If upon looking at the image below you are reminded of a pastry chef’s experiment gone wrong, think again. This is neither a layered cake nor a failed attempt at molecular gastronomy. And measuring less than 5 mm across, or roughly as big as a single sesame seed, it wouldn’t be very filling either.
What you see here is a paint cross-section: the result of going with a surgical scalpel at a painting. (If you are suddenly horrified at the mere mental association of scalpel and painting—like any true art-lover should be—know we do it in a very controlled and skilled way. In other words, please don’t try this at home!) Conservators and scientists typically sample at the edge of a painting or in unobtrusive areas, often by a pre-existing loss. We remove a microscopic fragment about the size of a grain of fine table salt and then embed the fragment in a clear resin. With some polishing, we’re able to expose all the painting layers that the artist applied in sequence on the canvas.
What you really see here though is a valuable piece of investigative evidence in the ongoing quest to understand a much debated work. It is a cross section from a painting (below) by El Greco entitled Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation, 1595-1600. We are very fortunate at the Art Institute because this is one of several paintings on display at the museum by this great artist, who not only enjoyed public recognition in his times, but also influenced some of the superstars of the modern and contemporary art world, including Pablo Picasso and Jeff Koons. And among Greco’s paintings at the Art Institute is the undisputed masterpiece of his early career, The Assumption of the Virgin.
Saint Francis, the founder of the Franciscan Order of friars, was a spiritual hero in late 16th century Spain. It has been estimated that nearly one fifth of the entire output of El Greco’s studio was represented by images of the saint. So if you go around the world and suddenly you think you have double vision because you could swear you have seen that same Francis pictured here, relax. You are not hallucinating. You are simply experiencing a clever production of multiples to satisfy an insatiable market.
How did El Greco do this? What did he paint and what did he leave to an assistant? One prominent 20th century scholar, Harold Wethey, thought he had all the answers in the 1960s based only on inspection of paintings and photographs. Citing “dull colors that lacked the brilliance of the master,“ the famous critic relegated our picture to art world purgatory: “workshop.”
But discerning between original work by the master, finishing touches to workshop productions, straight workshop versions, faithful copies, and outright forgeries sometimes takes more than the eye of the connoisseur. Nowadays the tools of science, in conjunction with conservation and art historical expertise, can help unravel some of these mysteries for good. In this case, our analysis disclosed pigments, a layer structure, and brushwork that are practically identical to the one unquestioned masterpiece of this subject: the St. Francis Venerating the Crucifix now in The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
And so the sleuthing art detective found a trail of veritable fingerprints. We discovered bright, relatively expensive pigments (like azurite blue below and red lakes) in the priming layer, the layer that the artist applied as a basis for the painting itself. This points to the use of palette scrapings, or leftover bits of paint, a practice the young El Greco may have learned by the great masters Tintoretto and Titian during his training in Venice. On the other hand, a copyist would typically have imitated the warm color of the priming by using a much simplified and inexpensive mixture of pigments.
Moreover, X-radiography (a technique that uses x-rays to show the distribution of dense pigments and thus the artist’s changes) revealed subtle adjustments in the position of the head and hood of the saint. This is often considered a clear sign of the master rethinking his figure placement in paint, unlike what a pedantic assistant would do, preoccupied solely with producing an exact copy. Compositional changes (as revealed by comparing a visible image with an x-ray of the painting) likely denote an artist’s hand and not that of a copyist.
So in the end, art detective work—with scientists, conservators and art historians working together– provided convincing elements to the art historians to upgrade the judgment of the painting, assigning it to El Greco again. Call it a modern day redemption story: a comeback from art purgatory.
See the painting for yourself in our galleries, or come this Thursday, April 5th, at 6 pm in Fullerton Auditorium at the Art Institute, to hear the whole story during Copies as Originals—Decoding El Greco’s Studio Practice.
—Francesca C., Andrew W. Mellon Senior Conservation Scientist
Image Credits: El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation, 1595–1600. The Art Institute of Chicago, Robert A. Waller Memorial Fund.
Contour line overlays by Kuniej Berry Associates, LLC
I came upon an old man staring so fixedly at this Inness painting that I had to stop and stare along with him. I’d spent time in front of this painting, mesmerized, but couldn’t help but wonder if there was something I’d missed.
“He saw celestial beings, you know,” the old man said, turning to me.
He had a trimmed white beard and neatly cut hair, as if he had just come from the barber, and wore a faded red shirt buttoned up to his collar. He leaned backwards as he squinted at the painting.
“Who saw beings?” I replied. “George Inness?”
“No, Swedenborg,” he said with irritation. “Maybe Inness did too, though I doubt it, judging from this painting.”
