In search of Rembrandt’s underdrawing

“Since the initiation of the Rembrandt Research Project in the late 1960s, technical study of Rembrandt’s paintings has gained increasing importance in the understanding of his working methods. Examining the artist’s works with dendrochronology, X-radiography and macro photography became the norm complemented by cross-sections of ground and paint layers as well as scientific analysis of binding media and pigments.

Rembrandt, Andromeda, c.1630, oil on panel, 34 × 24.5 cm, Mauritshuis, The Hague, inv. no. 707; (b) infrared
reflectogram of (a); (c) detail of (b). Photos (b) and (c): Jørgen Wadum

“Significant advances were made in understanding the materials and properties of the master’s use of and experimentation with supports and mediums. However, although some infrared photographs were taken, examination of early Rembrandt paintings using infrared reflectography (IRR) was not employed until the astonishing 1998 discovery of an extensive underdrawing below the paint layers of the painting once considered to be a cornerstone of Rembrandt’s early works: the Young Self-Portrait with a Gorget from c.1629 in the Mauritshuis (The Hague).

“This discovery prompted the author to undertake a limited survey into a selection of early paintings by Rembrandt and his close circle that revealed a wealth of hitherto unrecorded information acquired from beneath the visible paint layers of the paintings. This paper demonstrates the relevance of the IRR technique in the discovery not only of underdrawings but also how underpaintings and sketches can be visualised. Instigating a comprehensive search for Rembrandt’s underdrawing – in the widest sense of the word – in his early works may add significant new information to the corpus of the artist and his contemporaries…”

To read the full story you may download the entire volume of Rembrandt Now free of charge via the link below the front page:

See Brazil without crossing the ocean!

The very recent Dutch publication Brazilië zien zonder de oceaan over te steken. De wandtapijten van Johan Maurits [See Brazil without crossing the ocean. The tapestries of Johan Maurits; bibliographic info below] is a very intriguing and detailed research publication. And especially interesting to a Danish audience as some of the main ‘characters’ constitute the National Museum of Denmark’s impressive collection of life-size representations of the Brazilian population as well as twelve fascinating still lifes with flora from the Dutch colony in Brazil. These works are by Albert Eckhout (1610-1665), one of several painters that Johan Maurits (1604-1679), prince of Nassau-Siegen, brought with him to Brazil 1637-1644.

Albert Eckhout, Images of Brazilians. Oil on canvas, each ca. 275 x 165 cm. The National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen.

In 1654 Johan Maurits donated these paintings to the Danish king Frederik III (1609-1670). In the donation letter, he explains that the gift consists of a total of 26 paintings of various kinds, some in full format of people and fruit. Speculation as to whether the many paintings were actually made in Brazil, and if so whether they had constituted a prominent decoration program in Maurits’ palace Vrijburg in Recife, have been numerous. A breakthrough in this discussion came in connection with technical investigations of the National Museum’s works and a re-examination of Johan Maurits’ gift letter to Frederik III. Here the Dutch donor writes that if the king so wishes, he can have the paintings copied “to other media.” It was the then director of Rosenborg Castle, Mogens Bencard, who in 2002 first interpreted this cryptic sentence as a hint to the king that the paintings were intended as templates for tapestries. The technical studies of the paintings further questioned their origin and suggested that the paintings may not, as previously assumed, have been executed in Brazil, but rather after returning to the Netherlands – in the busy studio of Jacob van Campen (1596-1657) in Amersfoort.

From left to right: Albert Haelwegh, Portrait of Frederik III, 1654-58. Engraving, Statens Museum for Kunst; Jan de Baen, Portrait of Johan Maurits., 1668-70. Oil on canvas, Mauritshuis; Jacob Vennekool or Abraham Lutma, Portrait of Jacob van Campen, 1665. Engraving, Stadsarchief Amsterdam.

In his book, the author and art historian Michiel Roscam Abbing succeeds in a detective-like manner to describe the immensely complicated spin of celebre studio-visits, unfortunate ambitions, as well as several major contemporary decorative works in the Netherlands and their interrelations. Based on extensive archival studies convincing arguments are presented in support of the suggestion that the paintings were conceived as cartoons for an intended decoration of count Maurits’ Dutch domicile in The Hague, the Mauritshuis. This city palace, conceived by Jacob van Campen, was in 1652 put into detailed drawings by Pieter Post (1608-1669).

