Sunday, 24 July 2011

Frank Mason challenged the art restorers.

In my resent post Restoration? I mentioned Harold Speeds reaction to the inappropriate cleaning of a Velasquez portrait by the National Gallery London. It seems that well known artists have been fighting this trend to restore works of art for ages.
Goya, Jacques-Louis David, Eugène Delacroix , Edgar Degas, Pietro Annigoni and Frank Mason have all spoken out about unsuitable and careless restoration.
Frank Mason (1921–2009) campaign for more than half a century, challenging art restorations around the world, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and, later, at the Vatican in Rome.
Mason first attended the Art Students League of New York when he was 16. Later he became an instructor at the league taking over Vincent Dumond’s class in 1951.
It was while studying with Dumond in 1947 that the two men visited the Metropolitan Museum to see the then recently restored Rembrandts, later Mason recalled. "I was shocked to recognise definite alterations to these familiar and beloved works,"
Throughout his time at the league Mason collaborated with Jacques Maroger investigating the techniques and mediums used by artists in the 16th and 17th centuries. Maroger had been the technical director of the Louvre Museum’s laboratory during the 1930's. These investigations alerted him to the nature of the injuries being inflicted on paintings in the hectic upheaval of postwar art restoration.
After many years of writing and complaining about the cleaning of the Rembrandt collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York Mason led a large group of artists and students from the Art Students League in a demonstration outside the museum. Mason said "We are here to protest the destruction of our national heritage. In the last 25 years paintings have been literally skinned through over-harsh methods of conservation. The result is damaged pictures that look piecemeal and no longer represent their period but rather seem to have been done in the modern method."
Subsequently Alexander Eliot, a former arts editor of Time magazine, said that in the early 1950s the director of the Metropolitan Museum then, Francis Henry Taylor, had confessed to him: "Oh, we ruined the Rembrandts ourselves."

As well as teaching at the Art Students League Frank Mason also completed many prestigious commissions. One of the most important being eight large pictures depicting the life of St Antony of Padua for the 11th-century church of San Giovanni de Malta, in Venice.

Frank Mason "The First Temptation"
Scenes from the Life of Saint Anthony of Padua, 1195-1231
oil on canvas, 82 1/4" x 52 3/4" (1964)

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Using the Pochade.

The paintbox when closed measures 13 3/8"x10 1/4"x3 3/4" and fits in to a day rucksack along with my lunch and sketch book etc. The whole setup is light enough to hike with.
Here are a couple of photos of the setup being used in the field as envisioned when I first thought the box out.

I hadn’t thought to use the box for portraits but the small size of boards (9"x12") lends its self to quick headshots from life at our local open portrait session which is two hours.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Pochade box.

Thought I would document my oak pochade box today. Pochade has become the name for a small paintbox usually for use outdoors. Pochade is a French word and the early pochade was a simple fold up wooden envelop, the bottom leaf was the palette while the top held a single sheet of canvas taped into the lid. Two strips of wood separate the wet palette from the painted sketch when closed for carrying home. This is still a good solution if you like to sit while painting and has the advantage of being extremely light weight.
For my Box I wanted it to fit on a tripod as I like to stand while painting. It also needed to be self-contained and carry my paint tubes, brushes plus multiple wet painting boards.

The standard camera tripod thread is 1/4" Whitworth so I turned up a bronze bush tapped with a1/4"w thread.

The bush is fitted into the internal oak block which is glued to the back and bottom of the box to form a rigid support with the tripod head.

The four 9"x12" painting boards fit into the groves and are held in place while travelling by the removable top bar.

The top and palette are both secured by the same catch.

More tomorrow, let me know if you want more details of the construction. 

Thursday, 14 July 2011


By the time Watteau died at the age of thirty seven he and his work were famous and well respected. Some magnificent memorials were erected to his memory.
Carpeaux monument to Watteau

