Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Material Changes

Many of the paintings in American Stories have led remarkable lives—some have important provenances, others have appeared in notable exhibitions and publications, and still others have undergone changes in appearance over time. Environmental conditions and wear and tear can affect the way a painting looks, but sometimes the root of change lies in the very materials used to make the work. With certain media, features once hidden under layers of paint can become visible in time. In other instances, elements that were meant to be seen can vanish, at least from unaided sight. In today’s post, I’ll consider works in American Stories that have changed in significant ways, and explore how these transformations affect the tales that the objects tell.

All of the paintings in the exhibition are oils, and the majority of them were painted on canvas. (The few exceptions to canvas include wood, academy board, laminated paperboard, and bed ticking.) The artists who created them would have followed an established sequence of steps. Working on a stretched canvas, he or she would have sealed the surface with size—a glue-like substance that makes the fibers less absorbent. Next, the artists would prime the canvas with a layer of paint, either white or tinted, to smooth out the surface. This layer, also called the ground, would provide the base for the painted composition. Usually, once the artist had finished working and let the paint dry, he or she would apply a layer of varnish to protect the paint film and saturate the colors.

Many oil paintings remain stable for centuries, but, depending on an artist’s materials and techniques, some works undergo changes over time. Take, for instance, James McNeill Whistler’s view of London’s Cremorne Gardens, seen below:


Above: James McNeill Whistler (American, 1834–1903). Cremorne Gardens, No. 2, 1872–77. Oil on canvas; 27 x 53 1/8 in. (68.6 x 134.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1912 (12.32). Photograph © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

When I lead tour groups through the exhibition, someone almost always asks why this painting looks so dark. While it does depict the park in the evening—when it often came alive with theater and music performances and firework displays—we also have evidence that the painting has gotten darker with age. Like many of his other nocturnes, Whistler’s Cremorne Gardens was painted on a gray ground, which is discernible near the edges of the canvas. We know that he chose his ground colors carefully, since he used them to achieve the sense of tonal harmony that was important to much of the art that he produced. By working up his compositions in paint thinned to a very liquid consistency, primarily with turpentine and linseed oil, he enabled at least some of the ground layer to show through the surface, which lent his works greater unity.

Over time, the oil in oil paint undergoes chemical changes that may increase the transparency of the paint. Consequently, even more of the gray ground that Whistler had intentionally revealed with his very thinned-out paint has become visible, leading to an overall darkening effect. Some paintings darken so severely over time that the composition is no longer legible, but that’s hardly true with Cremorne Gardens. In fact, the time-altered surface of the work has offered useful insights into the artist’s methods. Whistler strove to disguise the signs of labor in his paintings, stating that “. . . a picture is finished when all trace of the means used to bring about the end have disappeared.” However, the chemical changes that have affected Cremorne Gardens enable us to grasp Whistler’s careful choices in building up the layers of his painting, making it possible to read a story about his techniques while also enjoying the main narrative about London nightlife.

The paint on two canvases by Winslow Homer has also become more transparent over time, revealing compositional changes that the artist had attempted to conceal:

veteran_200 gale_200

Above, from left to right: Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910). The Veteran in a New Field, 1865. Oil on canvas; 24 1/8 x 38 1/8 in. (61.3 x 96.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), 1967 (67.187.131). Photograph © The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910). The Gale, 1883–93. Oil on canvas; 30 1/4 x 48 1/4 in. (76.8 x 122.7 cm). Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts, Museum Purchase (1916.48).

Originally, the reaper in The Veteran in a New Field held a cradled scythe, consisting of a blade and a series of parallel spokes that would catch and cut stalks of wheat and make piling easier. (See an illustration of a cradled scythe.) Homer changed his mind about the cradle and painted it out, but we can still see the pentimento, or alteration, because of the partially transparent paint film on the work’s surface. This alteration offers insight into Homer’s storytelling process and his attempt to augment the painting’s symbolic power, as the art historian Nicolai Cikovsky Jr. has argued. (See Cikovsky and Franklin Kelly, Winslow Homer, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.) By simplifying the scythe, Homer heightened an association to the Grim Reaper, and thus hinted at the death and suffering this veteran of the Civil War would have witnessed. (For more on Homer’s change to the scythe and its impact on the painting’s narrative, listen to the related Met Podcast episode with James McPherson.)

Time has also rendered Homer’s extensive changes to The Gale visible. Today, we can discern multiple pentimenti in this composition, including a life brigade shelter, just above the rocks at left, and a lifeboat, whose form stretches diagonally from the rocks to the right side of the canvas. As in the case of The Veteran in a New Field, the alterations to The Gale shed light on the evolution of Homer’s storytelling—what began as a more concrete tale of a young mother’s concern for a loved one on the rough seas was transformed into a more general narrative about figures braving the elements. Kevin M. Murphy, curator at the Huntington Library, argued in a 2002 Winterthur Portfolio article that the changes to The Gale are indicative of Homer’s commercial concerns. Murphy noted that Homer avoided private commissions and instead showed his work at exhibitions, galleries, and clubs as a way of generating sales. When Homer first exhibited The Gale at the National Academy of Design in 1883, the shelter and boat were still part of the composition, but the work failed to please critics or consumers. The work eventually found a buyer in 1893, after the artist had amended the composition. In this way, The Gale and its changes illustrate Homer’s concern with the salability of his works and the ways in which his vision could be affected by his sensitivity to the marketplace.

Finally, Matthew Pratt’s American School, which I also discussed in an earlier post, “Paintings within Paintings,” has undergone a different type of physical change: a feature that the artist intended to appear has, over the years, disappeared. Pratt depicts himself seated before an easel on the right, at what appears to be a blank canvas. However, when the painting is viewed under different conditions, we see a surprise:

pratt_american_200 pratt_ultraviolet_120

Above, from left to right: Matthew Pratt (American, 1734–1805). The American School, 1765. Oil on canvas; 36 x 50 1/4 in. (91.4 x 127.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Samuel P. Avery, 1897 (97.29.3). Photograph © The Metropolitan Museum of Art; an ultraviolet photograph of a detail of the painting. Photograph © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The original canvas included a chalk drawing of a draped figure, which is now only visible when it fluoresces under an ultraviolet bulb. How might the knowledge of this once-present figure enhance the story that the painting tells? In a 1993 Metropolitan Museum Journal article, Susan Rather of the University of Texas at Austin noted that the faded figure on Pratt’s canvas originated from his imagination, rather than from a model in the studio. By showing himself capable of conjuring up a female form from memory, Pratt would have emphasized the power of his artistic imagination, casting himself as a creative and professional painter ready for commissions. Knowing about the missing figure contributes to our understanding of The American School as a self-promotional tool for the artist.

I encourage you to come to the galleries and take a closer look at these and other paintings in the exhibition in this final week. The exhibition will be on view through Sunday, January 24.

—Katie Steiner

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