Johan Maurits wanted to make a massive impression in the republic, as if he were a powerful monarch. When he returned from Brazil in 1644, he commissioned Van Campen to design a complete program for the interior design of Mauritshuis based on the unique visual material he had brought with him. The same artists, who had travelled with him to Brazil and who produced hundreds of drawings and annotations, were now employed for this purpose.

The idea that there must have been a grand plan for the interior design of the Mauritshuis with Brazil as its theme is eloquently brought forward by Roscam Abbing. The book decodes the supposed decoration program step by step using new sources, especially hitherto overlooked notes from Ernst Brinck (1582-1649), a collector of curiosities and mayor of Harderwijk, a town in central Holland. Brinck visited van Campen’s workshop in 1647, where he noted that he saw at least 25 paintings being painted at Johan Maurit’s expense. Brinck’s notes unusually large painting with all kind of Brazilian animals. These must have been intended as cartoons for a series of tapestries for the large upper floor of the Mauritshuis.

Michiel Roscam Abbing, Brazilië zien zonder de oceaan over te steken. De wandtapijten van Johan Maurits. Hardcover, 192 pages. Publisher Lias, Amsterdam, 2021.

The project failed, however, as Johan Maurits was appointed governor of Cleve in 1647 and his priorities changed. He sold the large tapestry cartoons for the large upper floor of the Mauritshuis to Friedrich Wilhelm I (1620-1688), Elector of Brandenburg, in 1652. In 1654, twentysix paintings were donated to Frederik III, and landscapes by Frans Post (1612 -1680) remained kept in boxes in the attic of the Mauritshuis until Johan Maurits gave them to King Louis XIV (1638-1715) of France in 1679.

However, a new opportunity to resume the decoration program in the Mauritshuis arose in 1667 after Johan Maurits was appointment field marshal of the Dutch Republic. He had his interior design plans revised and decided to decorate the large upper hall with tapestries. The large templates sold in 1652 were brought back and in 1667 Johan Maurits commissioned the tapestry weaver Maximiliaan van der Gucht (1603-1689) from Delft to make two series, one for the Elector of Brandenburg and the other for the Mauritshuis. Thus, by doing this he finally implemented a significant element of the interior design program, albeit twenty years later than planned. In 1668 and 1669 the tapestries were greatly admired by the Tuscan prince Cosimo III de ’Medici (1642-1723), but Johan Maurits was not able to complete the entire program; after all, he had given a large part of the tapestry cartoons to the Danish king.

Roscam Abbing has reconstructed the original plan using architectural drawings of the Mauritshuis from 1652. In addition to the large upper floor, the intention must also have been to display tapestries in the main landing and the landing halfway. Seventeenth-century visitors to the Mauritshuis would have been amazed by the proposed decoration program – had it been fully implemented. In addition to the tapestries, there were Brazilian birds painted in the hall itself, and there were exotic objects on display, such as stuffed animals brought from Brazil. If you visited this hall, you no longer had to cross the ocean to experience Brazil.

Bibliographic note (while we may hope for an English edition):

Michiel Roscam Abbing, Brazilië zien zonder de oceaan over te steken. De wandtapijten van Johan Maurits. Hardcover, illustrated, 192 pages, English summary. Publisher Lias, Amsterdam, 2021. ISBN 978 90 8803 1120

Albert Eckhout, Still life with melons and other fruit, ca. 1640. Oil on canvas, 91 x 91 cm. One of the twelve still lifes at the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen

Collecting Fruits in Madrid

During a trip to Madrid to examine paintings by Rubens and Van Dyck with a colleague at the Prado, interesting discoveries on their panels were made. Some of these findings concern an Antwerp panel maker from around 1600 – about whom more will be published in the forthcoming proceedings from the very successful ‘Symposium XXI for the Study of Underdrawing and Technology in Painting’,The Bruegel Success Story: Creative Process, Imitation, Emulation, Workshop Organization and Business Strategies (Brussels, September 12-14, 2018).[1]

After hours we needed a bite and went strolling down the narrow streets in Barrio de las Letras where a small, rather dimly lit café caught our attention. The music, rather loud and of American inspiration, was asynchronously accompanied by a large blinking and flashy slot machine on display. But this was not what caught our attention. Nor was it the cosy illumination by two lamps with each three lights placed in vertical bronze tubes designed as small organ pipes (two bulbs missing on the right). It was not the brown silent, closed upright piano with a small planting with palm leaves offering a sense of nature within the dark room that charmed us. No, it was a painting hanging centrally positioned between the organ-pipe wall lamps, almost as a devotional altar, that caught our eyes. The image looked quite unusual for the Cortes neighbourhood in Madrid.

