Painted in 1396, this Spanish retable and frontal, collectively known as the Ayala Altarpiece, are among the oldest paintings in the museum’s collection. The monumental pair of works, depicting the life of Christ and the Virgin, is impressive for its visual beauty, historical importance, and sheer size (the large retable measures 99 3/4” high x 263 ¾” wide). It was commissioned in 1396 by Pedro Lopez de Ayala and his wife, Leonor de Guzman, for the Ayala family funeral chapel in the Castile region of northern Spain. An educated man of many achievements, Pedro Lopez de Ayala (1322-1407) was chancellor of Castile, a chronicler of his times, and a poet. The altarpiece remained in the family chapel for over five hundred years until financial considerations led to its sale in 1913. Chicago industrialist Charles Deering, an avid collector of Spanish art, bought the artwork and displayed it in his mansion in Sitges, Spain. Shortly thereafter, Deering died and his daughters donated the altarpiece and many additional artworks to the Art Institute in 1928. Since then, it has graced the walls of the museum and it didn’t take long for this awe-inspiring piece to become a favorite among visitors and staff alike.
To make way for the Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art, the altarpiece was taken off view several years ago and put in storage. Now, in preparation for a new installation of Medieval and Renaissance art, scheduled to open in March 2017, the altarpiece is undergoing a comprehensive conservation treatment that will address both structural and aesthetic issues. The main challenge of the treatment is the removal of a thick, tan overpaint applied to mask paint loss in the cream-colored background.
The overpaint was liberally, but unevenly, applied in several restoration campaigns prior to arriving at the Art Institute and it covers almost all the background of the retable. As you can see in the above detail from the Pentecost episode, small spots of the much brighter and lighter original cream paint are visible through the tan overpaint. Little effort was made to match the overpaint to the original paint color and the restoration paint is much darker and warmer in color. The effect is a dramatic darkening of the tonality of the artwork and a decrease in the brilliance of the jewel-like tones used in the composition.
It is not known when the overpaint was first applied, but the majority of it may have been added to “spruce up” the painting before its sale in 1913. Analysis of the various paint layers by the museum’s Conservation Science Department confirmed the binder of the original paint layer is egg tempera while the overpaint is oil-based. This was good news for conservation, as the use of different media allowed us to devise a cleaning solution that solubilizes the oil paint without affecting the underlying original tempera paint.
With a successful system in hand, treatment is progressing full force on the altarpiece. The dramatic improvement gained by removing the dark overpaint is clearly visible in the photograph above. Without the dark, muted overpaint, tonal harmony is restored and the brilliance of the original paint is once again allowed to shine.
Stay tuned for updates as the artwork continues its amazing transformation.
—Julie A. Simek, Paintings Conservator
Image Credits: Retable and Frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin (Ayala Altarpiece), 1396. Gift of Charles Deering.
Details from Retable and Frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin (Ayala Altarpiece) showing multiple applications of overpaint.
Detail from Retable and Frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin (Ayala Altarpiece) showing overpaint partially removed from the background.
You may be surprised to discover that one of Walker Evans’s most iconic images (Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife, pictured above) was rejected by the first publisher it was submitted to. In fact, in 1936 Fortune magazine sent James Agee (as the writer) and Evans (as the photographer) to Hale County, Alabama to document the effects of the Great Depression on tenant farmers. They spent time with three poor families, including the Burroughs family. Evans took this photo of Allie Mae Burroughs during his stay.
Ultimately, Fortune passed on the article and accompanying photos due to length, but Agee later published an adapted version of his writings—with Evans’ photographs—as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941. The straightforward Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife quickly became the most famous image from the book, showcasing the subject’s quiet dignity mixed with an expression that can be alternately read as shy, bored, or annoyed.
Today marks what would have been Walker Evans’s 111th birthday. Click here to see more of Evans’ images in the Art Institute’s collection.
Image Credit: Walker Evans. Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife, 1936. Restricted Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.
