44th Annual Meeting – Research and Technical Studies Session, May 16, "Looking Closer, Seeing More: Recent Developments in the Technical Documentation of Paintings", by Ron Spronk

In the morning session on May 16th, Ron Spronk, Professor of Art History in the Art Conservation Program at Queen’s University, shared his experiences with several recent endeavors to standardize the technical documentation of paintings and to make the resulting information both accessible and user-friendly.

Followers of the Rembrandt Research Project will be familiar with the missions of the projects Spronk describes in that they each generally aim to comprehensively study the oeuvre of a single artist.  However, the crucial difference is that the more recent ventures are web-based, open-access, and shareable, and they are highly reliant on the compilation and comparison of images obtained using consistent methods across institutional boundaries. 

Spronk spoke first about Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece, an initiative made possible through the partnership of many organizations, including the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK/IRPA), the Getty Foundation, and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. During the presentation, Spronk briefly toured the audience through the website, which is beautifully user-friendly and self-explanatory. Definitions are available for each of the analytical techniques used, and it is also possible to download condition, materials research, and dendrochronology reports. 

The follow-up website, Even Closer to Van Eyck, is set to launch shortly and will focus more on the treatment of the altarpiece. As the Getty Foundation website pronounces, This second phase of the Van Eyck project will incorporate high-resolution images produced during and after the full conservation of the altarpiece, which is currently underway. The web application is expected to set new standards for digital projects related to art history and conservation by providing access to the decision-making process for the treatment of the altarpiece and by disseminating the open-source technology behind the website to the museum community.” Another extension of the Closer to Van Eyck website is VERONA, or Van Eyck Research in OpeN Access, which has aimed to study and document all paintings securely attributed to Van Eyck in a standardized manner. The resulting scholarship will be published online.

The Bosch Research and Conservation Project similarly attempts to consistently document the entire oeuvre of Hieronymus Bosch and includes restoration of nine works. Several structural treatments were supported by the Getty Panel Painting Initiative. The Bosch website shows three works represented by high-resolution photographs in normal light, infrared images, and X-radiographs, with a three-pane slider moving between them. Spronk described the method by which all of the images were obtained using a window frame, which lets the camera remain completely parallel, and showed a video demonstrating the documentation process. A larger website application is set to be launched at an indeterminate date. 

Although not covered during the presentation, the abstract also lists the “Hand of the Master on panels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder,” a comprehensive workshop on Bruegel that took place at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna from November 24-25, 2015. The workshop program and a presentation by Angela Cerasuolo on The Parable of the Blind and The Misanthrope in the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples may be found on Academia.edu.

In searching for these websites after Spronk’s presentation, it became clear that these projects are all very much in progress, and only partial information is, as of yet, available. However, these endeavors appear to be extremely promising. The Even Closer to Van Eyck website in particular is eagerly anticipated because it will share the methodology used to treat the altarpiece. Much as the altarpiece during treatment is itself on display, this website should set a new precedent for transparency and should further raise public awareness of conservation activities. The founding concept of comprehensive, standardized, and open-access documentation on which these projects are based presents an encouraging model that will hopefully one day become more common practice, providing greater opportunities for interdisciplinary research and collaboration.