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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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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