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Art at the ‘cutting’ edge: Cross-section sampling of paintings

Last month, I led a handful of members of the IMA’s Second Century Society through a special behind-the-scenes workshop in my laboratory exploring the practice of cross-section sampling in conservation science. A cross-section is a miniscule sample cut from an artwork so as to contain all the layers of the painting – from the topmost varnish to the lowest preparation layer. When examined under a microscope or probed using micro-analytical techniques, a cross-section tells the story of the artwork’s inception, creation, and aesthetic techniques in a way that no other analysis or connoisseurship can. Although the collection and preparation of these samples can take days, we whisked participants through the many steps of sampling, mounting, and analysis of a cross-section using materials prepared in advance – much like a cooking show – in order to explain this invaluable technique for understanding and interpreting artworks in the collection.

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Figure 1. The horizontal red and white element (#2013.443B) is seen in the foreground.
Roy Lichtenstein, Five Brushstrokes, designed 1983-84, fabricated 2012.
Gift of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation with additional support from the Robert L. and Marjorie J. Mann Fund.
© Roy Lichtenstein Foundation

Recently, we installed Roy Lichtenstein’s Five Brushstrokes on the Sutphin Mall. The extraordinary process of carefully positioning and stacking these monumental artworks – one that involved cranes, work crews, and conservators – was captured on time-lapse photography. The morning after the installation, I found a plastic baggie with two small paint samples on my desk. As I turned the chips over in my hand, it was obvious they told a story of the sculpture’s creation – so I prepared a cross-section to check it out.

The five components of Brushstrokes are made of painted aluminum. One of the samples came from the horizontal red and white brushstroke (Figure 1), and it is obvious from the cross-section (Figure 2) that the white highlights were painted first and then the sculpture was masked off to add the red passages – you see the red layer over top of the white in the cross-section meaning that the red paint had to be the last to be applied. But what is all that thick pink stuff below? An industrial product similar to Bondo! Yes, it is an epoxy version of a fairing compound like that used in bodyshops to level dents and scrapes on your car. When an aluminum sculpture is fabricated, the surface isn’t always smooth, and so an epoxy or polyester filler is troweled on top and sanded smooth to give an even surface that is then painted.

Figure 2. A magnified view of a mounted and polished cross-section from the horizontal red and white element of Five Brushstrokes. 1000 µm = 1 mm.

Figure 2. A magnified view of a mounted and polished cross-section from the horizontal red and white element of Five Brushstrokes. 1000 µm = 1 mm.

This layered structure seems complex, but cross-sections can get much more interesting! Check out this cross-section from a wooden shutter salvaged from a historic property on the Dupont’s Winterthur Estate, Figure 3. Because the building was regularly repainted, the section shows over a dozen different paint schemes. Furthermore, irradiating your sample with ultraviolet light and imaging the visible fluorescence from the paints can help to identify additional layers in what looks like a single, thick white paint coat toward the bottom of the section – the shutter has obviously been touched up with the same color a few times too!

Figure 3. Visible (left) and ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (right, reversed) photomicrographs of a wooden shutter from a building on the Dupont’s Winterthur Estate in Delaware.

Figure 3. Visible (left) and ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (right, reversed) photomicrographs of a wooden shutter from a building on the Dupont’s Winterthur Estate in Delaware.

Cross-section sampling is, by its nature, a destructive technique since a small sample of paint must be sacrificed. However, these samples can be vanishingly small, oftentimes less than the width of a hair, and yet they yield an enormous amount of information about the materials, craftsmanship, and condition of an artwork.