The 18th-century Swedish scientist, theologian, and mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg had a profound influence on many writers and thinkers, including Blake, Yeats, Emerson, Thoreau and even Helen Keller. Inness came under his influence late in life when he joined a utopian community in New Jersey, and his art moved from his early Barbizon-influenced realism to a more personal style.
“Swedenborg not only saw angels,” he continued, “he talked to them. He said their faces are clear and radiant. But I see nothing clear and radiant in this painting. All I see is dissolution.”
He peered through his thick glasses into Inness’s version of dusk.
“Why do you need the surface to dissolve?” he said. “Is that because we like to pretend that we can see below the surface? I’ve never had a vision but I always imagined it would be something super-real, with even harder edges than usual. I don’t know about you, but I want something I can hold onto. Maybe it’s because I’m so old.”
I told him about a Catholic nun who described for me a vision she’d had of St. Sebastian. She was staring at a meadow on a hot summer day and suddenly the flowers in a field became the tail feathers of the arrows and the earth became the pierced body of St. Sebastian. It was so intense that the colors hurt her eyes, but there was nothing misty or tentative about it.
“Maybe the world is more solid to visionaries, he continued. “All I can say is that I look forward to the day when our images of angels revert to creatures without wings, like elephants or tortoises.”
The mention of the word tortoise brought back a childhood memory of riding Galapagos tortoises at Branch Brook Park in New Jersey. I shared this recollection with him, and he stared off for a moment, as if savoring the same memory.
“Now,” he said, ‘wouldn’t that be a helluva way to ride into paradise?”
—Paul J., Assistant Director of Communications
Image: George Inness. The Home of the Heron, 1893. Edward B. Butler Collection.
Last week, the Art Institute made one of the most significant acquisitions in its history: Kazimir Malevich’s Painterly Realism of a Football Player–Color Masses in the 4th Dimension. This masterpiece is the first work of Russian Suprematism to enter the museum’s collection and bridges one of the few gaps in the museum’s extremely strong holdings of European modern art, characterized by works like Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte–1884 and Henri Matisse’s Bathers by a River. With this acquisition, the Art Institute becomes only the second public institution in the United States to feature a Suprematist painting by Malevich in its collection.
There are many pioneers of abstraction, but Malevich (1879-1935) is one of the most significant and rigorous, doing the most to push art to non-objective abstraction through his Suprematist movement. Having worked previously in a style related to cubism and futurism, it was not until 1915, the year of Painterly Realism of a Football Player, that Malevich brought his abstraction to its fully realized form. Painterly Realism of a Football Player was one of a group of revolutionary works that Malevich created in secrecy for one of the most seminal exhibitions of the modern moment, 0.10 (Zero-Ten): The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting in Moscow in 1915. For that exhibition, Malevich created paintings that completely eradicated all references to the recognizable world and focused instead on the inherent relationships of geometric shapes of various colors that seem to float against their white backgrounds.
Considered at the time a pure and fundamental embodiment of painting itself (the “zero” in the Zero-Ten exhibition), Painterly Realism of a Football Player offered a radical formal vocabulary for art. Influenced greatly by developments in the understanding of space-time physics and the notion of the fourth dimension, Malevich referenced the natural world in his title (the football player) but also dispelled it on the canvas to present bold lines and planes freed from the weight of the third dimension. Malevich later even gave up the last vestige of the art of representation by disposing with traditional ideas of the “top” and “bottom” in his canvases; historical documentation reveals that in the four instances that the artist showed Painterly Realism of a Football Player during his lifetime, it was shown in two different orientations: with the circle at the bottom (as seen above) and with the circle at the top.
Kazimir Malevich, Painterly Realism of a Football Player–Color Masses in the 4th Dimension (1915). Oil on canvas. ß27-5/8 x 17-5/16 in. (70.2 x 44.1 cm). Through prior gift of Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection, Art Institute of Chicago Acquisition Funds, 2011.1.
Without putting too much of a damper on the holiday spirit, I am reminded of a childhood ritual in my home of canopying the living room floor with mounds of shredded wrapping paper. It would normally take several garbage bags to contain the waste and restore order to the household once again. In sober contrast to these halcyon days of environmental ambivalence, Japan’s rich cultural history offers us a more sustainable alternative, and four hundred years before going green was fashionable.