So what happened to his wonderful paintings that had inspired France to celebrate him on such a grand scale but are now thought of as dull lifeless things?
This is what Brian Sewell had to say of them in a recent review.
"The Wallace Collection's own paintings by Watteau (or associated with him) have been gathered in the upstairs room.... They look grubby and neglected things of smudge and fudge, both overcleaned and undercleaned, victims of cleaners with Brillo pads and restorers with a taste for gravy. Watteau at the Wallace Collection, as this second half of the exhibition there is called, is a sorry sight.
It is dominated by a Fête Galante almost two metres wide, given the date c.1719-21. The general tone is dark, the time of day suggested early evening, the sun already set, but the many figures are patchily lit from unseen sources entirely contrary to the shadows of the dying distant day, so that they seem added to the landscape rather than organically part of it - some even float as though levitating. To the right, the trees conveniently parting to reveal a patch of too-blue sky, against it is a statue of a woman in the artificial lighting of the stage, her gross and rather modern nakedness unseemly in this elegant company. Relined in the mid-19th century - then usually a disastrous procedure with hot irons and animal-based glue - and haphazardly cleaned in 1976, this painting is a mess....
A Lady at her Toilet, a calculatedly erotic little picture that should sparkle with provocation in every touch of the caressing brush, has a lifeless surface that is both scraped with overcleaning and ingrained with ancient dirt."
Edit 09-09-11 More info on The Controversial Treatments of the Wallace Collection Watteaus at ArtWatch UK
This reminds me of a passage in Harold Speeds book
"Oil Painting Techniques and Materials" first published in 1924 in which he talks enthusiastically about Valasquez’s painting of Philip IV.
But by 1949 he had to add the following preface:-

Alas ! The thin final painting, with its warm scumbles and pearly films of paint, that I have been trying to describe, and which was so delightful, alas ! it is no more.
Science is now the unquestioned authority ; and our National Gallery is in the hands of learned men, with the best intentions and wonderful scientific instruments to do their perceptions. Apparently they are allowed to do whatever they like with the nation's pictures.
The subtle things I have been trying to describe are, however, outside the perceptions of scientific instruments, or scientific minds ; and have not, unfortunately, survived their treatment.
By all means get the dirt off the pictures ; but stop before any of the original varnish is reached. Subtle filmy finishings and glazes become incorporated with the varnish and come away with it ; as, alas ! has happened in this case.
Look carefully at these two reproductions under a
magnifying glass, and notice what has been removed. Look at the size of the iris of the eye, how much larger it was before the finishing film of paint was removed with the varnish in the drastic process of cleaning it has undergone. See its upper edge against the eyelid, how much firmer it was drawn by Velasquez in the final refining. Notice the mark of one of the outer hairs of his long-haired brush, how it has strayed over the dark of the eye in one place. Then notice particularly how in the last painting, this looseness on the edge has been painted over, in enlarging and refining the shape of the iris. Since the recent cleaning,-this loose light touch over the dark eye, has come to light again ; the last painting, which has covered it for 30o years, having been removed. A proof, for all the world to see, that the final film of paint has been removed in the cleaning.
Another finishing touch that has come away, is the more refined shape of the tone forming the under eyelid. Instead of being the jagged edge it now appears, it had the more definite shape that can be seen in the photograph taken before the cleaning. If you measure it from the top right-hand corner of the iris against the eyelid, you will find it was wider than it is at present, the left-hand edge of the under eyelid having been more to the left.
What is here illustrated in detail, has, I fear, happened over the whole head ; and what is now left, I can no longer call " one of the last and most beautiful things Velasquez ever painted.""

This illustration is from the 1987 edition and although not very clear gives some idea of what has upset Speed so much.

And the same after restoration in colour.

Unfortunately these are not isolated incidences and restorers seem not to have learnt from outraged artists and critics.
Thankfully the restorers have not got hold of Watteau’s drawings.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Watteau finally success and an ending

Once again the jealousy of a senior threatened Watteau's progress. Watteau showed his master a realistic painting of soldiers on the march, and Audran, who naturally did not want to lose so talented an assistant, advised him not to paint realistic pictures lest he should lose his skill as a decorator. But Watteau, determined to devote himself to original work, was now diplomat enough to avoid a quarrel, and wanting to leave Audran courteously, informed him that he must return to Valenciennes to visit his family.
At Valenciennes the young artist continued his studies of nature and contemporary life, and he painted a series of military pictures illustrating camp-life, marches, and outpost duty. 

Camp fire
But after staying there long enough to justify his visit, he returned to Paris, where he was now getting to be well known.

At this time his great aspiration was to win the Prix de Rome and to visit Italy, and with this object he competed in 1709, the subject set by the Academy being " David granting Abigail Nabal's Pardon." The prize, however, was won by a student named Grison, Watteau being placed second and thus losing his opportunity of visiting Rome.