I have many roles in my stewardship of the Thorne Miniature Rooms. Research is one of the largest areas, encompassing everything from the locations Mrs. Thorne replicated to the history and practice of miniature-making to Mrs. Narcissa Thorne herself. One avenue that has sparked my interest lately was Mrs. Thorne’s collaborations with a well-known metal craft artist, Marie Zimmermann… leading me to a long overdue visit to the Thorne Family crypt.
Mrs. James Ward Thorne, creator of our beloved Thorne Miniature Rooms, was a serious patron of the arts. Not only did she collect wonderful miniature works but she had an impressive collection and library of decorative arts—most of which she donated to the Art Institute’s Ryerson and Burnham Libraries—and a collection of early American street photography, also donated to the museum. You could say she lived a life full of art; you could also say she died by it too…
Art filled Mrs.Thorne’s life so she took it upon herself to be well versed in historic as well as contemporary artisans. Marie Zimmermann was one of these artists. A member of the prestigious Arts Club in New York City, she was considered one of the greatest craftspersons in America. Mrs. Thorne commissioned her to create the ironwork for the miniature room E-29: English Roman Catholic Church in the Gothic Style and Zimmermann was commissioned to design and create the Thorne Family Memorial gates for the family crypt.
As it is the time of year many celebrate the dead I thought it a wonderful time to honor two amazing women artists by visiting Mrs. Thorne’s resting site as well as seeing the gorgeous metalwork of Mrs. Zimmermann. This pilgrimage led me to Rosehill Cemetery on the far north side of Chicago, where not only lies the Thorne crypt, but also those of John G. Shedd, Richard Warren Sears and many other Chicago notables. The Roeshill Cemetery Mausoleum, designed by Sidney Lovell, dates back to the Victorian era and has many beautiful stained glass windows set in marble, but—and this might be a personal bias—the gates for the Thorne Family crypt are truly the stars. Mrs. Thorne’s impeccable taste and Zimmermann’s stunning skills come together for a gracious end to the life of one of the grand dames of Chicago.
—Lindsay Mican Morgan, Department Technician, Thorne Rooms
Whenever you see any one of On Kawara’s so-called “date paintings,” you already know the exact day that he created it. Kawara started the series in 1966 and the rule was that he had to start and complete the painting on the date written on the canvas. If not, the painting was destroyed.
The paintings also come with a newspaper, which acts as a verification of the day and location it was painted. And for the diligent viewer, you can also receive some clues about where it was painted by how the date is written. Kawara always wrote the date using the method that people in that country would use. So, for example, if the day comes before the month, the painting is not from the United States.
The series includes over 2,000 paintings and each serves as a reminder of a very particular moment in time. Perhaps this makes you wonder something like, “I wonder what the artist was doing on this day?” Just know that while you’re thinking about that, I’m narcissistically wondering, “what was I doing on that particular day?” Normally, there’s no way of knowing, but since this is Halloween, you might not only know, but you might also have photographic proof! So if you can remember, tell us in the comments what you were doing on October 31, 1978. That is. . . if you were born yet! Happy Halloween, everyone!
Image Credit: On Kawara. Oct. 31, 1978 (Today Series, “Tuesday”), 1978. Twentieth-Century Purchase Fund. © On Kawara. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York.
I am sitting in a white room with high ceilings, in deep silence. I am all alone. Only a slight humming is audible in the background. Right above me, unaware of this entire operation, hundreds of visitors are entering the glass doors of the Modern Wing. In front of me, a robotic arm, red and amber lights on, is going back and forth with a hypnotic rhythm. Outside, a yellow and purple X-ray warning sign is guarding the door.
I have programmed the computer this morning, so now I only have to sit, wait, and watch while, dot after dot, tantalizing images the eye cannot see trickle down the screen, like The Matrix with a splash of Warhol. In a few hours, the veil will be lifted.
The scene before me was painted by Paul Gauguin in Tahiti in 1896 and it is entitled Why Are You Angry?
