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Style and Science: Assessing a Rembrandt, Part 2

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

In the last posting on the Rembrandt self-portrait in the Clowes Collection (Fig. 1), we considered how art historians evaluated its status according to characteristics visible on the picture’s surface. But we can also gather scientific data to support this stylistic analysis.

In the early 1980s, IMA conservator David A. Miller examined the surface of the painting with a stereomicroscope and looked below its surface using X-rays (Fig. 3). The high magnification showed the “RHL” monogram to be contemporary with the painting, which means that it was applied while the painting was still wet. The x-radiograph, in turn, provided important insights into the artist’s creative process. It illustrates, in fact, two significant changes below the surface: the beret was originally poised more squarely on the head, and the contour of the proper left shoulder had previously extended further to the right. In other words, the artist had made changes to his painting while working on it, changes that would not have been visible to a student in his workshop or a later artist making a copy. The best of the other versions of this painting, the one in Atami, Japan, shows a strong correlation between the surface and underlying layers – telling evidence for the Atami version being a copy after the Clowes original! (It also omits those pesky pimples.)

Figure 3: X-radiograph of Figure 1

Figure 3: X-radiograph of Figure 1

But could the Clowes panel have been done by a later artist in order to look like a painting by the 17th-century master?

The investigations of Peter Klein, a wood biologist at the University of Hamburg, in 1999 help us to understand more about the panel upon which the painting was executed. It is made of oak and comes from the Baltic region, a profile typical of panels used by 17th-century Dutch artists. Relying on the facts that tree rings grow at different rates in different years and that trees of the same species in a particular region will show similar growth patterns, Dr. Klein has determined that the youngest growth ring in our panel dates to 1581. Add on a few years for the panel to dry and become less porous, and the painting could have been executed as early as 1598. While this may seem quite a few years before our estimated date of c. 1629, it confirms that the panel was ready to be used during Rembrandt’s lifetime.

Combining the stylistic and technical evidence yields the conclusion that our painting is indeed a self-portrait by Rembrandt. What was first supported only by connoisseurship is now augmented by scientific study – a wonderful demonstration of the important role that science plays in the museum.

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


An Act of LOVE: Photographic documentation of Robert Indiana’s iconic sculpture

Photo from Wikipedia:

“Charioteer of Delphi,” photo from Wikipedia: Charioteer_of_Delphi

One of the greatest sculptures in the history of art is the bronze “Charioteer of Delphi”. The life-sized figure is a masterpiece of balance between realism and formality, true to the tradition of Classical Greece but singular in its perfect achievement of cherished artistic ideals. The sculpture, which was erected in Delphi in 474 BC, was unearthed along with sections of the chariot horses in 1896. The base contained an inscription that credited the financial patron for this sculptural commission (a political figure) but the artist is not named, and even the city where the sculpture was conceived and fabricated is not conclusively known to scholars. Fortunately, the available documentation surrounding great works of art increased slowly through the ages. Prepatory drawings, sketch notations, diaries, letters, bills of sale, estate records and contemporary critiques are at times obtainable for study. But sadly, even a relatively thorough paper trail could be decimated through migrations, natural disasters and violent conflicts, and we are often left with fragments that must be bridged with speculation.

It is incumbent upon the art historian and the conservator to discover as much information as possible about an artwork in order to create both a cultural and technical context for the diverse works in museum collections. They utilize this augmented perspective in the service of insightful presentation in the galleries and informed preservation in the conservation labs. It is the mission of museums to provide not just a safe haven for art but to build an experience around a painting, a drawing, or a sculpture that will be infused with a greater knowledge – a sense of time and place, an understanding of the artist’s personality and inspiration, and the challenges and triumphs in the creative process itself. In this way we hope to turn the act of “looking” into an act of “appreciating” which carries the visitor into a genuine sense of empathetic connectedness to an art object.

Robert Indiana (American, b. 1928), “LOVE,” 1970 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of the Friends of the Indianapolis Museum of Art in memory of Henry F. DeBoest. Restoration was made possible by Patricia J. and James E. LaCrosse, 75.174 © Morgan Art Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Robert Indiana (American, b. 1928), “LOVE,” 1970
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of the Friends of the Indianapolis Museum of Art in memory of Henry F. DeBoest. Restoration was made possible by Patricia J. and James E. LaCrosse, 75.174
© Morgan Art Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Which brings us to the LOVE sculpture of Robert Indiana. It could be confidently stated that this particular artwork enjoys international recognition within the IMA’s holdings, and its monumental form is much beloved by museum patrons. It was a pivotal work for Robert Indiana, serving as a commanding foray into the rapidly evolving artistic climate of non-traditional aesthetics in the 1950s through 1970s. This was also a time of awakening for artists who desired to work in large scale formats, which helped in turn to fuel a new zeal for public art commissions. The fabrication of the 12 foot tall, three ton sculpture at the Lippincott foundry in North Haven, Connecticut, was completed in 1970. It proceeded to Indianapolis in October of that year, and in 1975 LOVE was formally accessioned by the IMA and permanently settled on the grounds of our campus.

