Four Paintings Magnified

Tracing Bosch and Bruegel

April 23, 2012

Through a period of two years, an international research team has studied four almost identical paintings from the 16th century. The four paintings examined are alike, yet different variations on a theme – Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple and were made with different purposes, answering to the demands of a booming 16th century Antwerp art market. The research project aimed to discover the origin of the four versions, how and why they were made, their meaning, and addressed an under-investigated part of 16th and 17th century Netherlandish art production that reuses popular imagery from the time of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The paintings are owned by different institutions spread out over Europe from Kadriorg Art Museum in Tallinn in the east via The National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen to Glasgow Museums in the west. The fourth painting is in a private collection.

Fig. 1: The Copenhagen painting shown in x-radiography, normal light and infrared reflectography (from the top).

An interdisciplinary research project

The project started out in 2009 when our colleagues from Tallinn climbed a ladder in our galleries to examine and compare details of our painting with the Tallinn version. The first meeting developed into an international collaboration and an interdisciplinary research project including curators, conservators, art historians, scientists and technical art historians from the above mentioned institutions, working in close collaboration with the University of Glasgow and the newly established Center for Art Technological Research and Conservation (CATS) at the National Gallery of Denmark.

Fig. 2: Part of the research team gathered for one of the project's first meetings in the Conservation Department at the National Gallery of Denmark. The Copenhagen version of the painting is on the table being examined by conservators and art historians.

Looking "through" the paintings

What can these paintings tell us when exposed to the various sophisticated technical studies possible today? Usually we only see the "skin" of the paintings: the last and visible layer of paint applied by the artist at the very end of the painting process. By looking through this surface we can identify both common and unusual materials and techniques as well as preliminary underdrawings; all of which help us understand the artist's techniques and intentions. The research has revealed a wide range of stories, both technical and art historical, originating in the 16th century, but realized through 21st century technology. Materials, techniques and conservation history have been studied together with the provenance of the four versions. Each painting tells its own story and consists of materials that relied greatly on a pan-European economy: Polish timber, pigments imported from Flanders, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and from the New World, America.

  • Fig. 3a: Copenhagen painting
  • Fig. 3b: Tallinn painting
  • Fig. 3c: Privately owned painting
  • Fig. 3d: Glasgow painting

Fig. 3 (a–d from left to right): a) Copenhagen painting, b) Tallinn painting, c) Privately owned painting, d) Glasgow painting

The 16th century painters’ workshop

None of the four paintings claims to be the original first version of the composition. However, this survey of 16th century materials and techniques illustrated through the four paintings sheds light on workshop practices of the period. We can almost feel the sound of the different craftsmen in the studio: The painter's assistants who grind the pigments and mix them with oil, the sound of charcoal on the slate tables when the apprentices practice their drawing skills, and the soft conversation between the person sitting for a portrait and the painter. We can reveal how the wooden planks were purchased in Poland, transported through the Sound down the North Sea to Antwerp, to become part of a panel painting. We can trace how the painter got hold of his pigments, binders and oils.

Fig. 4: A paint cross section from a blue garment is studied under the polarizing microscope Leica DM4000 M equipped with a DFC 490 digital camera. The sample shows a white colored ground layer with a brown underpaint on top, followed by a blue paint layer of azurite particles mixed with lead white (x20 x10 x2.5).

Which panel is the oldest?

The dating of the four panels using dendrochronology has been surprising. The painting from the private collection has proved the oldest of the four versions, from around 1530. This is despite the fact that the characters are almost caricature-like compared to the apparent later versions in Tallinn and Copenhagen, which both turned out to date back to 1565–70. The results are essential to the art historical interpretations. Perhaps the Glasgow version, which is signed Hieronymus Bosch and contains several elements from well-known works of Bosch, turns out to be the latest version of the four – and thus painted around 80 years after Bosch's death? We are still anticipating the dating-results of the Glasgow version.