The painting is depicting a young girl carrying a basket of fruits. On her head a large straw hat with a light blue (faded?) ribbon falling to her shoulders. Although hard to see next to the flickering lights from the slot-machine, the glaring lamps on either side and the reflections in the glass-protection, the girl appeared familiar.

Upon a closer look, the painting in the café in Madrid turns out to be a reproduction of the original in the national gallery of Denmark, SMK, in Copenhagen. Although until recently seen as a juvenile work of one of the Danish golden age painters, Jørgen Roed (1808 – 1888), ‘A Girl with Fruits in a Basket’ is today on display as a work by his contemporary colleague Constantin Hansen (1804 – 1880).[2]

Constantin Hansen, A Girl with Fruits in a Basket, c. 1827.  SMK, Copenhagen.

The painting is thought to be painted by Hansen around 1827 shortly before he in 1829 became a pupil of the acclaimed professor at the Danish Art Academy, C.F. Eckersberg (1783-1853) and 6 years before he travelled to Italy to acquire further inspiration. Constantin Hansen painted several portraits under the impression of his father Hans Hansen (1769-1828) and his great inspiration Jens Juel (1745-1802). Often he used his sisters as a motif and he already in 1825-27 developed an independent idea of the interaction of form and colour. The painting of ‘A Girl with Fruits in a Basket’ (unfortunately marred by numerous discoloured retouches from the past, notably from her right eye and down her cheek), offers fine qualities in handling a rather horizontal light. Her serious attitude with large dark eyes looking directly at us shows a delicate and noble painting which in 1916 entered to SMK by will of Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916).

Considering the abundance of virgin variations of Flora-motifs created by Spanish artists from the 17th century onwards, it was a surprise to find Hansen’s ‘Girl with Fruits in a Basket’ in a dark café in the Cortes area. I would rather have expected a reproduction of for instance a ‘Girl Selling Fruit’, 1650-1660, by Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), now at the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.[3]

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, ‘Girl Selling Fruit’, 1650-1660. © Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

We shall probably never know if there is any logic behind the rationale of displaying a juvenile work by a Danish 19th century artist primarily known for his architectural or mythological paintings in the Cortes-café. The average visitor to the tavern, its slot-machine and the drinks offered, may in fact not even notice the painting overshadowed as she is by loud music and the twinkling and flashing lights amongst which she is displayed.

It was, however, a nice distraction to unexpectedly meet up with a ‘Girl’ from SMK, while engaged in research on the fabulous collection of Rubens and Van Dyck paintings at the Prado in Madrid.




Dendro4Art: dendrochronology and art history

The RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History (The Hague) – and CATS – Centre for Art Technological Studies and Conservation (SMK, Copenhagen) – end of last year launched a new wood research platform, Dendro4Art. December 29, 2019

This new research tool provides unique dendrochronological research data on panel paintings and wooden sculptures around the world.  This platform will therefore become a global hub for dendrochronologists and art historians, giving them access to extensive research data that includes raw data as well as information about dendrochronology. The platform explicitly invites users to share data themselves, helping to further strengthen the research community.

e-data&research, Jaargang 14, no. 3, juni 2020.

Dendrochronology is the study of wooden objects, such as panel paintings, which focuses on the width of the annual growth rings in the wood. Climate conditions determines the width of each annual growth ring throughout the lifetime of a tree, resulting in unique variations in the widths of the growth rings specific to each time period and types of wood. Dendrochronologists compare these tree ring patterns, or measurement series, with growth ring chronologies from thousands of trees. In doing so, they are able to establish the precise geographical origins of wooden objects, as well as to date them.

Dr Aoife Daly, dendrochronologist at UCPH, documents the annual rings of a 17th century panel painting at SMK, Copenhagen.

In April 2019, the RKD presented dendrochronological reports and work drawings drafted by Em. Prof. Dr. Peter Klein (University of Hamburg) online.  At that time, the research community expressed a strong desire to also consult the raw data from the dendrochronological research – data that can also be used for further research by other scholars. Now, vast amounts of raw data, also known as measurement series, provided by Professor Klein and colleagues will be publicly available thanks to the collaboration between the RKD and CATS.

