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Style and Science: Assessing a Rembrandt, Part 1

Today's blogger is Jacquelyn N. Coutré, the Allen Whitehill Clowes Curatorial Fellow, European Painting and Sculpture before 1800.

Figure 1:  Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), Self-Portrait, about 1629 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Courtesy of the Clowes Fund, C10063

Figure 1: Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), Self-Portrait, about 1629
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Courtesy of the Clowes Fund, C10063

A portrait (Fig. 1) hanging in the Clowes Library has charmed visitors for decades with its vivid lifelikeness. The energetic curls, the fleshy and youthful cheeks, the breath that hovers upon the parted lips all evoke the presence of a living man before our eyes. It has long been called an early self-portrait by the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), which is substantiated by a monogram (Fig. 2) – “RHL”, for “Rembrandt Harmenszoon of Leiden” – in the lower right corner. But scholars have cast doubts upon the identification of the sitter and the attribution to Rembrandt, calling it a workshop copy after an original by Rembrandt, a portrait of Rembrandt by a fellow painter, and even a self-portrait by one of Rembrandt’s students 30 years after his apprenticeship with the master. Factor in the existence of six painted variations of this work, and the possibilities are dizzying! How has the IMA determined that the Clowes painting is authentic?

Comparison with other paintings from the same period is the first step. Connoisseurs have observed similarities in physiognomy to other self-portraits from Rembrandt’s Leiden period (c. 1625-1631) in works found in Amsterdam, Munich, Boston, and Liverpool. Features like the bulbous nose, penetrating eyes, and slightly cleft chin point clearly to Rembrandt as the sitter.

In the early 1980s, IMA curator Anthony F. Janson saw a resemblance in execution between the Clowes panel and the self-portraits in Boston and Liverpool. He observed the use of scoring with the butt end of the paintbrush in the curls of the hair, the short hairs of the beard, and even in the lower lip to articulate volume and texture, a technique visible in the Amsterdam, Munich, and Boston self-portraits. Janson also drew comparisons between the flesh tones in the Boston painting and our panel, as well as in the execution of the scarf.

Figure 2: “RHL” monogram

Figure 2: “RHL” monogram

Further confirmation was offered by the leader of the Rembrandt Research Project, Ernst van de Wetering, in 2007. Having studied the monograms on Rembrandt’s early paintings, Van de Wetering observed that the monogram on the Clowes panel corresponds to those found on the artist’s works dating to a very short period, between late 1627 and 1629.

But is this enough information to say with confidence that our panel was executed by Rembrandt? Could it have been done by a very talented student, or perhaps a 19th-century copyist? Stay tuned for Part 2, in which scientific evidence is marshaled in support of the attribution to Rembrandt.

Filed under: Art, Guest Bloggers, History, Technology, The Collection

 

Burn Out or Fade Away

Today's Guest Bloggers are Gregory Dale Smith, Ph.D., the IMA's Otto N. Frenzel III Senior Conservation Scientist, and Michael Columbia, Ph.D., Sabbatical Leave Research Fellow - IPFW

It is an uncomfortable truth that in showing you an artwork in a museum, we are potentially destroying it.  As a conservation professional, it feels wrong to admit that, but it is true.  Every photon, or packet of radiant energy, that strikes the surface of an art object has the potential to do damage, and we most often see that as a negative change in the artwork’s aesthetics: darkening, fading, yellowing, chalking, crosslinking, etc.  It’s an unstoppable phenomenon, but one that proceeds at a variety of rates.  Certainly color change is one of the most notable alterations that light can cause in an artwork, and so we must dole out the expected lifetime of an object using an informed and rational approach.  Conservators and collections managers go to great pains to protect artwork by limiting its exposure to light.  This can take the form of reducing light intensity, restricting its spectral output, or limiting the duration of an exhibition.  These stewards of the collection get additional insight and data from scientists who study the fading behavior of artists’ materials.

For the past several months the IMA has been conducting a condition survey of its photograph collection, over 800 objects that span the history of the medium.  This program is sponsored by a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a wing of the federal government that supports museum and conservation activities.  In addition to the inventory and conservation assessment of each artwork, the grant has also funded a study of the lightfastness of the contemporary color photographs in the collection using a technique called microfade testing (MFT), or microfadeometry.  The goal of the study is to determine the susceptibility to color change for the highest priority color photographs in the collection and to determine patterns of lightfastness among the many photographic processes.  This data in turn informs our exhibition, loan, and lighting guidelines for the collection.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Watercolor paint outs after artificial light aging.

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Filed under: Conservation, Photography, The Collection

 

A Tale of Two Weegees

As I have written about in previous posts (here, here, here, and here), the IMA is very fortunate to have photograph conservator Paul Messier on site with us to conduct a conservation condition survey of all of our collection photographs. This initiative was made possible through a generous grant from the Institute of Museum & Library Services (IMLS) in recognition of IMA’s significant holdings of historic and contemporary photographs. With the information gained from this survey, the IMA hopes to design a program of optimal care that will allow us to responsibly study and exhibit our photographs within the highest standard of preservation.