Fig. 5: Dendrochronologist Aoife Daly counting and measuring the tree-rings of the Copenhagen panel in order to determine the felling-date of the wood.

Close-up details with the stereomicroscope

During the research project, a number of different analysis methods were applied, including digital x-radiography, UV fluorescence, infrared reflectography and stereomicroscopy. All the techniques can be further explored at our project website, in the forthcoming publication and in the project exhibition at the National Gallery of Denmark from May 2012 (see below). With the help of a stereomicroscope with floor stand (Leica F12 I) equippped with digital high-definition camera (Leica IC80 HD), we were able to make high-magnification macrophotographs of the paint surface and thereby explore further the painter's techniques and use of materials.

  • Fig. 6a: Christs face showing underdrawing and cracked varnish (x4)
  • Fig. 6b: Face of a man (x6,4)
  • Fig. 6c: Lead tin yellow highlight in a man's hat (x16)

Fig. 6 (a–c): 3 macro-photos taken through a Leica F12 I Stereomicroscope. a) Christs face showing underdrawing and cracked varnish (x4); b) Face of a man (x6.4); c) Lead tin yellow highlight in a mans hat (x16).

Infrared Reflektography

Cameras sensitive to infrared radiation can visualize underdrawings carried out with carbon before the paint layers were applied. This type of documentation can answer questions about whether the compositions relate to the same "first version" or, if not, whether several different versions of the work were circulating among different workshops. This made us explore further the extent of copying practices in the 16th century set against the art market in Antwerp at the time. The project therefore became a story not only about Bosch and Bruegel, but also about the relation between the 16th century art market and the widespread copying, imitation, and variants of known art works carried out in various workshops.

Do you want to learn more?

Project website

Experience and explore the four versions of the composition through the project website: www.bosch-bruegel.com. Here you can compare details and zoom in x-rays, infrared reflectography images, UV-images and see films about the research.

Publication

In May 2012, the interdisciplinary and lavishly illustrated publication "On the trail of Bosch and Brueghel. Four paintings united under cross-examination" will be published by Archetype Publications in collaboration with the National Gallery of Denmark/CATS (ISBN: 9781904982784). From 22 May 2012 the publication will be available at the museum book shop and from Archetype Publications at http://www.archetype.co.uk/publication-details.php?id=152

Twitter

You can also learn more about the project on Twitter where paintings conservator Hannah Tempest from the National Gallery of Denmark explains about the restoration process of the Copenhagen painting: @BoschBruegelCPH

Exhibition

The exhibition Illuminated – Tracing Bosch and Bruegel will be on show at the National Gallery of Denmark from May 4 until October 21, 2012. As part of the scenography of the exhibition, featuring a conservation lab and a 16th century painter’s studio, the presentation relies on a creative user group of the museum: The Art Pilots from the Youth laboratories for Art (u.l.k.). Especially the scientific approach intrigued the young museum volunteers and upon their request Leica has very generously offered a Leica EZ4 HD microscope to be part of the exhibition. The public will be able to focus in on a tiny paint cross-section – also projected by a wall-mounted monitor – in order to study the layer build up of one of the paintings. By employing community involvement into the exhibition planning and reaching out to the visiting youth with technical research aspects, the object is to prompt their later interest in embarking into field of natural sciences.

For more on u.l.k. see: http://www.smk.dk/udforsk-kunsten/unges-laboratorier-for-kunst/

International conference

Inspired by the European project Four Paintings Magnified. Tracing Bosch and Bruegel the conference Copying, Replicating & Emulating Paintings in the 15th–18th Century aims to explore how art historical and technical examination of paintings in tandem can address key subjects as meaning, materials and manufacturing techniques, as well as be a catalyst for fresh perspectives on prevailing European workshop practices when copying, replicating and emulating paintings in the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries.

Time and place: May 21–22, 2012 at the National Gallery of Denmark

See the program and register here: www.smk.dk/cats-conference

The research, publication and exhibition have been made possible thanks to a substantial grant from the EU Culture Program.

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