All this dendrochronological data can be freely downloaded via the Dendro4Art portal. It provides a platform for scholars to share information about dendrochronology and remain up to date on the subject, and also enables interested parties to learn more about dendrochronology. The hub is linked to the RKD’s (Netherlands Institute for Art History) databases. The RKD technical database contains vast volumes of dendrochronological research data, while RKDimages provides a wealth of art historical information on paintings studied. All these databases also provide links to information about the artists, archival information, and further research documentation.

Dendro4Art will link to Marks on Art within RKD Technical

This wealth of data at the heart of the RKD ensures that the dendrochronological data is safeguarded within a durable infrastructure. RKD and CATS therefore explicitly invite researchers to share their data via the Dendro4Art platform with the aim of providing a dynamic and ever-growing dendro-network. This data can again be correlated to data on artists and their whereabouts, marks on their panels issued by a panel maker, X-radiographs and many other analytical techniques.

The Dendro4Art project was made possible thanks to generous funds provided by the Danish Carlsberg Foundation.

This Girl is up for a dialogue

In 1994, after an interview on the progress of restoring Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, a Dutch newspaper proclaimed that ‘Jørgen Wadum is in love with her’. Although never so candidly declared from my side, it should be noted that our relationship started much earlier. It may appear predestined, but in the 1960s during my teen-age years in Vejle (Jutland, Denmark), I had an A1-size poster of the Girl prominently displayed on the wall in my room. So, the Girl and I are in fact beyond a ‘golden wedding anniversary’. Like in any good relationship, the Girl continues to enchant, inspire, and fascinate.

Thanks to the recent Girl in the Spotlight project, all the notes, letters, drawings and thoughts encountered during my first face-to-face meeting with the Girl in the 1990s were again brought to light. It was a bit like rediscovering a box in the attic with relics from the past.

Having a new team of internationally acclaimed experts review the documentation from the 1994 Vermeer Illuminated project – deliberations, photographs, and the research results compiled by the team of experts from the collaborating disciplines within conservation, conservation science, and art – could appear nerve-wracking. It was, however, a delight to learn that the painting is still in good condition. The removal of a brown ‘gallery tone’ of deliberately tinted varnish (applied after the 1960 restoration) and the delicate inpainting by Nicola Costaras in 1994 has survived the test of time.

Therefore, it has been a thrill to witness how the fresh approach by the Girl in the Spotlight project team and their highly sophisticated equipment evaluated the material composition of Vermeer’s painting anew. Advancing our understanding of the artist creative process will teach us to better understand his intention with the painting.

Creating a painting means making material choices. A variety of different brushes would move the paint from the artist’s palette to the canvas. The pigments bound in oils would be layered to indicate or mimic the textures of textiles, skin, and the moisture on her lips and in her eyes. Standing in front of the painting in the Mauritshuis offers the beholder a unique experience of privacy – the Girl and you captured by her enigmatic gaze – and one becomes engaged in a very secret and emotional conversation.

Vermeer used different pigments and paint mixtures to paint the Girl’s face.
Left: Visible light photograph [René Gerritsen Art & Research Photography]
Middle: Earth pigments containing iron (Fe) were detected using macro-X-ray fluorescence scanning (MA-XRF).
[Annelies van Loon: Mauritshuis/Rijksmuseum]
Right: Reflectance imaging spectroscopy (RIS) mapped the pigment mixtures: red is mainly vermilion, green is
yellow ochre mixed with vermilion, and blue is mainly yellow ochre.
[John Delaney and Kate Dooley: National Gallery of Art, Washington.]

Unravelling the meaning of making of a painting teaches not only researchers and caretakers of these delicate art works how to best understand and care for them for the enjoyment of future generations. We come to understand past interactions between a variety of traders of materials and pigments. From Afghanistan to Latin America they came and became mixed with locally produced white pigments and yellow colourants. They all landed in the paint box of Vermeer. In Delft. The world was at his fingertips.

The Girl with the Pearl Earring was created by stuff from around the globe, and the current top-notch international science project has nuanced and elucidated this further. The Girl herself is always up for a dialogue with everyone in the world.

The press was ready to capture the first moment that the Girl with a Pearl Earring being examined using macro-
X-ray fluorescence scanning (MA-XRF) within an enclosure in the Golden Room of the Mauritshuis. February
[Ivo Hoekstra: Mauritshuis]

Learn more about the project here:

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