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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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.
monicaR all rights reserved

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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.

monicaR all rights reserved

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