45th Annual Meeting – Paintings Specialty Group, May 31st, “The Monopoli Altarpiece: Rediscovery and recovery of a Cretan-Venetian masterpiece,” by Caitlin Breare

Caitlin Breare’s excellent talk on the Monopoli Altarpiece, a seven-panel polyptych in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was part of a morning of presentations focused on challenges encountered during treatment of painted wood. The fifteenth-century altarpiece originated from the city of Monopoli in southern Italy, but – as became clear during Caitlin’s presentation – it represents an amalgamation of styles. This city was on a trade route between northern Italy and the Mediterranean Sea, and both Venetian and Cretan painting clearly influenced the aesthetic. The altarpiece’s format and use of European poplar for the support is consistent with Italian construction, suggesting that a Venetian workshop may be responsible, while the painting materials and style are consistent with Cretan technique.

The treatment and research of this work, which had previously been deemed unexhibitable, was begun in 2015. Technical analysis revealed a great deal about the altarpiece’s materials and artist’s technique. Caitlin compared the work’s Cretan aesthetic to the Byzantine style with relation to the elongated figures and gilded background. The original gilding consists of burnished water gilding over a yellow ochre preparatory layer. While a yellow bole might be considered unusual in other contexts, this was a common material for gilders in Crete to employ. The use of a mixture of umber, black, vermilion, and white as a base tone for the flesh was also standard practice for Cretan painters.

Infrared reflectography showed that the underdrawing between the seven panels is consistent. Meanwhile, examination of the X-radiograph indicated the presence of scored lines under the paint in each panel, presumably to give texture to the wood before application of the gesso. Such scoring has been observed in the works of other Cretan painters. Examination of tool marks resulted in an exciting discovery: from the way the tool marks match up, the two panels with the saints directly on either side of Virgin seem to have been switched at some point in the past. Reconfiguring the panels also makes more sense compositionally, as the saints’ postures now direct the viewer’s eye towards the Virgin.

Restoration consisting of oil gilding was easily distinguishable from the original water gilding and was removed in the course of treatment. Treatment also involved grime removal and the reduction of a discolored, locally applied coating, probably consisting of drying oil; fortuitously, the coating appears to have protected the paint in some areas.

The greatest challenge encountered during treatment was the presence of calcium oxalate on the paint surface. The formation mechanism of this highly-insoluble brown layer is unknown, although Caitlin postulated that perhaps it may be linked to a coating applied over azurite. Another hypothesis is that fungus may be the source. In any case, chelators and mechanical removal were used to reduce the layer as much as possible. Now that the work has been cleaned, George Bisacca will be completing the structural treatment of the panels in the near future, and the altarpiece will be returned to the MFA for compensation.

For more on the altarpiece’s examination and conservation, there is a detailed summary on the MFA’s website: Conservation in Action: Monopoli Altarpiece. Although the language in the text is directed towards the general public, the post includes great images and time lapse videos of the treatment.

Study of the calcium oxalate layer and methods for its removal were prominent focuses of this treatment, and Caitlin hinted during the question and answer session that she will be looking further into medical techniques that reduce kidney stones as a potential solution for the removal of this type of layer. I look forward to seeing how Caitlin’s research progresses!

45th Annual Meeting – Paintings Specialty Group jointly with Research and Technical Studies, May 30th, “Re-examining Old Findings and Inferences: The Study of a Magus at a Table by Jan Lievens,” by Shan Kuang

This presentation by Shan Kuang focused on the technical analysis and reattribution of Magus at a Table from Upton House, National Trust.

Multiple versions of this composition exist, variously attributed to Rembrandt, circle of Rembrandt, Lievens, copy after Lievens, and so on. The attribution of this particular work has long been contested. The painting was listed as an original Rembrandt, then reattributed as a “copy after Lievens” after a 1983 examination. Dendrochronological analysis conducted at that time indicated that the tree from which the panel was fashioned was felled after 1660. Additionally, samples were taken and examined in cross section, and the results of this analysis seemed inconsistent with the painters’ techniques.

New scholarship on Lievens provided the impetus to reexamine the attribution, and the work was sent to the Hamilton Kerr Institute for treatment and study in 2014. At this time, dendrochronology specialist Ian Tyres revisited the prior dating, questioning the methodology used and ultimately rejecting the 1660 date. This once again opened up the possibility that Rembrandt or Lievens had a hand in the painting.

New imaging technologies showed that an initial sketch had been revised significantly in the final composition and that the color of the table had been revised. Furthermore, macro X-ray fluorescence scanning revealed pentimenti that had been previously undetected by X-radiography. An arc of foliage that had been painted out by the artist was particularly notable. These changes indicate the likelihood that the painting is an original artwork rather than a copy. Additionally, such extensive reworking is fairly common for Lievens.

Previous analysis of the cross sections from the painting had concluded that copper green was present, which was used as evidence against attributing the painting to either Lievens or Rembrandt. However, re-examination of the cross sections indicated that the element copper actually corresponds to blue particles and that a mixed green is present, which is in line with the practices of both artists.

In light of this new information, the painting was reattributed to Lievens based on stylistic grounds and consistency of materials and technique. Shan presented this research logically and effectively, and the analysis of this painting provides an impressive case study of how re-examination of paintings – utilizing new research and improved technologies – can lead to exciting discoveries and contribute to our understanding.

Preparing for the 45th Annual Meeting: ECPN’s Updated Tips for Conference Attendance

In anticipation of the 45th Annual Meeting in Chicago later this month, the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network has updated our “Tips for Conference Attendance.”





















Access a PDF version of this Tips Sheet, which includes hyperlinks, by clicking here. We look forward to seeing you in Chicago!

AIC’s 45th Annual Meeting – Last Call, Get Your Papers In Before September 23rd!

There are only 2 days left to submit your specialty, joint, pre-session and workshop papers.
We would like to remind you that the final deadline is 11:59 p.m. on Friday, September 23, 2016. You still have time to submit your 500-word maximum paper abstracts, workshop proposals, and pre-session programming.
How to apply
For more information on the theme of the Annual Meeting, the different types of programing and how to submit, please visit the Annual Meeting webpage. If you are ready to submit your abstract, pre-session, or workshop proposal please follow the links below to submit directly to our online system:

  • Submit an abstract for a General, Specialty, Joint Specialty, Interest Session, or Poster presentation
  • Submit a proposal for a Pre-session presentation
  • Submit a proposal for a Workshop

For questions regarding abstracts, contact Ruth Seyler at annualmeeting@conservation-us.org.
All inquiries related to workshops must be addressed to Sarah Saetren at courses@conservation-us.org.