Tom Rummler (American), “Photograph of ‘LOVE’ in the Making in North Haven, Conn.,” 1970 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Robert Indiana, 72.78.14

Tom Rummler (American), “Photograph of ‘LOVE’ in the Making in North Haven, Conn.,” 1970
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of Robert Indiana, 72.78.14

Fortunately for scholars of Robert Indiana and his iconic accomplishment, a sizeable group of gelatin-silver photographs by Tom Rummler had slipped quietly into the IMA collection in 1970, a gift from Robert Indiana himself. This body of work documented the construction process of the LOVE sculpture from the foundry floor and beyond, which is an invaluable record that informs the vital questions of who, how, when, and where in art historical inquiry. For the conservator, these images of process are a solidly reliable source of information regarding the assemblage of this imposing Cor-ten steel structure. I became aware of these photographs during the IMA’s conservation condition survey for all collection photographs that has been undertaken by contracted photograph conservator Paul Messier. This survey was generously funded through a grant from the Institute of Museum & Library Services (IMLS) in 2012, and we are profoundly grateful for this preservation project that has brought our photographs to the focused attention of the staff. The Rummler images document the creation of the LOVE sculpture at Lippincott Inc., and this massive undertaking is chronicled in views that celebrate the complexity, verve, and joy of the process. These photographs are beautiful in their own right as skillful compositions of light and texture; they visually convey the thrill of elemental industrial power harnessed to creative forces. A young Robert Indiana strikes poses worthy of a brave new world in art, and the faces of the fabrication crew are also preserved, a rare treat in art history up until the age of video. Paul confirmed that the 30 gelatin-silver Rummler photographs are currently in excellent condition. They are stored among works of photographic art, not in the library or the Registration office, which is a testament to the museum’s determination that they are at the same time art and document, a treasure of multiple virtues that deserves the highest level of care.

The Rummler photographs are offered here in light of the IMA’s designation of 2014 as a year in celebration of Robert Indiana – his art, his contribution to art history, and his ongoing relationship with the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Visitors can view Robert Indiana’s graphic work and the Rummler photographs as part of The Essential Robert Indiana.

If only photographers had been on hand in Delphi in 474 BC …

Filed under: Art, Conservation, Contemporary, Guest Bloggers, Installation, Uncategorized


A reminder of classical Rome in Indiana

Early January in Indiana is a time that limits activities in the garden. At the Miller House, there has been flood clean up from the rains that came just before Christmas, and tree pruning is an annual winter task. Otherwise, there is planning for the coming year and reflection on the year that’s passed.

Thinking back on 2013, one item that we’ve checked off the to-do list is repairs to the fountain in the north garden. The main element of the fountain is an alabaster bowl, purchased by the Millers while on a trip to Rome in 1957. In a letter to Alexander Girard, Mr. Miller referred to it as a “Second Century Roman alabaster bowl” that he and Mrs. Miller purchased to “add to our house some reminders of classical Rome.” As a classics scholar himself, Mr. Miller would have found such mementoes particularly meaningful.

By the time the museum acquired the property in 2009, the fountain was in need of attention. The bowl itself was badly cracked, its metal lining was failing, its exterior was thickly encrusted with mineral deposits, and its spray jet had been replaced with a short length of white PVC pipe – the stuff plumbers call “schedule 40.” Not attractive.


Laura Kubick of the museum’s conservation department worked with Kemna Restoration and Construction, Inc., of Indianapolis to undertake the needed repairs. Of all aspects of the project, the most challenging was the removal of the mineral deposits on the bowl. Ranging in color from brown to white, these deposits obscured both the color of the material and the details of its carving. The completed bowl emerged as lustrous black with faint white veining, beautifully echoing the color scheme of the house itself. Its exterior was handsomely carved with strigillations, the curving flutes most often associated with Roman sarcophagi. Miller House site administrator Ben Wever found the spray jet among irrigation parts in storage and took it to a local metal fabricator for repairs. When reinstalled, the fountain again brought the sound and movement of water to the Miller garden, but now in a way that represents the Millers’ aesthetic intention.

Presently, the fountain is snugly covered with a Tyvek shroud to protect it from freeze-thaw damage as we look forward to the fine spring days when it will again sparkle with water droplets and add its soothing note to the garden.

Filed under: Art, Conservation, Guest Bloggers, Miller House, Uncategorized


Perennial Premiere Time!

After winter and a rather cold early spring the weather this week finally became likable. Actually, lovable!



Yes, I know 80s is a bit too warm but it wasn’t crazy like last year at least. What scared me was the way this week’s rain kept getting delayed. Always makes me think of drought anymore. But the rain came and everything is bursting into bloom – magnolias, daffodils, forsythia, spicebush, bloodroot, Grecian windflowers – the list goes on for a good bit now. It is a great time to visit with the grass greening up nicely to make all the colors pop. The redbuds (we have about a dozen different kinds) are in heavy bud. They will probably be in full bloom next weekend. That is just in time for Perennial Premiere, April 20th and 21st.

