Books: The National Gallery’s latest Technical Bulletin makes some great discoveries

The volume is a compendium of papers presented at the Gallery in September 2009


The growing field of technical art history has reached an important new height with the publication of this volume. Collaborations between curators, conservators and conservation scientists have produced a rich collection of studies that are accessible, if not to a lay public, at least to an informed art historical readership. Studying Old Master Paintings is the result of the National Gallery’s “persistence of approach in studying paintings through interdisciplinary methods”, as the editor Ashok Roy states in his introduction. This handsome culmination of its series of 30 Technical Bulletins does the gallery proud.

Some Old Masters have been put under the microscope in this exceptional volume. Among them are Michelangelo (the Doni Tondo, 1506, in the Uffizi) and Caravaggio (a search for the “Holy Grail” of his underdrawings), and there are technical examinations of an upper echelon of others, such as Holbein, Rubens and Bellini.

For those engaged by technical studies, among the most interesting work focuses on comparative studies of works seen “naked”, as it were, in as intense a study as possible.

For example, four versions of El Greco’s Saint Francis are viewed side by side as part of an international study based at the Art Institute of Chicago. Technical analysis supports the likelihood that four versions of the picture (in Chicago, at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, at the Meadows Museum, Dallas, and at the Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao) are all autograph. Previously only the San Francisco picture had been considered the work of the master, based primarily on stylistic analysis.

Two studies of major works by Leonardo (Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, around 1508, at the Louvre, and Virgin of the Rocks, 1495-1508, at the National Gallery, London) use infrared reflectography to explore the artist’s preparatory procedures, and, in the case of the Louvre panel, expose previously unknown drawings on the back. The National Gallery study was part of a complex cleaning treatment of an important work that had become virtually illegible.

Perhaps the biggest “wow” factor in the volume comes from the description of the years-long work in Santa Croce in Florence on the Guidalotti-Rinuccini Chapel. A team of conservators and art historians from the Opificio delle Pietre Dure have been able to compare the application of paint in both mural and panel paintings by Giovanni da Milano to explain the subtleties of the walls in Santa Croce, which were not intended to be viewed at close range. Analyses have proven that the northern Italian artist employed otherwise foreign materials in his fresco technique, such as the use of a gypsum ground for gilding, an approach usually employed on panel paintings of the Trecento.

My favourite paper, however, is the thoughtful essay by Melanie Gifford, who has spent a career studying Dutch Old Master paintings. In “Material as Metaphor: Non-Conscious Thinking in 17th-century Painting Practice”, she steps aside from the microscope and the standard tools of technical examination to enter the world of neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Using examples of paintings by Vermeer, Van Goyen and Rembrandt, Gifford makes an effective case for intuitive uses of pre-existing forms and tools in the artists’ work. She keenly observes something that those of us who spend our lives looking closely at paintings frequently forget: the most important tool of the artist is his head.

o Marika Spring, (ed) Studying Old Master Paintings: Technology and Practice, Archetype Publications, 301 pp, £80, $130 (hb)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Material gains'