Filed under: Art, Conservation, IMA Staff, Installation

 

Hoosier thoughts on a Haarlem artist: Booth Tarkington on the IMA’s Portrait of Frans Hals

Louis Betts (American, 1873-1961), "Portrait of Booth Tarkington," 1941 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of the Artist. 42.12

[Fig. 1] Louis Betts (American, 1873-1961), “Portrait of Booth Tarkington,” 1941
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of the Artist. 42.12

In the preface to a catalogue of an exhibition at the John Herron Art Museum (the predecessor to the IMA) in 1937, Indianapolis native Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) [Fig. 1] expresses his admiration for the Portrait of Frans Hals [Fig. 2], then thought to be by the master’s own hand:

“…a keen and living bit of analysis from as quick and sure a brush as ever flicked canvas or panel.  Admirably and pathetically lacking the remotest taint of vanity, this picture would have satisfied Robert Burns; battered Frans Hals, without self-pity, could see himself as others saw him, but more shrewdly.”

Unknown artist (Dutch), "Portrait of Frans Hals," about 1650 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Courtesy of The Clowes Fund, C10047

[Fig. 2] Unknown artist (Dutch), “Portrait of Frans Hals,” about 1650
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Courtesy of The Clowes Fund, C10047

 

 

 

 

 

The painting has since been qualified as the best surviving copy after a lost original by Hals. As the copyist retained many elements of the master’s signature style, however, Tarkington’s poetic words are still of interest to the modern viewer.

Tarkington’s characterization of Hals’s manner as “quick and sure” underscores the artist’s distinctive approach. The sketchy contours that suggest movement, the creation of tone through unblended brushstrokes [Fig. 3], and, foremost, the crisp slashes of color that sit unapologetically upon the surface – the final “master stroke” flicked onto the support that defines form – these are the elements that comprise the painter’s recognizable “rough” style. Hals puts these components into the service of a “keen and living bit of analysis,” suggesting the persuasiveness of the representation. Surprisingly, the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s brief description echoes many of the earliest commentaries upon the artist, such as those composed by Cornelis de Bie (1627-c. 1715), Govaert Bidloo (1649-1713), and Arnold Houbraken (1660-1719).

The portrait under consideration is not just any likeness, however, but the artist’s own visage. Tarkington celebrates the honesty with which Hals approached his own face, writing that the portrait lacks “the remotest taint of vanity.” Furthermore, he alludes to the difficulty of viewing oneself with such frankness by referencing Robert Burns’s 1786 poem “On a Louse”:

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!”

[Fig. 3] Detail of "Portrait of Frans Hals."

[Fig. 3] Detail of “Portrait of Frans Hals.”

Tarkington likely meant the furrowed brow, the bags under the eyes, the slightly misaligned eyelids, and the thin cheeks when he wrote about Hals’s “shrewd” perception of himself. Tarkington’s descriptors of “battered” and “without self-pity,” however, smack of early authors’ incorrect portrayals of the artist as a drunkard and hedonist. (For a laugh, read Houbraken’s life of the artist, in which the author notes that Hals’s students often helped their inebriated master home from the tavern and, once, played an ambitious prank on him.) These characterizations resulted from centuries of confusion between the painter and his cousin of the same name – thankfully, these accounts have been discredited. On the contrary, the respectable, though oft indebted, painter appears to have received a quarterly stipend from the city of Haarlem during his final years in recognition of his artistic abilities!

Though removed in time and space from the early writers on Hals, Tarkington continued their perceptions of the artist’s stylistic strengths. Employing zippy language and an evocative reference to Scottish poetry, Tarkington provided a captivating variation upon past literature that reinvigorates this portrait for viewers of the 20th century and beyond.

Filed under: Art, Exhibitions, History, Indiana, The Collection

 

100 Acres’ Play Patch

“Let your walks now be a little more adventurous.” – Henry David Thoreau

One thing that the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park: 100 Acres has in abundance is space for exploration. After all, it has a lake, a river AND a canal, wetlands that fill and drain with the seasons, a perfect tadpole pool, dense woods that are like a barricade, open woods that invite a proper game of cops and robbers, a meadow for chasing fireflies, heavy grapevines that resemble something old and gnarled from the Forbidden Forest, and twisty paths that don’t show up on the map but mysteriously disappear over a ridge or around a corner. And that’s just on the nature side of things.

