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Posts tagged ‘Conservation Science’

Science & Sfumato – Technical Analysis to Aid Art Historians

This post is part of a larger on-line symposium to honor the late Hasan Niyazi, the self-taught art historian behind Three Pipe Problem.  Hasan championed art history, critical analysis, valuable online discourse, and all things Raphael!  As part of this April 6th celebration (Raphael’s birthday), you can read all of the posts here.  He is missed by all those who knew him personally or through his active engagement with readers online.

mona lisa experiment, SRF

The Mona Lisa’s mysterious sfumato being quantified. (Image from [1])

I always appreciated that Hasan advocated for scientific research and technical analysis as a complimentary approach to historical research and stylistic connoisseurship.  Art is fundamentally material science even if the end result can be ascribed beauty or emotional intensity.  Thus it makes sense to use analytical techniques to understand how a piece of art was constructed in order to understand to creative process and the end product.

Given the numerous Three Pipe Problem posts on Leonardo da Vinci and the continuing struggle to attribute two recent works – Salvator Mundi and La Bella Principessa, I thought it would be useful to return to this enigmatic artist.  Da Vinci’s experimentation with material and techniques is anecdotally well-known.  But really what do we know about his luminous sfumato faces?  One recent study confirmed the nearly impossible.

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The Painting Under the Painting – Picasso’s Old Guitarist

Partial grazing light image of Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist” as it hangs at The Art Institute of Chicago

It is not uncommon for artists to rework or even reuse canvases.  Careful examination with scientific techniques can offer glimpses of pasts images buried beneath the surface.  But sometimes you don’t need sophisticated instruments; sometimes the underlying image is very obvious looking at the final piece.  This was my experience with Pablo Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist” and the ghostly woman’s face in the top center of the painting.  Looking at it from the side and letting the light graze the image, you can see the depth of her face very clearly.

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Statue Conservation in Action at the MFA Boston

Roman Juno statue

Juno in her former home, a suburban Boston estate garden (Photo: MFA)

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is hosting an interesting conservation project.  An impressive Trajanic or Hadrianic Period (early second century A.D.) statue of Juno was moved into the George D. and Margo Behrakis Gallery of ancient art this week.  Given its massive size of 13ft and 13,000 lbs, conservator will be examining, cleaning and repairing the work in situ.  Recently donated to the Museum of Fine Arts, the statue has spent the last 100 years in an estate garden just outside of Boston.  The resulting wind, snow, freeze-thaw, biological and vandal damage has taken a toll on the piece.  The Museum is raising money to support the conservation.  You can learn more about this on-going project at the MFA’s website.

I’m particularly interested in the analysis of the head.  It is clear that it was reattached at one or more times in the piece’s history; however, it also seems that the head and body are not the same marble and may have been united at a later time.  Given that little historical information exists about the piece prior to the 17th century, curators and conservators will have to rely on scientific analysis to understand the past of this statue.

Juno's head was removed to protect it during transport (Photo: MFA, Boston)

Layers of plaster and glue illustrate past repairs to the neck of Juno. (Photo: MFA, Boston)

roman statue repair with iron pin

Close up of the iron pin holding the right arm in place. (Photo: MFA, Boston)

Reconstructing Art: Duccio’s Maesta

1878 Iguanodon

In1878 this seem like a fine reconstruction of an Iguanodon, despite the fact that its tail would be broken in this posture. (Photo: University of Bristol, Earth Science Dept.)

Walking through the ruins of the Acropolis and looking over the plaster copies of the Parthenon Frieze this last fall, I tried to put it all back together visually.  Thankfully there were digital reconstructions to look to, but I got to wondering if wholesale reconstruction of a work of art is even possible.  In most cases, pieces can be broken or destroyed and critical details of the overall assembly can be lost.  (It’s a tangential example but I’m thinking of all the miss-assembled Victorian dinosaur skeletons.)  Then I remembered Duccio’s Maestà in Siena.