The painting shows two women sitting in the foreground, not making eye contact. Another woman, a magnetic presence, stands in the middle, and she is not happy. Although the title is evocative of some kind of narrative, the whole meaning of the scene remains mysterious. My colleague Kristin Lister, a paintings conservator, says that after looking at the painting inch by inch through a microscope, examining every brushstroke, she thinks perhaps originally this might have been a twilight scene. Perhaps there was fire, or light peeking through the doorway of the hut that is now pitch black. Today, over 100 years later, the colors are still bursting out of the painting, making the whole room vibrate (no, the vibrations are not just the effect of the cooling fan in the X-ray tube; this art is powerful).
We cannot see through the dark, or through black paint for that matter, but X-rays can. And this new piece of technology—brilliantly designed by scientists Joris Dik and Koen Janssens with Bruker’s engineers—has been on a US grand tour to peer under some of the most important and enigmatic paintings in this country, after having its Cyclops eye trained on nothing less than Rembrandts back in Europe. It is important to remember that only a few years ago it was unthinkable to do what I am doing today, in the comfort and security of my own lab here at the Art Institute. This type of analysis was only possible at Synchrotrons, large-scale facilities like the one located 30 miles from here at Argonne National Lab. I don’t even want to start thinking about the hassle of having to transport this masterpiece there, arranging for security during transport, making sure the temperature and relative humidity are kept constant during the analysis and at values that are safe for the art. Instead, now that the technology is portable, it can travel to the art rather than the other way around. So, after the Getty in Los Angeles, and New York’s MoMA and Metropolitan Museum of Art, this instrument, called a macro-XRF scanner, has landed here in Chicago. Too bad I can only keep it for a few more days! I would love to own one of these.
This amazing technology scans the surface of a painting with X-rays, exciting the painting materials without harming them. In response, at every spot probed, the atoms that make up the physical structure of the painting and its paint layers emit energy back in different packets so that we can tell precisely what the chemical elements are below the surface and, by inference, what pigments the artist has used. And instead of doing this for individual points, wielding a gun-like instrument—as seen in my post from June 27, 2011—we can now visualize the exact distribution of paints by sweeping through the entire surface of the painting. And this one is definitely big, at 37 1/2 x 51 3/8 inches!
It is going to be fantastic to be able to include this imagery in our forthcoming online catalogue on Paul Gauguin, part of our ongoing Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative which already includes richly detailed catalogues for Monet and Renoir.
So now under my eyes the magic of discovery begins: Below the veil of bluish-black paint there are two heads, not just the one we see, and red brushstrokes of vermilion (a pigment that contains mercury, whose symbol is Hg in the periodic table of elements) with touches of chrome yellow (a pigment containing lead [Pb] and chrome [Cr]), making for a very dynamic yellow-orange and fiery red backdrop for the seated figure.
So, is there a glowing fire inside? Is it an orange curtain? Wait, is Paul inside? Are the women fighting over him? After all, he could be quite attractive, I think; perhaps not conventionally handsome, but I can definitely see a fire in him. He reminds me of the actor Jean Reno of “La Femme Nikita” fame.
Whatever it is, after spending many hours in this room in close intimacy with his work, analyzing its every brushstroke, I feel somehow closer to Gauguin. And suddenly I am reminded of a recent article in the New York Times by Bill Hayes that definitely resonated with me. Its words are still echoing in my head now. In essence it says: When the world goes crazy, pick a work of art. Make it yours. Make it matter. Visit often.
Well, this is MY Gauguin today then. After a whole day with this painting, I feel exhilarated and very calm.
“Why are you angry?” asks Gauguin. “Why are you stressed?” we may sometimes ask ourselves. As long as we have great art that makes us dream and technology that makes us experience things we never thought possible, then we can have faith in this world. No need to be stressed, no need to be angry.
As spoken from my X-ray den. (And don’t worry, I wear a radiation dosimeter and, yes, this instrument is safe for me AND the art!)
—Francesca Casadio, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Conservation Scientist
[On view in Gallery 246] Paul Gauguin. Why Are You Angry? (No Te Aha Oe Riri), 1896. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.
[On view at the Van Gogh Museum] Paul Gauguin. Self-Portrait with Portrait of Émile Bernard (Les misérables) (detail), 1888. Van Gogh Museum , Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).