The evolution of 100 Acres and its visitors has been an interesting one, and as we begin to better understand why people come and what they are looking for, we can begin to interpret the natural part of our piece of White River floodplain in a way that the Indianapolis community and beyond can appreciate. There is still quite a bit of “wild” in 100 Acres and, to some degree, we want to keep it that way. What better opportunity for teaching visitors how to respond to and respect the nature they are experiencing? There are many different vines in the park; which ones are okay to touch and which ones will make your skin itch and burn the next day? Oops; that river embankment is too steep to scale and forces you to find a better way back up. Ouch! What makes that specific spot so ideal for that ground bees’ nest? Our goal is to make things accessible without making them too easy, without removing all risk and therefore all opportunities to learn something nature can teach about our place in the environmental community.

play_patchAs a way to address this challenge of cognitive accessibility, a new element was introduced to the park this season: a Play Patch. The idea is a simple one, using all wood materials found onsite to create a creative play area that includes interactive elements that can be moved, manipulated and explored. If the whole of 100 Acres is a bit intimidating, the Play Patch was designed in an effort to ease people into interacting with natural elements that haven’t been shellacked, plasticized or cleaned up. A ring of seats cut from recycled tree trunks, loose branches for building structures, and tree cookies made from cross-sections of smaller branches make up the play pieces within a mulched area in the shape of a tulip poplar leaf – Indiana’s state tree. The educational implications are intentionally subtle; one can count the rings on the seats or tree cookies to discover how old the pieces were when they were cut, use the tree cookies as counters or to visually express mathematical equations, or maybe learn in very basic terms how to engineer a tower of cookies that can stand on its own. Or you can just play. There are natural processes at work that can be observed by way of bugs, fungi, worms and bark that is peeling off the harder, inner wood. Or you can just play.

Tree cookies in the Play Patch.

Tree cookies in the Play Patch.

The point is, playing in this setting, with these elements, can educate someone without them realizing they’re receiving instruction. Early naturalist Henry David Thoreau famously wrote, “I went to the woods to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach …” Beautiful thought, Mr. Thoreau, but I would hedge a bet that even if you don’t go to the woods to live deliberately, you are still likely to learn a thing or two before you come out. Maybe it’s a boost in confidence, or hearing a bird call you don’t recognize. Perhaps it’s as monumental as self-discovery or self-expression, or as mundane as being grossed out by a slug. Whatever you learn, it is important to make connections between oneself and the natural world in order to better understand both.

The Play Patch is a small step to achieving this, and the hope is for other Play Patches to spring up around the park featuring different natural elements, such as stone or grasses. Don’t look for one yet on any map; you’ll just have to come discover where they are hidden, in the woods.

Filed under: Art, Art and Nature Park, Education, IMA Staff

 

The Golden Age anew: The IMA’s Dutch and Flemish gallery reinstalled

071814_dutch_flemish_01On July 18, the newly reinstalled gallery of Dutch and Flemish painting opens to the public. The Northern baroque paintings are one of the strengths of the IMA’s collection, and it is with pride that the IMA presents some of its most popular paintings – such as Aelbert Cuyp’s Valkhof at Nijmegen and Jan Miense Molenaer’s Battle Between Carnival and Lent – alongside some of the lesser-known gems, such as Govaert Flinck’s Woman in a Red Dress and Pearls. Several pictures are coming out of storage, including an excellent mid-17th century copy after a lost self-portrait by Frans Hals and a painting of an old man in a fur-edged cap by a follower of Rembrandt, both from the Clowes Fund Collection. The integration of these two Clowes pictures into the hanging in the William C. Griffith Jr. and Carolyn C. Griffith Gallery (H215) invigorates the survey of 17th century Northern painting.

