvre’s ‘Mona Lisa’. Full red’s, blue, yellow and bright flesh-colours. The difference between the two panels is a shocking confrontation with the caprices of paint and time, and the unreliability of art-historic interpretations when the knowledge of original materials and their properties and meaning, is missing. 
Salai’s panel is an example of the servitude of what we now call Art in times gone by. As in Van Scorel’s painting which I discussed in an earlier blog, the landscape has turned an unrealistic, pale blue. This could very well be caused by the vanishing of the warm yellow glacis, a traditional  solution to create natural greens. The consequence is an optical separation through which the land in the foreground has lost contact with the upper part of the painting.
It might have been this change, including other discolourations, that made a former owner decide to have the painting redone. Drastically.

And this is the result. This way she probably fitted much better in his collection and this is how she has been known for centuries, until the Prado decided on a thorough investigation. The investigation revealed the hidden landscape, confirming the more then superficial likeliness with DaVinci’s panel.
Freed from over-painting, dirt and the yellowing varnish the painting has come back to life. And yes, she has eye-brows, which have not faded like the ones in Paris.

In 2010 the two paintings could have been side by side again, reunited after five centuries. Unfortunately the Louvre decided against the option.

The intriguing question is: how should we appreciate DaVinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’, understanding how little the image we see has to do with the original painting. More important even, with the painters original idea, work and goal.
Lonely Lisa          foto Melcher de Wind
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