The Three Marys at the Tomb by Duccio, part of the Maestà altarpiece in Siena (Photo: Web Gallery of Art)

Duccio’s expansive Maestà Altarpiece was installed in the Siena Cathedral on June 9, 1311.  The double sided piece is estimated to have been 4.7 by 5 meters in dimension.  It was composed of a central panel (The Virgin and Christ Enthroned with Saints and Angels) and over 70 smaller scenes depicting New Testament iconography.  Sadly this grand style of altarpiece went out of fashion and in 1711, the panels were dismantled, sawed apart, and dispersed.  Most of the pieces are now back in Siena. Careful scholarship, analysis, and restoration has shed light on its original construction and composition.

Maesta alterpiece

Virgin and Child panel of the Maesta alterpiece by Duccio, Museo dell'Opera, Siena (Photo: profzucker, Flickr)

The Maestà altarpiece is not displayed in its reconstructed state which allows for better viewing of the visually rich story panels.  These were likely executed by Duccio’s workshop but are all interesting.  The central Virgin and Child panel alone is incredibly impressive.  I remember seeing it at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Siena.  The room was fairly dark with a few spotlights on the panel which made the gilding glow.

Duccio Maesta front panel

Duccio Maestà front panel reconstruction with missing pieces shown in gray (Image: DaydreamTourist)

On the front of the altarpiece would have been a Marian cycle in the pinnacles and the birth and childhood of Jesus in the lower predella. The reverse panel depicts the Passion sequence in the main section and scenes from the ministry of Christ along the pinnacles and predella. In the reconstruction images above and below, panels not presently in Siena are shown in black and white (missing panels are not shown).  You have to actually go to Washington DC and Madrid respectively to see two of my favorites: the Nativity with Isaiah and Ezekiel and Christ and the Samaritan Woman.  It is also possible to appreciate how pieces may have been shaved and shaped since being freed from the altarpiece frame.  I have also accepted the interpretation that a piece showing the coronation of the Virgin now in Hungry was featured in the central front panel pinnacle.  This makes sense thematically in the context of the smaller pinnacle images showing the life of Mary and would be appropriate subject matter for the period and location.  The reconstructions also assumes that the pinnacle angels mirrored each other since only 4 of the 12 total exist today.

Duccio Maesta back

Duccio's Maestà back panel assembly with missing pieces noted in gray (Image: DaydreamTourist)

Viewed as a whole, the complexity and ambitiousness of the project is evident.  Whether or not the framing decorative elements are exactly correct is a moot point given the wealth of visual story-telling and the fairly confident reconstitution of the narrative flow.  It’s amazing that almost all of the panels have survived.  The Maestà demonstrates that reconstruction, at least digitally, goes a long way in understanding the artist’s intentions, the work’s visual impact, and how contemporary viewers would have encountered the piece.

Reconstructions adapted from the Web Gallery of Art.

Reference: Siena, Florence and Padua: Art Society and Religion 1280-1400, Volume II: Case Studies, edited by Diana Norman, 1995.

Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries Exhibit – National Gallery

If you are near London, you have 2 weeks left to see the exhibit Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes & Discoveries at the National Gallery.  If you are like me and can not make it, they thankfully have a very cool set of case studies on-line to compliment the exhibit.

Conservation Science is the application of chemical and biological techniques to the study of paintings and art objects.  Analysis and identification of an artist’s materials is beneficial for conservators who must select the best processes for cleaning a work.  However, a lot of other information can be gained which helps art historian understand the “life” of the work such as where and when it was executed, how the artist completed the piece and if later additions were made.  For example, x-ray analysis can show places in which a part of a painting, like a hand or face, was reworked.  Sometimes this is done by the artist, or as the National Gallery shows in some examples, by later owners to suit the period’s tastes or possible make the painting more desirable to buyersFour Figures at a Table by The Le Nain Brothers (below) is a really striking example of how much more we can learn about a painting through scientific analysis.

What could be underneath the pleasant country scene in the Four Figures at a Table by The Le Nain Brothers? (Photo: The National Gallery, London)

We take it for granted now that an artist would sign his or her work but this was not always the case.  Carefully connoisseurship of an artist’s style can help attribute paintings but sometimes it is scientific analysis that can either rule out a great master or identify a painting’s creator.  The fakes section of the National Gallery’s on-line exhibit is great too!  In the end, scientific evidence will always trump exquisite craftsmanship.

It looks right, but how would you know if Botticelli painted Madonna of the Veil? (Photo: The National Gallery, London)

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