Covering a gift with a fukusa became a formal aspect of the gift-giving ritual among Japan’s aristocracy during the Edo period (1615–1867). Originally confined to urban centers like Kyoto and Edo (modern day Tokyo), a fukusa was a square piece of fine cloth, usually satin silk, embroidered or yûzen-dyed with colorful forms that reflected the occasion for which the gift was given. For example, a fukusa might bear the “three friends of winter”—the pine, plum tree, and bamboo—which symbolized perseverance in the New Year. Fukusa were designed and crafted by the finest artists of the day, and indicated the giver’s wealth and social status. Traditionally received on a lacquer tray, the recipient removed the fukusa by the tassel so as to not smudge the finely crafted cloth. After properly admiring the fukusa’s beauty, the recipient graciously returned the tray and fukusa to the donor. Keeping the fukusa was the prerogative of only the most privileged in society, and would be considered to be extremely rude under normal circumstances.
As the merchant class grew more prominent in the 19th century, so did aristocratic practices like giving gifts covered with fukusa. As the practice moved beyond the urban centers from which it sprang, the mon, or family crest, was added to the lining side to indicate familial derivation. Of course, in the years prior to the Meiji Restoration of 1871, practicing Christianity was illegal, as were Christmas holidays in general. Fukusa were most often given at weddings, New Year’s, and other annual festivals. However, in later years, Christmas Eve became a popular secular holiday for young couples, similar to Valentine’s Day, and we might assume at least a few fukusa were used on such occasions. The manufacture of fukusa gained a late resurgence in the 19th century, as Westerners first discovered their exquisite craftsmanship. European and American art dealers ordered hundreds of them for display as works of art. In Japan, however, the practice of giving a gift with a fukusa has fallen out of use. You can find a considerable number of these rare artifacts in the Art Institute’s permanent collection.
Fukusa (Gift Cover), mid-Meiji period 1868–1912, c. 1895. Gift of Mary V. and Ralph E. Hays.
Fukusa (Gift Cover), Taishô period (1912–1926), 1912/26. Gift of Mary V. and Ralph E. Hays.
A very notable recent acquisition just went up in the museum in the past few weeks: Ludovico Carracci’s Vision of Saint Francis (c. 1602). The painting is currently on view in gallery 212A as the centerpiece of a mini-exhibition of work by members of the Carracci family. Now, I’m just a humble copyright lawyer, with no formal art history education, so it amazes me that the museum lets me write anything about art, not to mention 17th-century Italian art. But, upon seeing the painting, there were a couple of things that piqued my interest and inspired me to write about it.
First, from the detail and monumental nature of the subject and composition–which I had previously seen only as a jpeg–I had imagined the painting to be on the scale of the larger works in nearby gallery 211. In fact, the painting checks in at a relatively small 14 5/8 x 11 1/4 inches. There’s an adage for that.
I was also struck by the smoooooth and luminous surface of the oil on copper painting. The smooth, seamless copper surface made me think of Salvador Dali’s Mae West’s Face which may be used as a Surrealist Apartment, which is stored horizontally to prevent the paint from very slowly and imperceptibly sliding down the surface of the slick magazine page on which it is painted. Excited by the possibility of writing a blog post titled “Slip n’ Slide,” I contacted a curator to find out if there were similar conservation concerns with this oil on copper painting. Here is the fascinating response I received from Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Associate Curator of European Painting and Sculpture before 1750.
In this instance, there is no risk of paint sliding down the copper surface. Coppers first appear as a surface for painting in the second half of the 16th century, probably around 1560. Though scholars disagree, it would seem that the support originated in Florence and then spread to the rest of Europe where it was very popular through the 18th century. The wonderful thing about these early coppers is that they are either in pristine condition or absolutely terribly condition. Or, another way to put it: the paint either adheres absolutely to the copper surface or it does not. Part of what makes these copper pictures so precious is their smooth and flawless surface. We get a much better sense of the actual colors used by an artist than in pictures of oil on canvas, where the color often recedes into the ground and the weave of the canvas. In other words, I often feel that works on copper bring us closer to the moment of creation than other media. Also, the surface preparations of coppers appear to have varied. Here, the ground appears to be a grayish yellow. It seems that the artist Guido Reni often had his copper surfaces prepared with a silver alloy before painting them, adding to the precious quality of the work. More research on this topic needs to be done in order to assess the full range of ground preparations for coppers.
It is also interesting to consider the relationship of copper paintings to copper plates used for engraving and then prints. One imagines that the readily available material made this new medium possible. One should also consider whether the birth of the Wunderkammer (Room of Wonder, meaning a cabinet of curiosities) lead to the development of this medium. This was a small and precious object that could be collected and marveled at along with precious stones and artifacts from the “New World.”
This post is a good example of how a lawyer without an art degree can write about art with the help of lengthy blockquotes, but Eve’s response is great example of how much interesting information is often readily available if you take a moment to look at a work and ask a silly question. Have you ever been surprised by what you learned about an artwork upon closer inspection?
Image credit: Ludovico Carracci. The Vision of Saint Francis, c. 1602. Lacy Armour Fund.