That’s right, folks. Another year has rolled around and it is already time for the 2013 Perennial Premiere, our annual kick-off for the coming growing season. As past attendees know, it is called Perennial Premiere but we will have far more than perennials. Everything from tropical bananas to native wildflowers to vegetables to bodacious begonias plus trees and shrubs will also be available. You can find a list of many of the available plants right here. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Greenhouse, Horticulture, Uncategorized


A Discussion of Orotones

In February of 2012, the Indianapolis Museum of Art mounted a works on paper exhibition created by IMA Prints, Drawings & Photographs Curator Marty Krause entitled “Looking West.” This exhibition featured collection prints, drawings, photographs and watercolors by artists of the 19th & 20th centuries who were captivated by the scenery and culture of the American West. Two of the photographs chosen for this exhibition were taken out of storage for the first time since their acquisition in 1988. They were listed in the museum’s database as works by Edward Sheriff Curtis and identified as “orotones.”

Edward Sheriff Curtis, “Three Chiefs Piegan,” 1900. Gift of Mrs. Charles E. Rogers. 1988.65

It is one of my responsibilities to inspect every artwork prior to display in our galleries to make sure that there are no compelling condition problems that would require treatment before the installation. The orotones were stored with the oil paintings, hanging high on massive wire mesh storage racks suspended from the ceiling. I had to climb a ladder to reach them, and at the top I leaned forward to remove the archival foamboard light shields that were fitted around their frames to protect them from unnecessary light exposure. What I uncovered were two gleaming images, casting a quiet golden glow that seemed slightly miraculous given the cold illumination provided by the overhead fluorescent lights. The orotones shone as if lit by internal church candles, and I was immediately intrigued by the beauty and presence achieved by this esoteric photographic process.

Edward Sheriff Curtis, "The Vanishing Race," 1904. Gift of Mrs. Charles E. Rogers. 1988.66.

Edward Sheriff Curtis, “The Vanishing Race,” 1904. Gift of Mrs. Charles E. Rogers. 1988.66.

Edward Sheriff Curtis was both prominent and prolific in the history of orotone images. His most famous endeavor involved amassing a documentary record of Native American cultures through staged scenes and portraiture, and the use of this particular technique enhanced the romantic appeal of this body of work. The IMA photographs are entitled Three Chiefs, Piegan and The Vanishing Race. They were in identical frames of gilded wood with decorative corner elements, and I came to learn that these were a common type of frame associated with Curtis’s work, personally selected to properly enhance and dignify his images.

Detail: lower left corner of the frame belonging to “Three Chiefs Piegan.”

What are orotones? This turned out to be a much more complicated question than anticipated. Other names for them include Goldtones and Curt-tones, the latter term coined by Curtis himself. The Latin word for gold is aurum, approximated by the prefix ‘oro’ which seems an obvious reference to the golden appearance of the images. This has lead to the misunderstanding that all orotones utilize actual metallic gold within the process. In truth, Curtis’s orotones were created by projecting a photographic negative onto a glass plate that had been pre-coated with a silver-gelatin emulsion, thereby creating a ‘positive’ image. The image was developed and fixed, and the emulsion was then coated with a layer of ‘bronzing powders mixed with banana oil’ to produce a backing color that enabled the highlights and shadows to be discernible, thus rendering the image readable. The ‘bronzing powders’ (metallic powders in a liquid carrier) were probably variable mixtures, but in Curtis’s work, they have been found to contain copper and zinc (note: bronze is technically defined as an alloy of copper and tin; copper and zinc are the components of brass). This metal combination was confirmed at the IMA through a brief scan using a handheld X-ray fluorescence spectrometer. The ‘banana oil’ is amyl acetate in acetone and benzene, with the addition of a small amount of proxylin, which is a cellulose nitrate lacquer. The amyl acetate solvent is produced synthetically, but it has the distinct smell and taste of bananas, which explains the persistent use of the term ‘banana oil.’ It takes a great deal of skill to lay this coating over the emulsion flawlessly, which may help to explain the relative rarity of this process and Curtis’ justifiable pride in his mastery of the technique. He is even thought to have modified the materials to gain the precise aesthetic that he wanted, although this speculation has not been well documented.

Now that we understood what orotones were, we knew that we needed to re-examine our stewardship practices surrounding them to make sure that we were giving them the care they needed in order to survive into the distant future. It is very fortunate that we have the advice of visiting photograph conservator Paul Messier (which I wrote about here), contracted by the IMA for a condition survey of all collection photographs through a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The following information is excerpted from Paul’s survey of The Three Chiefs, Piegan:

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Conservation, Photography, The Collection, Uncategorized


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