Still eager to study in Italy, and still hopeful that the Academy might help him to accomplish his desire, Watteau three years later contrived to get two of his military pictures hung in a room through which Academicians were in the habit of passing. Several admired the "vigorous coulouring" and a certain harmony which made them appear the work of an old master," and one Academician, de la Fosse, made inquiries as to the painter. It was then discovered that this young painter, already twenty-nine, was so modest that all he wanted from the Academy was its influence with the King that he might receive a small grant to enable him to study in Italy.
Attracted by his talent and modesty, de la Fosse sought an interview with Watteau which had the most surprising results. With a rare generosity the Academician told the young man that he had no need to seek instruction in Italy, that he undervalued his own ability, and the Academicians believed he was already capable of doing them honour ; in short, he had only to take the proper steps to be accepted a member of their society. The young artist did as he was told, and was immediately received as a member of the French Academy.
In all the long history of the Academy of France only one incident similar to this has been recorded, for Chardin was invited under similar circumstances. That a young artist, without friends or fortune, who had failed to win the Prix de Rome and humbly begged for help in his studies, should spontaneously be elected an Academician, is a miracle in the history of all academies. This event was the turning-point in Watteau's career, and henceforward his fame was assured and he was able to earn his living in comfort.
It was on August 28, 1717, that Watteau was finally admitted to the Academy. All successful candidates are required to deposit a diploma work after their election, and it was for this purpose that Watteau eventually painted his famous masterpiece, " L'Embarquement pour Cythere" which is now in the Louvre.

The Embarkation for Cythera

The Embarkation for Cythera (Detail)

In this poetically conceived picture, which shows a crowd of gallant youths and fair maidens about to embark for the legendary isle of perfect love, Watteau revealed a science of colour harmony which was one hundred and fifty years ahead of his day. He had already excited the admiration of his contemporaries by a method of painting which was as successful as it was original. He would cover his canvas copiously and, to all appearance, vaguely with a thick layer of pigment, and on this he would proceed, so to speak, to chisel out his detail. Figures, sky, and landscape background were then built up by a series of minute touches, which gave his pictures a peculiarly vibrating and scintillating effect. His division of tones and his wonderful orchestration of complementary colours make Watteau a forerunner of the prismatic colouring of the more scientific painters of the nineteenth century.
Unfortunately he was not destined to enjoy long the fame and fortune which now awaited him. The privation and hardship of his early manhood had undermined his always frail constitution and left him a prey to pulmonary tuberculosis or a similar progressive systemic disease.
As if he knew the end was approaching, he worked feverishly during his last years. For a time he lived with a wealthy collector named Crozat, for whose dining-room he painted a set of " The Four Seasons." Though very comfortable at Crozat's house, which was filled with precious things and with paintings and drawings by old masters he admired, a desire for more complete independence led Watteau to leave it and live with his friend Vleughels, who afterwards became Principal of the Academy at Rome. In 1718 he left Vleughels, and shut himself up in a small apartment alone with his dreams and his illness, displaying then that craving for solitude which is said to be one of the symptoms of tuberculosis. Later, somebody having spoken well of England, he suddenly had an almost morbid longing to cross the Channel.

In 1719 he came to London, where he painted and had some success, till the climate made him ill and unable to work. He returned to France more exhausted and weaker in health than he had ever been before, but slightly recovered during a six months' stay with his friend, the art-dealer Gersaint, for whom he painted a sign, an exquisitely finished interior with figures, in the short space of eight mornings—he was still so weak that he could only paint half the day.

L'Enseigne de Gersaint
Then, hoping that he might recover his strength in the country, he moved to a house at Nogent which had been lent to him, but there his health rapidly declined and he gave himself up to religion, his last picture being a Crucifixion for the curate of the parish. Still pathetically hopeful that change of air might do him good, he begged his friend Gersaint to make arrangements for him to journey to Valenciennes. But while waiting for strength to move to his native town the end came, and on July 18, 1721, he died suddenly in Gersaint's arms. He was only thirty-seven years old.

The real generosity of Watteau's nature is well illustrated by a touching incident during the last months of his life. His pupil, Jean Pater (1696-1736), had offended him, as Lancret had also done, by imitating his own style and subjects too closely, and in a fit of ill-temper he dismissed him from his studio. But during his last illness Watteau remembered how he had suffered in his youth from the jealousy of his seniors, and he reproached himself with having been unjust as well as unkind to Pater. He besought his friend Gersaint to persuade Pater to return to him, and when the latter arrived the dying man spent a month giving Pater all the help and guidance that he could in order to atone for his former injustice.

The painting "Qu'ay­je fait, assassins maudits"
Which translates as "Whatever I build, assassins destroy" is very appropriate in regard to the cleaning and so called restoration of Watteau's works.

More on the controversial business of restoration and cleaning of art in a future Blog
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