Paul has recently surveyed our collection of Weegee photographs, which came to the IMA in 2009. Weegee is a pseudonym for Arthur Fellig, who immigrated with his family at the age of 10 to New York from the Ukraine in 1909. He began his work in photography as a darkroom assistant for Acme Newspictures (which became United Press International Photos) before striking out on his own as a freelance photographer, concentrating on crime photography. He would often arrive at crime scenes before the first responders, which led to a joking reputation for prescience. This earned him the nickname of “ouija” (from the future-predicting board game), which was phonetically reinterpreted as “Weegee.” Weegee became well-known as a hard-boiled, scruffy, street-smart individual. He was also a natural self-promoter, who began signing his work “Weegee the Famous.” He is considered one of the first street photographers, as opposed to the traditional studio photographer who worked with staged compositions and tightly controlled content. His approach paved the way for the work of later notable photographers, such as Diane Arbus and Robert Frank. Weegee developed and printed his own photographs, and his work was published in all of the prominent New York City newspapers. He became widely known for his gritty, unvarnished views of crime, but perhaps he is best appreciated today for his capture of NYC life in high and low places—glimpses of ordinary moments frozen into significance as unselfconscious documents of time and place.

Paul called my attention to two particular photographs that struck him as singular, both of which are portraits of Weegee: one is a gelatin-silver print by photographer Larry Block and the other is a color Polaroid self-portrait by Weegee. These images, while very different from each other, are praiseworthy for their success within their respective techniques in conveying a strong sense of personality. They are also beautifully rendered, aptly utilizing the aesthetic parameters of the materials servicing these processes.

Larry Block “Portrait of Weegee,” undated. Gelatin Silver Print.Caroline Marmon Fesler Fund, Gift of the Alliance of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Roger G. Wolcott Fund, Nancy Foxwell Neuberger Acquisition Endowment Fund, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore P. Van Vorhees Art Fund, Cecil F. Head Art Fund, James V. Sweetser Fund. 2009.272.

Larry Block “Portrait of Weegee,” undated. Gelatin Silver Print.Caroline Marmon Fesler Fund, Gift of the Alliance of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Roger G. Wolcott Fund, Nancy Foxwell Neuberger Acquisition Endowment Fund, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore P. Van Vorhees Art Fund, Cecil F. Head Art Fund, James V. Sweetser Fund. 2009.272.

The undated portrait of Weegee by Larry Block is a study of the photographer in a pensive moment, fueled by a focused intensity. He is slouched informally, yet commands great presence; the setting is casual but dramatically rendered. This is clearly an individual that deserves our attention even as he ignores the camera, seemingly alone with his thoughts and his trademark cigar. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Conservation, Photography, The Collection

 

Interpreting “The Majesty Receives”

Our guest blogger today is Joe Wadlington, a writer and recent graduate of Butler University.

This post is part of an ongoing series that explores new interpretations of works within the IMA collection through creative writing. In the post below, author Joe Wadlington provides his interpretation of  The Majesty Receives by William Holbrook Beard. After reading, visit the IMA’s online collection to learn about the artist’s intentions for the work. 

William,

William Holbrook Beard, “The Majesty Receives,” 1885. James E. Roberts Fund. 76.13

Michael was having the dreams again. His therapist explained that Michael was projecting unresolved issues with his wife onto his mother-in-law’s withheld approval, making her “the gatekeeper of his marital bliss.” His wife said he needed to stop eating Slim Jims before bed.

Either way, once Michael hit the final stage of sleep, his dreams took him to a perverted Sherwood Forest. But not the Sherwood Forest from the play or book Robin Hood—the one from the Disney movie Robin Hood, where everyone was an animal. Michael would be something weak, like a rabbit, mouse, or stoat. While his mother-in-law, the villain of Michael’s dreams and waking life, would be re-imagined as King John in the form of a fox or bobcat (and this one time an especially aggressive panda). Except that if it was Disney’s Robin Hood, then shouldn’t the fox be Robin Hood? Or maybe Michael was supposed to turn into Robin Hood? What was a stout anyway, like a gerbil thing?

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Art, The Collection

 

Mario Botta’s Tesi Table

Our guest blogger today is Eric Rowland, who is a board member in the Design Arts Society. He continues a series of blog posts on acquisitions for the IMA's new Design Arts galleries, opening in fall of 2013.

Mario Botta, Single-family house in Ligornetto,Ticino, Switzerland, 1975-1976.

Mario Botta, Single-family house in Ligornetto,Ticino, Switzerland, 1975-1976.

My first project in architectural school was drawing a house designed by Mario Botta. It was an exercise designed to teach us how to draw isometric images, and I think the Botta house was selected because it was such a simple form.  It was a long narrow house that looked like a shoebox on its side, with irregularly shaped openings cut out of it and stripes across the sides. I loved it! I had never seen a house like this and I was immediately interested in finding more of his work.

Botta’s roots in Lugano, Switzerland certainly reveal themselves in his work. Lugano is in a mountainous part of the country, with tranquil lakes and an amazing alpine skyline. The proximity to Italy no doubt allowed him to be exposed to the work of Carlo Scarpa, an architect whose attitudes to masonry, geometry and precise detailing seem to be reflected in Botta’s work. While the majority of his work is in his native region and includes single-family houses, vacation houses, offices religious buildings and even warehouses, his best known work in the United States is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Mario Botta, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992-1995.

Mario Botta, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992-1995.

I think Botta is a good example of an “architect’s architect.” His work is precise and tailored, sensitive to context, but bold and self-assured. Symmetry and texture play an important part in his work, and his vocabulary generally consists of a masonry shell, cracked to reveal its jewel-like contents as though you took a band-saw to a geode. Strong striping and simple geometric forms define its character.

Mario Botta, Tesi table, 1985.

Mario Botta, Tesi table, 1985.

This table acquired by the IMA is an evolution of that architectural vocabulary and an extension of his materiality. Like the center of a geode, the Tesi materials are multifaceted and shiny. A simple metal triangle extrudes to create a minimal base. Bold metal stripes articulate the support of the rectangular glass top. The Tesi table is a great piece of interior architecture that fittingly represents Botta’s bold body of work.

Filed under: Design, The Collection

 

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