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Gerrit Adriaensz Berckheyde, (Dutch, 1638-1698), “Dam Square in Amsterdam,” 1668
Collection of Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen (Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp

The highlight of the new gallery layout, however, is a long-term loan from the Koninklijk Museum voor  Schone Kunsten in Antwerp, Gerrit Adriaensz Berckheyde’s Dam Square in Amsterdam [left] of 1668.  Recently treated by IMA paintings conservators, this is the artist’s largest and most vibrant interpretation of this site. The painting shows the “eighth wonder of the world,” the classicizing Amsterdam Town Hall (Stadhuis), overlooking the boxy Renaissance Weigh House (Waag) and the chancel and spire of the New Church (Nieuwe Kerk). The square, which bustles today with tourists as it bustles with magistrates and merchants in Berckheyde’s painting, occupied a central place in the Dutch national identity in the 17th century.

The cornerstone of the new Town Hall was laid on Oct. 20, 1648, in celebration of the Treaty of Westphalia, the agreement that officially recognized the Dutch Republic’s independence from Spain. The entire visual program of the building’s exterior is crafted, in fact, to speak to this newly gained freedom. The tympanum on the east façade displays the enthroned maid of Amsterdam surrounded by water creatures, who offer her crowns of laurel. This carved relief is surmounted by three free-standing sculpted figures; on the two sides stand Prudence and Justice. The figure of Peace crowns the pediment and holds aloft an olive branch, symbolizing peace, and the caduceus of Mercury, an allusion to wisdom and trade. Even the classicism of the architecture – the rounded arches of the ground-floor doorways, the prominent Composite and Corinthian pilasters on the second and third levels, the sculpted tympana, and the carved garlands between the pilasters – is meant to recall the style of that exemplary model of republicanism, Rome. That Peace stands atop a cornucopia, evoking abundance, is fundamental to the Town Hall’s placement on the Dam.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Inherent to sustaining this freedom is the economic and civic activity that we see depicted in a variety of forms in Berckheyde’s painting. The Weigh House, where imported cargo of more than 50 pounds was weighed upon entrance to the city, is the locus around which men roll barrels of wine [Fig. 2], horses pull heavy loads, and money exchanges hands. In front of it, a small fruit market marks the morning, while the buildings on the square’s south side (at the left of the painting) bear signs indicating a printseller and a notary [Fig. 3]. Even the pockets of magistrates chatting before heading into their chambers in the Town Hall suggest a thriving society. Berckheyde, who has animated the square here with more citizens than in most of his other versions, demonstrates the Dam to be a vibrant, essential location in the city.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

A more enlightening painting could not inaugurate the new gallery hanging. An expression of Holland’s new identity as a prosperous republic of the North, Berckheyde’s scene records the physical and cultural topography of Holland’s most important city. The artist’s brilliant sense of light and color, however, captivates the eye as it informs the mind, making the painting a welcomed temporary addition to our museum. Be sure to come see the new installation and admire Berckheyde’s painting!

 

Filed under: Art, Conservation, History, Installation, The Collection

 

City of Light meets the Circle City

Photo of Zadig Perrot by Eric Lubrick

Photo of Zadig Perrot by Eric Lubrick

Recently, 14-year-old Zadig Perrot, from Paris, France, spent two weeks at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. During his first week he attended the Social Photography summer camp for teens where he learned how to use a camera and Photoshop. You can see some of his photos in the slideshow below.

Zadig’s photos and the works of other Summer Camps participants are on view in the Community Gallery on the first floor of the IMA through August 8.

During his second week at the IMA, Zadig spent his time with the Interpretation, Media and Evaluation department. He helped them with some of their tasks and created this video to showcase what the department does at the IMA.

Thanks for your work, Zadig! We hope you enjoyed your visit with us as much as we enjoyed hosting you!

 

Filed under: Art, Audience Engagement, Education, Guest Bloggers, IMA Staff, Photography

 

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